Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - A Fresh and Glinting Edge
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A Fresh and Glinting Edge 05/19/2009 - 7:06 PM

Rf It appeared to be an afternoon like every other in Madrid last week. The sky was a steel blue that nearly matched the silver walls of the Magic Box. The Spanish sun was as encompassing as ever, but the air was cut with a swaying cross-breeze. The well-dressed and well-heeled sell-out crowd in Santana stadium stood with their hands in their pockets and chattered excitedly while “Oye Como Va” played over the loudspeakers. It seemed like they’d come to a garden party and found out that a tennis match was going to be played as well—the very best tennis match, of course. A cheer went up when the smiling face of Roger Federer, who was waiting for his name to be announced, popped onto the big screen at the corner of the arena. He also seemed to be happy, with the sky, with the sun, with the afternoon, with life. By the time he’d reached the service line, the cheers had coalesced into a rousing ovation, one that only got louder when his opponent, Rafael Nadal, strode out. With his head down and two weighty bags around his shoulders, the home-country boy was as grimly serious as Federer was light on his feet.

Everything seemed to be going according to plan as I scanned the arena, until my eyes got back down to the court. There they landed upon something astonishing and perhaps unprecedented: Nadal, still all business, had come out for the coin toss before his opponent. He bounced and stared blankly into the distance as usual, but it was Federer who did the last second futzing and fiddling on the sidelines. My first thought was that this was a masterstroke by Nadal. He would throw off his opponent’s expectations and take control of the tempo of the proceedings all at once. When he did his customary three-step dash back to the baseline to the start the warm-up, it seemed that all questions about his post-semifinal energy levels had been forgotten.

That impression lasted through the early part of the first set. Nadal finished his opening service game with a winner and held a break point in the next game. There, on a second serve, he shanked a forehand just over the baseline. If Nadal has a weakness, it’s the forehand return of a second serve on break point. He gets nervous—remember the one he dumped in the net at break point late in the third set of last year’s Wimbledon final? Like that one, his miss here, while seemingly innocent at the time, had longer-lasting reverberations. In Madrid it allowed Federer, who looked shaky to start—he almost whiffed on his first backhand of the match—to settle in.

There’s always heightened tension in finals, and this typically helps Nadal, who slows down play and lets that tension build in his opponent’s mind. This time it seemed to get the better of him. Maybe it was the home-country crowd. Maybe it was the long string of matches on clay this spring. Maybe it was the impending trip to Paris and all that that means. Maybe it was defending his No. 1 ranking. Maybe it was the contrast to the adrenaline-injected atmosphere of the previous day. Maybe it was trying to beat Federer one more time. Some combination of those things weighed on Nadal during this warm Sunday afternoon. No, he didn’t run, slide, or hit with his customary vigor—there were probably a dozen shots that he silently got back into play that he would normally have battered into the corner with a grunt. But from where I was sitting, the bigger obstacle for Nadal was the pressure of the moment. He’s had no trouble handling his No. 1 status so far, but it is a different kind of pressure, one that you must live with every week, from the first round on Tuesday to the final on Sunday. It’s one that Federer must have enjoyed not feeling on this day. No wonder he was smiling.

That said, I didn’t feel like Federer played a great match. Rather, he played the right one, and he executed it just well enough to win. It didn’t involve attacking on every shot—can we retire that as a tactical suggestion? The one time Federer chipped and charged, he put the ball in the perfect spot, right in the middle of the baseline, where Nadal had to create an angle on his pass. And that’s just what he did, flicking a forehand past Federer with ease.

Instead, the key for Federer was that he gave Nadal no rhythm. He served flat up the middle. Then he used a medium-pace kick wide in the ad court that sent Nadal scrambling. Then he slid a slice wide in the deuce court, waited for the weak, one-handed reply from Nadal, and knocked off a forehand into the open court. Then he served at the Spaniard’s backhand hip—when he did that on set point in the first set, Nadal’s return clanged off his frame and straight up in the air. As Pete Sampras did against Andre Agassi, Federer must consider his serve, by itself, to be a counterweight to the rest of Nadal’s game. He must use it with maximum effectiveness to stand a chance against him on clay.

When the rallies started, Federer quickly used the drop shot, snuck into the net, or went big with his forehand—anything to keep Nadal from making it a more physical contest. At 0-30 on Nadal’s serve late in the first set, Federer took the first forehand he got, went for an inside-out winner from behind the baseline, and missed wide. This may have seemed ill advised on the surface, but it had the longer-term effect of not letting Nadal feel like he was safe at any stage in a rally. Federer was going to play the points on his terms, even if it meant missing (he went on to break in that game). Nadal is a rhythm player, a worker; as he showed against Djokovic, he can hit his way out of a bad day. Federer didn’t let him see enough shots to do that. It was only deep in the second set that Nadal began to grunt when he hit the ball. The grunt is part of his rhythm, evidence of his effort. Federer hadn't given him an opportunity to work himself up to it.

There are elements of a match that you can control, but they never account entirely for the result. Nadal had another break chance in the first set, after Federer had badly missed two forehands. On the break point, Federer moved in for another forehand and sent it dangerously close to the baseline. Nadal missed the subsequent pass and stared at the line; the approach had just clipped it. It was the same shot that Federer missed repeatedly in the Australian Open final. This time it went in. Later in the same set, Federer set up his own break point by hitting another forehand that spun wildly and landed smack on the sideline, again to Nadal’s exasperation. Sometimes a player or a team is due. Federer was due in Madrid.

Does this result change the dynamic for the French Open? Yes. Does it mean Federer has a better chance of beating Nadal there? Not by itself. Still, Federer's fans should be heartened by the way he played the most important, and heart-stopping, point of the match, the type of point he has been losing to Nadal for most of his career. Serving for the match at 5-4 in the second, Federer met the inevitable strong resistance from Nadal, who suddenly couldn’t miss a return after hitting them perfunctorily all afternoon. Federer went down 15-40, and the two played what must have been the longest point of the afternoon. Each hit the netcord once, and each flirted with the baseline. It appeared that Nadal had the better of the rally, but Federer fended him off with a patchwork of slices and high topspins shots, anything to stay alive and maintain the break. Eventually it was Nadal who went for it all on a backhand down the line and missed. Federer has played Nadal close at Wimbledon and in Melbourne, but he’s lost virtually all of the most crucial points. He survived this one. He should try not to forget it.

Three years ago, I wrote a piece called “The Duel” about the budding Nadal-Federer rivalry for TENNIS Magazine. I finished it by saying, “Federer and Nadal are too ambitious and talented [boring word, but I was young then] to settle for half the tennis universe. That will be the real key to making their rivalry a great one: Each wants what the other has.” 

In 2008, Nadal got what Federer had at Wimbledon. He went after it, as he always does, with bare-shouldered gusto. This year, Federer, in his own quieter way, has made it clear that he wants what Nadal has at Roland Garros just as badly. Rather than let his recent losses on clay make him despair, Federer has retained his deep self-belief and remained as ambitious as he was three years ago. Think of it as the upside to his famous stubbornness. We’ll see if he's stubborn enough to win the French Open—I’m still picking Nadal. But if it’s too early to say whether Madrid signaled a renaissance for Federer, it’s clear that, just as the season is approaching lift-off, something even better for the sport has been given a fresh and glinting edge: The Duel.


 
206
Comments
 
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Posted by gpt 05/19/2009 at 07:10 PM

1st

Posted by Holly 05/19/2009 at 07:23 PM

Enjoyed both articles Steve. I'm afraid I'm not able to be very objective at this point. I was pretty sad that Rafa lost in Madrid and honestly the thought of reading, or NOT reading all the press about Roger's come back and him being so smug made me a little sick! I think Rafa was way off on Sunday...the energy and spark just wasn't there. Was he trying to protect his knee/thigh, was he tired or was he simply out played. I'm not sure. I just know it was hard to watch...maybe harder for me...I didn't think Rafa was very upset about this loss....hmmmmm makes you wonder....

Vamos Rafa!

Posted by Jesse 05/19/2009 at 07:27 PM

Steve - nice article. I agree that Fed's strategy to not give Nadal any rhythm was key, but I think his drop-shot is the most interesting new wrinkle. In the past he's called this shot a "cop out", but he's shown a willingness to use it more this season. It gives Nadal a 3rd direction to think about running (up, instead of just left and right).

Not sure if this will be a deciding factor in Paris, but things just got a lot more interesting.

Posted by charles 05/19/2009 at 07:30 PM

Wonderful analysis! thanks for that.
I think perhaps Federer won this match in part because he was not distracted by expecting to win. The burden of self-expectation that he "should" win was gone. If he makes peace with the #2 mentality a little more, he may well win more matches against Nadal. This is probably easier for Fed on clay, where Nadal has been #1 for awhile.

Posted by imjimmy 05/19/2009 at 07:32 PM

Excellent piece again Steve. I must confess I'm a little surprised to see how much stock you put into this lone tournament victory. Especially bcoz Federer did not have to face Djokovic/Murray or any other top players. (Roddick and Del Potro have always been easy pickings for him).

""No, he didn’t run, slide, or hit with his customary vigor—there were probably a dozen shots that he silently got back into play that he would normally have battered into the corner with a grunt""

Touche!

What are your thoughts on Rafa's post match behavior. Why did he not look more upset after loosing a major 1000 event on home turf? Anyway, Nadal's still a heavy heavy favorite at the French Open.

Posted by Eric 05/19/2009 at 07:32 PM


http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2009/writers/sl_price/05/14/federer.nadal/index.html

Posted by Tim (Jaunty and Lovin it! 2009 Year of RED Rogie!) 05/19/2009 at 07:33 PM

ive always been infuriated when fed kept hitting the approach deep to the baseline when rafa is 10 feet deep, when any kind of dropper would clearly win the point, in madrid, he hit them like a marvel, and it was sweet to see...

why did you take so long Fed? i think he did need to sort out the mental part of this, the stubborness, and yes, the gamesmanship Rafa brings to court, his little stubborn waiting on the sidelines spoke volumes for his determination to right the ship this time, and not let Rafa control any part of the match...

delightful after so many frustrating performances on clay over the years...

Posted by SwissMaestro 05/19/2009 at 07:39 PM

Steve-

I also consider that Federer serving constantly to Nadal's backhand side was the key to his victory over the Spaniard in this clay court final. Also, Federer ran more around his own backhand to hit a forehand at all costs and directed his own forehand shot to Nadal's backhand side more often than not -in the past it has always been Nadal's forehand going to the Federer backhand- but what I enjoyed the most is exactly what you pointed above: "the key for Federer was that he gave Nadal no rhythm" and he did just that with great serving and drop shots. I still believe he can pull it off at Roland Garros against Nadal, here's to it!

Posted by Andrea 05/19/2009 at 07:40 PM

i gotta say, and this has been bandied about on other postings, but i don't think it was the match against djokovic was the main reason nadal lacked spark. this article really sums it all up, as does nadal's comment about roger being better than him on that particular day. it was a combination of factors.

nadal does have the mental intensity to pull thru more often than not. but when he's off and being outplayed - like shanghai 07 where the second set was 6-1 for fed - it's almost a bit of resignation on his part.

i haven't seen this resignation yet at the GS level and this is one of the many factors that rog and rafa share. when they get into GS mode, it's like a whole other level of focus.

as an aside, if roger makes it to the semis at RG this year i believe that's 20 straight GS semis? let's not put the cart in front of the horse but that record in itself is practically unbelievable.

this article also addresses one of the key things i noticed about fed thruout this match- he seemed at ease. not oozing the usual anxiety and frustration against nadal. no negative body language. and not choking in the clutch. if he can keep this mind set up for the french, i think he has good chances.

if he makes it that far, i hope for a sunny, dry day for the final!!!!

Posted by Mr.X 05/19/2009 at 07:41 PM

Steve, if i has to write an analysis of the match, i would do it way worst than you did, but my points would be very similar. At the beginning (till 3-3 or 4-4 in the first set) it seemed that Nadal was gonna get another routine victory: he held easily and had break points on Fed's serves. But the key to the match was Fed taking rythm of Nadal, thus making him make more UFEs than usual and not letting the match become another wild battle, that Nadal probably would have won, backed by the crowd.
He kept the match on his terms: it was gonna be decided in a few points. There, unlike in previous meetings between the two, he managed to win them all, sometimes thanks to his good play and others to Nadal's errors, which he could take some credit for, as those errors probably wouldnt have happened if Nadal was more confident and with more rythm.
At the end of it, it came down to the 6 BPs in the match, and Fed won all of them. He deserves great credit, not only for winning them, but for not allowing more key moments to happen.

Posted by TripleF-FedFanForever 05/19/2009 at 07:42 PM

Steve, I used to forward your articles to friends and foes alike. I think you are getting a bit in over your head. There are clearly signs on of a 'failed writer' at work here (let's take Updike out of the playing field here, please)...

"The Spanish sun was as encompassing as ever, but the air was cut with a swaying cross-breeze."

THIS WAS THE WORST SENTENCE EVER WRITTEN

" your Madrid pickts"

WORST PREDICTION EVER. Almost all didn't work.

"That said, I didn’t feel like Federer played a great match."

Argh, now we are splitting hair? Difference between Great and Right being? A grunting bar brawl that last for 4 hours vs. a clinical graceful game that is over before folks came with their Coke?

You need to get a hair cut, a shave and a shower and a cold bath before you decide your next piece.

Posted by Mr.X 05/19/2009 at 07:46 PM

Also, Steve points out the difference, in my opinion, between this match and the Hamburg 07 match. Here, Fed played well, but not crazy well (he did have some errors). The thing is, he had the strategy that would give him better options. In Hamburg, it was just that he couldnt miss a shot (he was CRAZY good). In fact, he couldnt hit anything but a perfect shot.

Posted by Eric 05/19/2009 at 07:48 PM

TripleF:

Hey man, give the guy a break. I'm all for debating a writer on the merits of what he (or she) is arguing, but if you don't like how he crafts his sentences, don't read the post.

Posted by jb (Go Smiley Fed!!!) 05/19/2009 at 07:49 PM

As usual, very nicely done Steve. Fed seemed very relaxed to me. Just going about his business, not trying to pump himself up, just hitting out, using his variety and thank goodness for this fed fan, finding his second serve.

Its like he just said - oh to hail with it, and played. He's not played that freely in a very long time. If he can retain that, we're going to get some great matches in the coming months.

As for the french - mhm - i'm still driving the crazy bus, and am pretty sure we're going over the side of a cliff again, but if fed's able to hit his second serve on a regular basis again, i'm feeling like we're at least going to be able to pop a few bottles of champers on the trip before we crash and burn.

(and hail, who's to say we WON'T crash - that's why they play the matchs, no?)

Posted by TripleF-FedFanForever 05/19/2009 at 07:55 PM

Sure thing. I apologize. Like I said, I always refer Tignor and forward his posts. Fed fan or not, when he picked Roddick out of nowhere...and went on and on with it...I just got a bit tired. Being really tired makes you do crazy thing no? Like losing matches.

Posted by Pspace 05/19/2009 at 07:56 PM

"""
That said, I didn’t feel like Federer played a great match. Rather, he played the right one, and he executed it just well enough to win.
"""

Yes. Totally agree with this. And, also about the luck factor, when Nadal missed those two BHs on BP at 5-4 in the fifth. He never missed those in his victories, and perhaps Federer can count on him not missing them at Chatrier. It would've been interesting to see what would've happened if Nadal broke there, though as a fan of Federer, I was happy to see him hold.

Federer was able to break out of the points where Nadal went to his backhand, and showed more determination to go down the line. Almost like the way he plays against Verdasco. I'm not sure if he can pull this off in Paris. It seems to me that one of the keys to this match up going forward is how well Nadal plays his BH on any given day. Presumably, Federer has some say in how he plays his BH, but I'm not entirely sure how much.

Posted by James Vanderbeak 05/19/2009 at 07:59 PM

Rafa to win the French, Wimbledon and USO!
Federer to win, Montreal!

Posted by Sher 05/19/2009 at 08:14 PM

[A cheer went up when the smiling face of Roger Federer, who was waiting for his name to be announced, popped onto the big screen at the corner of the arena. He also seemed to be happy, with the sky, with the sun, with the afternoon, with life. ]

That's what I saw, Steve! I don't know where Pete pulled out his grumpy Federer :)

[Rather, he played the right one, and he executed it just well enough to win.]

Exactly. As he's been saying, he needs to be calm and smart against Nadal.

[Still, Federer's fans should be heartened by the way he played the most important, and heart-stopping, point of the match, the type of point he has been losing to Nadal for most of his career. ]

oh we are, believe me, or at least I am! :) So happy about Federer's tactics and generally will on the crucial points in this match.

I thought the serenity that had been missing from his game since sometime in 2007 seemed returned to him for this one match. He didn't look like he cared what the opponent on the other side would come up with, he had all the answers. The way he used to play every match. It was wonderful for this fan to see.

Thank you for the article. Lovely as usual!

This is a lovely way to put something we've all known:

[Federer met the inevitable strong resistance from Nadal, who suddenly couldn’t miss a return after hitting them perfunctorily all afternoon]

Posted by Sher 05/19/2009 at 08:17 PM

TripleF, chill. If that's the worst you've ever seen you are very lucky since Steve is one of the best tennis writers in my opinion. I particularly enjoy the stuff Steve does for europe trips, it always seems inspired.

Posted by Andy C 05/19/2009 at 08:17 PM

James,

What about Indianapolis? Do you think Fed has a shot? Just kidding.

I like both players. At this point, I hope your prediction is true just for the sheer excitement of watching a player win the Grand Slam. New York will be absolutely electric if Rafa enters the USO with the first three under his belt.

Andy

Posted by Sher 05/19/2009 at 08:18 PM

Also! I'm going to Rome soon, and at least part of my zeal to see the city is due to the pieces Steve wrote about it a few years back.

Posted by Sabi 05/19/2009 at 08:22 PM

>>There they landed upon something astonishing and perhaps unprecedented: Nadal, still all business, had come out for the coin toss before his opponent.>>

It's funny because, watching this little episode on tv, I thought it was done intentionally by Federer. I could definitely be wrong, as television sometimes imparts a different (read: wrong) narrative, but it made me think he wanted to change things up in the match. Mind games and what not.

Posted by Blake 05/19/2009 at 08:22 PM

Rafa was tired, pure and simple. People are trying to look way too much into this match as a sign of things to come. Fed can pounce when the other side has been exhausted - just look at Andy Murray at the AO last year - and look as Murray's record vs Federer before and especially since.

If Djokovic lands in Feds half instead of Nadals, he has Zero, i repeat, _ZERO_ chance of winning Roland Garros. If it's the reverse... I'd give him a shot, albeit a very, very slim one.

Posted by Mr.X 05/19/2009 at 08:33 PM

Pspace,
it's all pure speculation, but i would say if Fed loses that game, he would have been in serious trouble. The ghosts from the past, the wild crowd (that would only become wilder), the opponent who saw the chance to give another psychological blow...
Maybe Nadal would have found there his chance to turn the match into a brawl, where he had most chances of being victorious.
That hold was Fed's best and most important moment of the match, without a doubt

Posted by Aabye 05/19/2009 at 08:45 PM

I did not see the match to be honest so I can't definitively say anything...but everything I've read about it brings a little cheer to this Nadal fan.

1) It sounds like while Federer won, it doesn't sound as if Rafa lost because he was simply unsure what to do like I feared when I first saw the score.

2) This answers, in part, the argument I've had with many a Fedfan. They've always argued that if Federer just played "his usual game" against Rafa that he would win. I disagree and it sounds like Federer did have to make a few adjustments to pull through. I've been told countless times that Federer is just flat-out better always and he doesn't need to change a thing but his mindset. After this match, what with the mention of the dropper, etc. it sounds like even he's come to realize evolution is necessary even for the greats sometimes.

Posted by BlueDog 05/19/2009 at 08:50 PM

Blake- Rafa was just out played. Pure and simple.

Posted by cheguevara 05/19/2009 at 08:55 PM

look we all know why nadal lost, and that is not because of fed. I hope to see fed in Noles half of the draw. Having it any other way it would be like it is paid by fed or somebody to let fed get away with a rg. He does not deserve it. Nole - Nadal final would be a partytime for all.

Posted by Gavin 05/19/2009 at 08:56 PM

Steve - great post. I had a different take though on what happened pre-match. Nadal waited and waited for Fed to head out to the net to meet the umpire first so that he could be last out as is his custom. He kept looking over at Fed, who paid him no heed, as if he had all the time in the world. So Nadal broke his custom and went out to meet the umpire first, and Fed made them wait another minute as if he was saying "today, we're playing on my terms." Nadal graciously conceded calling the coin toss to Fed, who won but elected to receive. How many times has he done that in his career? I would bet not many. Again, a subtle change, but one that could have planted some seeds in Nadal's head, even though he won his opening service game easily.

I liked these changes by Fed - as well as his refinements in tactics, especially the forehand down the line that caught Nadal off guard throughout the match (and saved Fed from having to hit repeated backhands).

Posted by Tfactor 05/19/2009 at 09:02 PM

Blake- Rafa was just out played"
I agree but then again one of the reasons could be that Rafa was tired? ;)
But it's irrelevant really, Roger won convincingly and that's what counts.

Posted by Sher 05/19/2009 at 09:03 PM

Gavin, yep that's exactly what happened and Federer admitted in his presser that he did it on purpose, though in good humour, to see how patient Nadal would be.

Posted by crazyone 05/19/2009 at 09:14 PM

Pspace and others: Sure Rafa missed two backhands that he might have made otherwise. But they were still pretty tough shots to hit, and I was impressed at how Federer didn't make any UFE in those relatively long rallies. Occasionally it has to be Rafa making the UFE rather than Fed, no? Fed still played well during those rallies so I don't think they were points that Rafa "gifted" to Fed at all, though there was some luck involved (but like I said, there's been plenty of "luck" that's gone against Federer in their matches in this regard). Nadal wasn't hitting the BH well all tournament so going there repeatedly was good strategy.

Posted by BlueDog 05/19/2009 at 09:23 PM

It wasn't a very physical match, due to the tactics Fed used. If they had been running around like in the SF, then that argument might hold up a little bit better, but Rafa wasn't physically tested in the final at all.

Rafa was more than physically capable of winning the match, he just came up short on the day.


Posted by frances 05/19/2009 at 09:25 PM

STEVE I LOVE THIS ONE TOO-- this article is very long- you must have been soo detailed this time as it has been a long long time that you have the privilged to talk about Federer and yes I agree when you said that

" I didn't feel that Federer didn't play a great match.Rather he plated the right one"

VAMOS STEVE..

Posted by frances 05/19/2009 at 09:50 PM

All said and done with with countless many factors suggesting why FEd won ( played the right strategy) or why Rafa lost (may if be fatigue or lack of rhythm ) ..

I'm sure that both RAFA or ROGER FANATIICS WILL AGREE THE DJOKOVIC PLACEMENT IN THE DRAW IS a FACTOR.

So WHAT ARE THE ODDS OF DJOKO TO BE IN TMF Or RAFA's side?

Is there some sort of pattern? or simply random-- djoko seems to be in rafa's draw in FO in '08 and 07 (not sure with the latter)

madrid's draw is the indicator of the draw or the reverse?


i gues will just have to wait rather than speculating!!

Posted by streams 05/19/2009 at 10:04 PM

Thanks Steve, I didn't see the match but have much better feel for it after reading your article.

Posted by skip1515 05/19/2009 at 10:10 PM

Steve, if Federer's failed attempt at the inside-out forehand winner at 0/30 on Nadal's serve late in the first was a good idea, albeit ill-advised on the surface, because it "had the longer-term effect of not letting Nadal feel like he was safe at any stage in a rally," then his chip-and-go off that 2nd serve you cited, when he was passed, did the same thing.

I watched that attack of Nadal's 2nd serve, and the incredible pass he hit as Federer got to the net, and thought, "Smart...make him do it again." As it happened, Federer didn't chip-and-charge another time (that I recall), but the seed was planted, the doubt sown.

As you pointed out, that variety was key to Federer's win. Me, I'd add that particular chipped service return to the plus column even if, like that inside-out forehand, it didn't pay immediate dividends.

Go to the net to volley and lose the point and you've still only lost 1 point. It's not as if you lose 2 points when you're passed but only 1 when you miss a groundie. It may be more dramatic – volleyers have to learn to shake off the public sting of being passed – but being passed doesn't cost more. I'd have to say that pressuring Nadal in as many ways as Federer did on Sunday was a valid tactic, including that one time chip.

Posted by frances 05/19/2009 at 10:31 PM

sorry for my caps in advance rosangel just warned me what it meant

Posted by frances 05/19/2009 at 10:31 PM

sorry for my caps in advance rosangel just warned me what it meant

Posted by Cankle 05/19/2009 at 10:32 PM

Great, balanced piece, Steve. It's amazing how, via comments, it's easy to tell which people are informed, astute fns of the game of tennis, and which people are merely smitten with a star's personality, for whatever reason.

Federer won this tournament because he was the last man standing. Period. That's what tennis is about. You play the draw you are deakt and, if you beat the guy across the net in the final, you are the winner--no matter what sort of draw (or even personal issues) the other guy might have had on his side before the final.

Excuses are merely that--excuses. They mean nothing. At the end of the day, you beat everybody else and that's how it's done.

Posted by Seven 05/19/2009 at 10:34 PM

One thing Nadal does well is learn from his mistakes and do what it takes to win the next time around. I still believe that as of now he's impossible to beat in 5 sets on clay!

However, Kudos to Fed. He did what it took. Beating Nadal on clay is possible but I doubt it will happen soon. Not Fed and definitely not in another 3 weeks. I do hope that the gods allow them to meet in the coming finals. I believe Nadal will clear all doubt.

No excuses....Fed's style of play amounts to longevity and without the likes of Nadal it would have been an outrageous dominance. If Nadal continues to mold and mend his game here and there then maybe he can keep it at a high level for a few more years. His wheels and determination brought him where he is. Skills???? No? His game will now have to elevate him to an even greater height. Skills???? No?

If coke tastes different in Madrid, I wonder about french fries in France?

Let the games begin...

Posted by Cosi 05/19/2009 at 10:43 PM

I thought Roger played a great match. He won the big points, he held his nerve, he was never broken, the backhand wasn't breaking down, the serving was better and very effective when he needed it to be, the drop shots were perfectly timed most of the time, he avoided allowing the master of clay to play his game on a clay court.. what more could you ask for in a greatly played match? If he had played any better you would be reporting on say a 6-2 6-2 slaughter of Nadal rather than a 6-4 6-4 routine beating, most likely.

Posted by themadballer 05/19/2009 at 10:50 PM

Rafa is going to have a Calender Grand Slam Year

Posted by loooove rafa 05/19/2009 at 11:01 PM

the tennis is ancillary...i love rafa cause he's sexy.

Posted by Tony 05/19/2009 at 11:19 PM

Hi Steve:
Yes, the Madrid Masters is a signal of what we should expect at the French Open this Year. But the dynamics of the tournament are going to have to be the same. Either Murray, Novak or Simon would have to give it their all in the Semi-Final for Roger to excell in the Final against Nadal. Any other way, he will not be winning the French Open.
The past 3 0r 4 years have showed us that Roger cannot win the French Open against Nadal with out some kind of assistance. However, I believe this is Novak's moment. With each of the clay court tournaments for the past 2 or 3 months it's been pointing to that direction. With each tounament he got closer in solving the Nadal's riddle. And I do not believe he will forget what happened in Madrid.
He will do battle!

Hi Steve:
Yes, the Madrid Masters is a signal of what we should expect at the French Open this Year. But the dynamics of the tournament is going to have to be the same. Either Murray, Novak or Simon would have to give it their all in the Semi-Final for Roger toexcell in the Final against Nadal. Any other way, he will not be winning the French Open.
The past 3 0r 4 years have showed us that Roger cannot win the French Open against Nadal with out some kind of assistance. However, I believe this is Novak's moment. With each of the clay court tournaments for the past 2 or 3 months it's been pointing to that direction. With each tounament he got closer in solving the Nadal's riddle. And I do not believe he will forget what happened in Madrid.
He will do battle!


Posted by jv 05/19/2009 at 11:43 PM

..this is a very balanced and objective analysis of the match....

..Before reading Steve article, I thought Pete's assessment of the match was kind of cheesy and out of target....now I believe Pete was too emotional with Roger win to see what it is obvious..that the much was close ...Rafa had his chances even when he didn't play his best...

Posted by Andrew 05/19/2009 at 11:50 PM

"I didn’t feel like Federer played a great match. Rather, he played the right one, and he executed it just well enough to win." Yup. I saw the same match. Federer won some key points - Nadal failed to win two or three key points. That's all it took.

"We’ll see if he's stubborn enough to win the French Open—I’m still picking Nadal." I would have been very disturbed if you, or any other professional tennis writer had suddenly said "that's it - it's got to be Fed!" Nadal has to be a prohibitive favorite to win the tournament. But as Andre Agassi observed, you don't get to phone it in.

Posted by SUNNYROSE 05/20/2009 at 12:30 AM

Great article Steve !!
I don't know why people complain that Rafa was tired. Why can't they accept the fact that Roger is bored of losing. I understand that Rafa is favourite for RG, but this victory puts the stats in a completely different direction. On entry into Madrid Roger said that he looks forward to win the title and he did. Same when he told the nagging press last year that he will talk about his game after the USO and he won it and spoke. I feel Roger is too determined this year. Probably because he knows that these may be his last few chances. I look forward to Roger winning RG this year and am sure that he will beat Murray and Djoker hollow when he meets them in the semis.

Posted by Noy 05/20/2009 at 12:45 AM

Well sunnyrose how about this: Why every one thinks that Federer will finally win RG this year? I GIVE Federer CREDIT he won fair and square. BUT do not use this win YET as a reason that Federer will finally win RG. Do not get me wrong I do not hate Federer BUT if I were you I would not be TOO excited. Because NOT only this match help Federer BUT it also helps Nadal. Now, that Nadal finally lost again to Federer he will be MOTIVATED again to play and defend his RG tittle. ANd I know that he will have adjustments when he faces Federer not just Fed. And besides Nadal likes this type of challenges because that is when he plays A+ tennis. ANd if I were Fed right now I should also worry about Djoko cause Novak CAN beat Fed on clay court right now.

Posted by Ryota 05/20/2009 at 12:46 AM

I have to confess: I watched the exhibition matches for the Wimbledon roof ceremony rather than this final. When Sue Barker interviewed Andy Murray and said that Federer was up a set and a break against Nadal in Madrid, a murmur of disbelief went through the crowd. I could tell even Murray was a bit stunned with that.

My reaction though was different - I felt that it was just right. The Madrid tournament had everything stacked in Federer's favor. He's lied low during the past clay events; no one's picking him to win any tournament actually. Djokovic was placed in Nadal's half. The surface was said to be faster than normal courts. And, there's Nadal's ho-hum attitude about the whole event. How will this win or loss translate to the French Open? Your guess is as good as mine.

All I can say is that I can't wait for Wimbledon to start!

Posted by Or 05/20/2009 at 01:12 AM

The crowd reaction on Wimby center court to Roger's win in Madrid.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hgXTpkHxFjM

They sound happy.

Posted by Cosi 05/20/2009 at 01:12 AM

what about this, why when Nadal loses it's always because he's tired or has sore knees? Especially when he loses to Federer, there is always some problem he is supposedly dealing with before or in that match that people/writers/commnetators say makes it harder for him to win than Federer.. Getting really old hearing that time after time. If i listened to commentators I would believe 22 year old Nadal is the most exhausted man to ever play tennis, week after week, month after month, he's just EXHAUSTED. I don't know how he can be number one being so tired all the time. one time, I think a year ago, he came back from a hiatus and played one tournament and before the next one they were already saying how EXHAUSTED he was. LOL

Posted by Ryota 05/20/2009 at 01:28 AM

Or, that's right. When he won, they actually cheered. When she first said that he's ahead, there was murmur first like "really? come on now. It's on clay. against nadal. in spain."

Posted by MarcJ 05/20/2009 at 01:32 AM

I was sad to have to miss seeing this match, so I don't have anything to say on it. But Nadal doesn't seem to approach his matches as if he expects to win but instead keeps his mind firmly focused on the task at hand. This attitude will serve him well when it comes to recovering from this loss and coming into Roland Garros with the right frame of mind. Here's hoping for a another fabled chapter in the Rafa-Roger storybook!

Posted by Duh 05/20/2009 at 01:35 AM

No one is saying that Nadal lost solely because he was tired but clearly, playing a 4H match of intense tennis the day before affected him. Federer finally(!) played smart and took advantage of this.

Posted by felizjulianidad 05/20/2009 at 01:38 AM

I don't think Nadal particularly cares. This takes some pressure off him, as he shows he's human and fallible just before RG. This allows him to go in there and swing away. This is the third year running where he fails to sweep a clay-court season; he's not broken up about it. In fact, if I remember correctly, 2006 was the year Nadal swept the clay-court season; that was the closest Federer got to defeating him at RG. In 2007, Nadal suffered a much worse defeat to Federer at the Hamburg finals, and it didn't affect him at the French. Nadal exceeded his own expectations at Madrid, where he was uncomfortable playing from the get-go.

Both Nadal and Federer know that this match mainly served to bolster Federer's self-esteem and take pressure off Nadal. The surface at RG is more conducive to the rhythm acquisition that Nadal so naturally enjoys.

I do believe this may improve Federer's chances at reclaiming Wimbledon. I'll still be truly shocked if Nadal loses at RG. I actually do think he's going through personal and family problems at the moment, and that's a much greater threat to his clay game than anything Federer, Djokovic or Murray can throw at him.

Posted by rafafan 05/20/2009 at 01:58 AM

Dont be fooled by this loss. Federer may be. He may get over-confident and that will be his demise. I think the conditions are much different in Madrid than they are in Paris. I dont think Federer is considering that and he may think that he is ok right where he stands.

Posted by Noy 05/20/2009 at 02:05 AM

@feliz:
Very GREAT Point on Nadal losing this match=).


Posted by jewell - Make tea, not war. Rafa and JJ for FO Champions 2009!!! 05/20/2009 at 03:08 AM

Hey Steve and everyone, nice analysis, loved the part about the variety not letting Rafa have any rhythm. :) And it was fabulous to read that Feddy was playing with confidence and freedom again.

It's not a mortal sin to get a prediction wrong. And it wasn't that unreasonable a one, either, if you consider the form of both guys in the immediate run up to the match.

Would far rather read Steve than Updike, anyway. :) Even at a sentence-level comparison.

if Rafa and Roger play in the FO final (and I expect them to be there, and no, I will not fall on my sword if this prediction is wrong...) it'll be interesting to see how long Rafa makes Fed wait for the coin toss. ;-)

Sad about the Fedal war...do we have to have it, guys? Is there no respite? Fed this, Rafa that, Fed fans this, Rafa fans that. Does it never stop? Can we not have peace between our peoples? AARGH.

Posted by banti 05/20/2009 at 03:37 AM

Hey why do write all this after picking Fed to lose to Roddick last week. I mean it makes no sense. Now your saying how great Fed is and how close he is to Nadal. You talk about the rivalry, and what it is for tennis. You say Fed very well could win the French, although your
"still" picking Rafa. This is all after picking Fed not to beat Roddick last week. Who the hell are you? You need medication sir. lol.

Posted by Charlie 05/20/2009 at 04:37 AM

Just wondering where people think Murray fits into this, being the no. 3 and all that?

The mind boggles between Raferer/FeDal, FeDok/Djokerer/RoDj, FedRay/Murrerer, NoDal/DjoFa, Nandy/MuDal.. I'd agree a Djok vs Fed semi at RG would seem 'right' -their chance to compete to see who's in better shape to go up against Nads in the final. T'would be nice to see Fed get the thing, but holding out over 3-5 sets in the heart of Nadness? Not convinced! Last year was pretty crazy, I mean he didn't lose a set and never looked truly tested. Is this year really going to be any different unless injury or ailment 9or tiredness) intervene? Well, I'd at least like to see him taken the distance.

Posted by sG 05/20/2009 at 04:50 AM

Very good article, Steve. Told with your customary elegance and critical analysis. Thanks again for the very good read!

Posted by mark san pablo 05/20/2009 at 05:54 AM

Blake (re: his post of 05/19/2009)

Rafa may be tired, but he showed up in court full of vigor and energy for the final. Why don't you give credit to Federer for this well-deserved victory? And what would you say had Nadal won this match? Wouldn't you say Nadal deserved the victory and NEVER mention his physical condition? The trouble with some people is that they find all excuses for losing, and forget all excuses for winning. Federer played an intellegent game to beat Nadal, pure and simple. And on the surface Nadal USED TO own. I'm saying that on purpose, because I believe if there is an appointed time for Fed to win Roland Garros, it is NOW, this year. Mark it in stone.

Posted by dn 05/20/2009 at 06:05 AM

Everyone seems to be excessively partisan when it comes to Federer and Nadal...every one also seems to have forgotten that GS matches are played over FIVE sets...seriously...Federer beating Nadal on the slow courts at RG over five??! Lets get real... Also, did the surface at Madrid play like any regular clay court? I really dont think so. Too quick, too slippery. After watching the clay court season unfold, I have no doubt in my mind that Djokovic is the second best player on clay at the moment...if he is in Federer's half at RG, I think he'll beat him easily, if in Nadal's he'll take him to four...and No, I'm NOT a Joker fan, just a fan of good tennis...and that last match between Nadal-Federer was mediocre at best....

Posted by Gloria 05/20/2009 at 06:16 AM

I like your article, Steve. I also like that Roger won at Madrid. No buts attached to his victory.

I must be the only Fedfan that wants Djokovic to be on Roger's half of the draw. If Roger has to fend no-rhythm-Murray first and then Rafa, I don't think it would be good for his chances at all, whatever those are.

I also wish that the weather-gods would be fair this year and have a sunny and warm tournament at Paris. Enough with the rain.

Posted by Cotton Jack 05/20/2009 at 06:53 AM

I've been trying and failing to find transcriptions of the post-match press conferences for both Roger and Rafa. Can anyone help me out? Ta muchly x

Posted by Charlie 05/20/2009 at 06:56 AM

mark
I'm neither a Fed or Rafa obsessive. To me they're both great to watch and follow. But following on from ds's comment, it's absurd and deluded to say clay is something Rafa 'USED TO own'. That stone you're holding is going to drown you.

People said last year was Fed's year to finally win the FO. I think the night before or the morning of the final Borg said something like 'he really believes this year he can do it,' and look what happened. So 2009 is the annointed year, okay.. this time next year it will be that 2010 is the year, 2011..

I'm not saying he can't, and I'd be very happy for him if he did win it and stick one in the eye to the write-off media. But sorry, 3-5 sets at RG? -who's money wouldn't be on 'the king of clay'? And that's after the possibility of having to take out a Murray or resurgent Djokovic, both of whom have a habit of pooping Fedsy-dress parties (tho admittedly in non-GS soirees, but there is some mind damage done there, surely? -they both know they can beat him, and he knows it too)

Posted by chris 05/20/2009 at 07:18 AM

alright federer was bettter on the day, but did you take into account nadal's physical condition from the day before, or that nadal had to get to the final after the longest ever masters match?? or even that this surface is no way near as similar to roland garros????
everytime nadal has to do it tough to get to finals because his always drawn with harder opponents; take note AO, past FO etc etc
fed always gets nadal when exhausted physically, sometimes he can get the job done on nadal sometimes he cant
but lookin forward to FO, i still see nadal winning it
novak will be a definite factor in the tournament, as will any other dark horses
and remember nadal will be ready, physically and mentally
and surface wil play to nadal's style, not feds

Posted by nica 05/20/2009 at 07:50 AM

Nice job Steve. Who were you reading on this trip?

I thought the key tactic Federer used was to not let Rafa engage him in the Nadal forehand to Federer backhand rally. Federer instead used his backhand and forehand back to Nadal's backhand. If Nadal replied down the line, he was setting himself up for the Federer inside-out-forehand or having to recover and come back to the back hand. Federer pinned Nadal in that corner time and time again.

Beside this tactic, he did well in mixing things up: serve-and-volley here and there, drop shot, approach shots, etc. His serve help up well!

I am sure Nadal and uncle Toni will adjust to the new wrinkle, but hope Federer can win it. I am sick of comparisons people are making of Federer and McEnroe and Sampras unable to win the French. Federer's clay court game is far superior to either of these players, except he has to contend with the greatest clay court player of all time, who is a left to boot.

Posted by Charlie 05/20/2009 at 07:57 AM

Holy crappers! Mens tennis on Deutsche Eurosport? Am I dreaming?

Posted by Sliceman 05/20/2009 at 08:01 AM

We need to view the Madrid result in the wider context... Nadal is still massively dominant on clay (and number one overall by thousands of points) and very strong favourite for RG, albeit slightly more vulnerable than before.

Why? Because he's lost a match on clay (and Madrid is not a hard court!) to his biggest rival. 9-1 on clay has become 9-2... tired or not.

Federer is still a brilliant player who has had some poor results (for him) in 2009 and can look at the future with more optimism after Madrid.

Why? He's ended a barren run against Nadal(losing the preceding five) in Spain and broken a run of blowups in the Masters Series. He has earned a confidence boost as the season heats up with RG and Wimbledon coming fast.

So it is a slight downturn on Nadal's performance chart and a decent upturn on Federer's.

Maybe all this is very obvious but some posts here make it sound like one win changes everything or, alternatively, is utterly meaningless and should be ignored.

I don't think Nadal has played very well this clay season (the fact he's won almost everything anyway is testament to his incredible ability). He can move up to a level which no one can match on this surface but he is not there at the moment, hence being pushed by Novak before succumbing to defeat in the final. I thought he looked sub-par against Verdasco, where he would have lost the second set but for Nando cracking badly. Rafa may need to get to his top level to win in Paris. What do other people think?

Fed's chances at RG may only have increased by the order of, say, 10% to 15% but I think his Wimbledon hopes are much better now.

Something that occurred to me is that Nadal's hugely physical playing style, slow between points and relatively defensive, will make it more difficult for him to keep fresh during this phase of his career where is is making the finals of a high percentage of tournaments he enters. Federer for years was in a similar position of going very deep in almost all tournaments and possibly benefited from a more attacking and faster style. Any thoughts on this? I realise Rafa has changed his game in the last couple of years - will he continue to do this?

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 05/20/2009 at 08:13 AM

Nice analysis, Steve.

Funny, isn't it, that the strategy that seemed to work best against Nadal was to force him, the world's (perhaps history's) most tenaciously consistent competitor, to make errors.

Play enough different shots that it bamboozles the man from Mallorca and causes his strokes to break down.

Who'd a-thunk it?

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 05/20/2009 at 08:28 AM

skip1515 is no doubt correct in assessing the longer term effects of that the failed chip-and-charge play. One must make Nadal come up with the goods, time and again. Eventually, on a crucial point, he is going to miss one. He is human, after all, though we sometimes forget that important fact. And humans never respond completely predictably (or perform completely unerringly) under constant pressure.

Posted by Charlie 05/20/2009 at 08:31 AM

In case anyone's interested, and in answer to my own question above -Murray not looking up to much, having gone down a set to Matthieu. No sign of anything comparable to his hard court magic. Doesn't look in great shape, and has made a number of significant winces at both back and foot movements.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 05/20/2009 at 08:40 AM

Sliceman (hey brother, in moniker at least!)]....

You wrote:
"Something that occurred to me is that Nadal's hugely physical playing style, slow between points and relatively defensive, will make it more difficult for him to keep fresh during this phase of his career where is is making the finals of a high percentage of tournaments he enters. Federer for years was in a similar position of going very deep in almost all tournaments and possibly benefited from a more attacking and faster style. Any thoughts on this?"

I agree that as Nadal advances through the stages of his career, and as he approaches that stage where Federer is now, his ability to grind out matches and play such a physical brand of tennis will likely diminish significantly. His star may burn bright and very very hot but then fade rather quickly. Might, that is.

I've always thought (well,m I've been saying so for the past two years now) that Federer should start to use more of his physical gifts as he enters his final stages. By this I mean his power, his raw physical strength, not the Nadal-esque grinding physicality, which Federer does not really possess, anyway. Instead, I would have thought he would begin ratcheting up the MPHs on his first serves, and maybe flatten out hois forehand a bit more and smack it just a bit harder, adding 5 MPHs and penetrating the court a bit more. And going forward more and finishing points off earlier at the net. Well, it appears that he is beginning to see the light and do just that. When he's reaching 233 KMH on his first delivery, we're talkjing close to 140 MPH. Up until this year, Federer's fastest serves were more Sampras-like, coming in at around 127 MPH. I think this is a good sign, and hope to see him do more of it.

Two good things come from this kind of power shift:
1. You increase your high-to-low MPH range, which opens up some great opportunities. Think of a baseball pitcher with an awesome 97 MPH rising fastball who can throw in a 94 MPH sinker, slider, and an 88 MPH curve or 84 MPH change-up. All very good pitches, made better by their comparative speed differentiuals and the timing of their use.
2. He can get away with a lowrer first-serve percentage (anything at 55% or thereabouts is fine when your throwing in a few 135 MPH bombs for free/easy points), especially with federer, who has arguably the best second serve in the business.

Federer also seemed to flatten out is forehand a bit more in Madrid, and perhaps smacked it a bit harder as well. This would be the second good sign from the old boy.

And as has been pointed out already by skip1515 and others, he is chipping and charging a bit more, a la that other great Grand Slam champion, Pete Sampras. If you're going to follow a template, one could do far worse than follow Sampras.

Posted by TennisFan2 05/20/2009 at 08:59 AM

I'd like to see Nole in Fed's draw at RG - if Rafa does well on his side of the draw it would be great to have a Rafa-Nole or Rafa-Fed final.

Once again Fed fans - Fed's win in Madrid was cause for celebration but I would not celebrate RG yet - Rafa feeds positively off big challenges - I imagine beating a strong Fed is much more to Rafa's liking than beating Fed with excuses.

And please, enough with the tired stuff - if you can't believe that Rafa's wheels were a bit flat against Fed after a four hour physical final against Nole than you've probably never played the game or certainly don't have a real appreciation of the physical aspect of it.

Posted by Rosangel 05/20/2009 at 09:17 AM

I haven't watched the Madrid final - I was at the Wimbledon Centre Court roof test on Sunday. I'll get around to watching it sometime, but had a bad feeling about the match beforehand, based on a combination of what had happened the day before (the outstanding match of the week in the semi with Djokovic), and the opponent. I still thought Nadal might well pull off the win, as this is an opponent he really doesn't need to lose to, ever again if he can help it, so would give whatever he had to prevent that from happening, even though he doesn't like the conditions in Madrid much. However, I also thought he'd be a little vulnerable, just based on the way that Masters Series events work - no days of rest, and the highest-quality field there is.

Nadal has a thoroughly deserved reputation for being one of the best competitors the sport has ever seen. As Steve said in his last post, even if he doesn't go down in tennis history as one of the greatest, he'll surely go down as having played some of the greatest matches in tennis history. It will be a surprise if there aren't many more in the future, given that Nadal's style is basically to play the points and engage the opponent in a duel in which his skills more often than not are shown to be superior. As a spectator I wouldn't change it for anything - it's simply the best, most compelling tennis viewing there is right now. I would love to know what goes though his mind when he's in repeated pressure situations, but backs himself to win the next point by playing to his strengths - and fearlessly. Time and time again he leaves it all on the court to pull off yet another Houdini-like escape. Sometimes it looks as though he's giving more than it's really possible for a human being to give, so often does he seem to display an unreal mastery of the big points in those situations.

I really doubt that he would want anyone to make excuses for him, but it also seems fairly obvious that the kind of mental effort he puts in to win some of these extraordinary matches takes its toll - maybe physically too, but at this level what separates the very best players is so often a mental thing. Pretty often Nadal manages to recover from yet another epic performance and win with his mind the next day even when he's not at his best, seemingly by an act of will. But of course there are days when that won't happen - he's human, and the outcome of the match depends on what the opponent does too.

I still think that he's the overwhelming favourite at Roland Garros, but ask me again in a week's time and I might change that view based on whatever I see during the early-round matches. Madrid is a new event this year, so it's pretty difficult to gauge whether how players perform there in the last clay Masters tournament of the year has much bearing on what happens at Roland Garros. The courts looked faster than the hard courts of Miami; Nadal has said that Paris is a completely different surface. He should know what he's talking about.

Posted by Sliceman 05/20/2009 at 09:21 AM

Slice-n-Dice -

Very interesting... Imagine Fed emulating Sampras by winning a slam in his 30s.

Posted by cliffie 05/20/2009 at 09:47 AM

Rosangel, very succinctly and objectively put - and beautifully written.

You have put my own thoughts into great words.

Posted by Syd 05/20/2009 at 09:51 AM

Steve;

A beautifully written article.

I agree, Madrid changes the dynamics—it doesn't change the heavy favorite. From a Pro-Federer viewpoint, that is a good thing. No expectations. Beautiful.

Posted by Valevapor 05/20/2009 at 10:04 AM

A great win and boost for Fed after some un-majestic meltdowns this year. Rafa is too singularly focused at RG to be much affected by this result, however.

I've always wondered why righties with big forehands don't give Nadal a taste of his own medicine and zero in on his backhand corner. Easier said than done with Rafa's stellar movement and ability to control points with his own forehand. This is what Murray did brilliantly, however, in the second set in Monte Carlo and it's the same thing Fed did well in Madrid. Can anyone do that effectively over five sets at RG? Unlikely, and if Rafa's hitting his backhand sharply it may not matter...

I'd love nothing more than to see Fed win RG, but I think he's gonna need a little help from someone like Djoker or Davydenko wearing Nadal out. Murray's not strong enough yet to push Nadal in such a way over five sets on clay.

Finally, it's great to see Fed serving with authority again. He used to run through his service games so quickly and fire aces on break points, but he's really struggled this year. If he had served 5-10% better he would've won AO and he's gonna need every clutch serve he can muster to have a shot at RG.

Posted by Johnzo 05/20/2009 at 10:35 AM

Mr. Tignor : this is a great piece, You have talent. No doubt.

Posted by Valevapor 05/20/2009 at 10:36 AM

BTW, Steve: did you notice Fed's inside-out slice return from the deuce court into Rafa's backhand? A thing of beauty that I hope he employs more often. It's a new twist on his famous reply to righties from the ad court. Has anyone else ever INTENTIONALLY cultivated that shot? Love it...

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 05/20/2009 at 10:47 AM

Valevapor,

I assume you mean has any profesisonal player of consequence ever employed that shot against Nadal?

Because I emply that shot all the time, with some success. But then again, I am playing at a 4.5 to 5.0 level. A world, nay, universe of difference.

But I agree that it is a wise tactic, as that ball will stay low and slide out away from nadal's backhand.

Nice observation.

Slice

Posted by † Hallelujah 05/20/2009 at 11:20 AM

Slight tangent, but some aspects in the past Roger vs Rafa matches remind me (in a very caricatured way) of patterns that emerged when I used to play Soul Calibre (an arcade style 3D fighting game) with a friend of mine. For the longest time I thought I was by far the better and more creative player and I had the record to back it up. I took delight in winning in the most hilarious way possible, it almost became a death dance of sorts. Then my buddy learned a new move which took advantage of a timing glitch in the game. I thought it was a bit of a cheat really, especially when he started using it almost exclusively and squeaking out close wins while I still played my varied game as I wilfully resisted the urge to use similar tactics. After a few too many frustrating losses, I put all pride aside and started using such moves myself, I had less fun for sure, sometimes I'd have to do the same lame move a dozen times in a row, but anything short of that wouldn't have stopped him from milking his favorite. It was against my natural inclination, which was to play an intuitive all-round game, but after I while it forced him to abandon the exclusive use of that one move and actually 'play' in the truest sense. Every now and then he'd go back to his old tricks, but I'd learnt my lesson the hard way and would immediately switch to shameless glitch mode, beats losing imho.

This has a weak corelation to the Rafa/Roger matches, but it sprung to mind particularly because of Rafa's high bouncing, heavily top-spun forehand to Fed's one handed backhand. If this is the narrative of the match, of course Rafa wins, it's his best shot vs his opponents weaker shot. Unlike most opponents when talent alone is enough for Fed to win, whatever his opponents tactics are, Rafa makes it imperative that Fed play with the right tactics.

Posted by ladyjulia 05/20/2009 at 11:33 AM

In a way, I have this match bringing the feeling when Roddick defeated Roger at AAMI classic and showed all his cards. A few weeks later we all know what happened at the AO 2007..

the same way, Rafa has gained from this match since Fed has shown all his cards now, not only has he shown his cards, they have been discussed to death by everybody (AndyR discussing the match on twitter???)...if he had used the same tactics at the FO final, he may have been able to win 2 sets, though i doubt three since Rafa is in a different mode at FO.

But now that Rafa knows all his tactics, he will have found a way to counteract it, and so i think that if Roger and Rafa do meet, it will be a straight set affair, instead of it going 4 sets.

That said, the win was still good for Federer to stop his losing streak against Nadal. Using this tactics in a five set match, he may never win it ( i don't know what will win in five sets against Nadal), so at least he improved his H2H and it should give him some confidence on his favorite surface (grass) and HC matches.

This may be a turning point this year, coz I expect this will help Federer to not cave in while playing Djoko or Murray and winning some deciding sets. So, a turning point with respect to playing other top ten players, not Nadal. However, Federer has still to prove that.

I don't think Federer has got carried away either, but he does seem to have some confidence in himself and some faith in keeping a positive attitude!

With regard to mono, if he did have an enlarged spleen and was ill not only at AO, but the rest of the year as Jim Courier says, he should not have played the tour at all in 2008. It would have saved that low back pain and saved him much more mental anguish. It would have lost him his ranking, but he lost that anyway! He would have been stronger mentally playing this year...rather than carrying that baggage of losing deciding sets,back pain, an absent serve and an errant forehand.

Posted by ladyjulia 05/20/2009 at 11:33 AM

In a way, I have this match bringing the feeling when Roddick defeated Roger at AAMI classic and showed all his cards. A few weeks later we all know what happened at the AO 2007..

the same way, Rafa has gained from this match since Fed has shown all his cards now, not only has he shown his cards, they have been discussed to death by everybody (AndyR discussing the match on twitter???)...if he had used the same tactics at the FO final, he may have been able to win 2 sets, though i doubt three since Rafa is in a different mode at FO.

But now that Rafa knows all his tactics, he will have found a way to counteract it, and so i think that if Roger and Rafa do meet, it will be a straight set affair, instead of it going 4 sets.

That said, the win was still good for Federer to stop his losing streak against Nadal. Using this tactics in a five set match, he may never win it ( i don't know what will win in five sets against Nadal), so at least he improved his H2H and it should give him some confidence on his favorite surface (grass) and HC matches.

This may be a turning point this year, coz I expect this will help Federer to not cave in while playing Djoko or Murray and winning some deciding sets. So, a turning point with respect to playing other top ten players, not Nadal. However, Federer has still to prove that.

I don't think Federer has got carried away either, but he does seem to have some confidence in himself and some faith in keeping a positive attitude!

With regard to mono, if he did have an enlarged spleen and was ill not only at AO, but the rest of the year as Jim Courier says, he should not have played the tour at all in 2008. It would have saved that low back pain and saved him much more mental anguish. It would have lost him his ranking, but he lost that anyway! He would have been stronger mentally playing this year...rather than carrying that baggage of losing deciding sets,back pain, an absent serve and an errant forehand.

Posted by ladyjulia 05/20/2009 at 11:33 AM

In a way, I have this match bringing the feeling when Roddick defeated Roger at AAMI classic and showed all his cards. A few weeks later we all know what happened at the AO 2007..

the same way, Rafa has gained from this match since Fed has shown all his cards now, not only has he shown his cards, they have been discussed to death by everybody (AndyR discussing the match on twitter???)...if he had used the same tactics at the FO final, he may have been able to win 2 sets, though i doubt three since Rafa is in a different mode at FO.

But now that Rafa knows all his tactics, he will have found a way to counteract it, and so i think that if Roger and Rafa do meet, it will be a straight set affair, instead of it going 4 sets.

That said, the win was still good for Federer to stop his losing streak against Nadal. Using this tactics in a five set match, he may never win it ( i don't know what will win in five sets against Nadal), so at least he improved his H2H and it should give him some confidence on his favorite surface (grass) and HC matches.

This may be a turning point this year, coz I expect this will help Federer to not cave in while playing Djoko or Murray and winning some deciding sets. So, a turning point with respect to playing other top ten players, not Nadal. However, Federer has still to prove that.

I don't think Federer has got carried away either, but he does seem to have some confidence in himself and some faith in keeping a positive attitude!

With regard to mono, if he did have an enlarged spleen and was ill not only at AO, but the rest of the year as Jim Courier says, he should not have played the tour at all in 2008. It would have saved that low back pain and saved him much more mental anguish. It would have lost him his ranking, but he lost that anyway! He would have been stronger mentally playing this year...rather than carrying that baggage of losing deciding sets,back pain, an absent serve and an errant forehand.

Posted by ladyjulia 05/20/2009 at 11:35 AM

OMG...i don't know what happened...sorry about that!

Posted by Game Lover 05/20/2009 at 11:36 AM


Great article Steve!

And belated Happy Bday!

If I may add to your:

"If Nadal has a weakness, it’s the forehand return of a second serve on break point"

Most of Rafa's returns were weak and short (a few long)!
Not only against Roger but against Nole as well. That's why Roger camped in the middle of the court and dictated play...

One poster suggested that maybe Rafa should have tried to step in and try to take control of some points from the return (at the risk of more errors, but he was making return errors anyhow, staying so far back...).

And it wasn't only the pressure of being #1, it was also probably the fear that his balls will fly longer (and not dip in due to slower top spin rotations), at the Madrid attitude.
Finally I think that he wasn't able to get in position to execute the shots, due to fatigue- Let's see if Roger can face Nole and Rafa in row now, on the RG clay!

Also Rafa needs to learn to serve like Roger, Nole and the likes; his serve lacks extension and hence probably some power due to that. Kinda of ugly motion, so pro unlike.

Posted by Heidi 05/20/2009 at 11:37 AM

Hey Steve! I like the way you summed it up here. I also like the idea that variety may just be Fed's key in RG. I'm curious -- you didn't make much of the Madrid surface the way everyone was all week, Rafa included. Do you think that will affect Fed's ability to translate that variety to Paris? Hope you are going over -- have a great time and eat some cheese for me.

Posted by † Hallelujah 05/20/2009 at 11:44 AM

hindsight is 20/20. he played out 2008 and almost won wimby, it was an okay gamble to take considering how close he came.

Posted by 05/20/2009 at 11:45 AM

Sliceman-

I think your 8:01 is the most clearheaded analysis of the significance/non-significance of Madrid. Thanks for the rational words in a storm of bold and meaningless fortune telling!

This has nicely heightened the drama going into the French, as Steve has pointed out.

Posted by BlueDog 05/20/2009 at 11:47 AM

headless 11:45 is Bluedog

Posted by Jeanna180 05/20/2009 at 12:08 PM

I think Feder won Madrid thanks to the help the altitude gave his serve and it is not just against Nadal that it helped. The altitude seems to have given Feder's serve an extra bounce making it harder for everyone to return. In his second set against Roddick he seemed to be struggling with his serve and he lost that set. I agree with a lot of people that Nadal didn't care if he lost this, he seemed much more upset after his loss to Del Potro in Miami. I really don't think this has any effect on the French where I am not convinced that Feder will even make it to the final espically if he has to face Djokvic in the semis. As for Murray in all this I do not think his clay court game is good enough yet to be a real factor but I think he will be a factor at Wimbledon and the US Open, as for clay and Murray maybe next year.

Posted by Rachid 05/20/2009 at 12:10 PM

Nadal will harvest Roland Garros with a big ease and Federer might even not make it to the semis

Posted by Tuulia 05/20/2009 at 12:13 PM

"I actually do think he's going through personal and family problems at the moment,"

I asked in an earlier thread what you meant, and I'm asking you again: what do you mean, what makes you think that? You seem to be the only person thinking that, and I'm curious... Especially since he has seemed happy to me and has had the best start of the year in his career, including great results recently, as good as/or better than any previous clay season. And I repeat also what I said earlier on this: If his results are like this when he's got "problems", well... ;)

Posted by TripleF-FedFanForever 05/20/2009 at 12:14 PM

Replay: TennisChannel is replaying the match in its entirety as we speak. Just started (noon eastern).

As you tend to observe the 'change in routines' at the beginning of the toss....

Fed sitting still looking into the nether land.
Rafa adjusts bottles with a vernier caliper.
And then adjusts more.
And then looks at Fed.
And looks at Fed again.
Fed looking into the nether land as if it's alright.
Rafa stares ahead.
And then Rafa look at him again.
Then...Rafa didn't know what to do...stands up and goes to toss.

Very funny.
I think this affected the OCD guy very very badly no?

Posted by Slick Sparrow 05/20/2009 at 12:15 PM

Hi, I'm delurking again, because the happenings of this past weekend are to noteworthy to pass up making a few comments.

I think it's interesting that Madrid has so far been discussed primarily in the Roger-Rafa scheme of things, as from what I gathered, Madrid, and the whole clay season, carries bigger significance than just the fact that Federer finally stole one from his nemesis on clay.

As recently as Monte Carlo this year, the general consensus was that Federer and Djokovic were basically banging their heads against the wall when it came to Nadal on clay. Yes they slugged their way to close matches, but as Steve Tignor pointed out, it really just appeared that they were confirming just how far they were to actually beating Nadal on clay, and we have the two epic beatdowns Rafa gave them last year in Paris to attest to that.

I too believed that and was honestly just prepared to pencil in Nadal as the French Open champ, but I've been impressed by Djokovic's stubborn and adamant refusal to quit. Time and again he gets his heart ripped out by Rafa and time and again he comes back and fights even harder. Say what you will about his 0-fer-gazillion record against Nadal on clay, but the fact remains that with each passing match he has played closer to Nadal this season. Yes he lost on Saturday, but he held match point against Nadal on a clay court. How many players in history have ever done that?

Then there's Federer. So many surprises here. Yes Nadal was a shadow of his true self, but you still have to win the dang match, and with Roger's history of choking away 5-1 leads to Nadal, combined with his Jekyll and Hyde mental complexion these days, I wouldn't have been surprised to see Rafa limp onto the court with a broken leg and still win the darn thing. Instead, Federer was calm, composed, realistic and not stubborn on the court. (gasp!) Now both Federer and Nadal are aware of the real (meaning: very little) significance of the result. Federer has seen this movie before and so has Nadal, so I really don't think it does all that good or bad for either of them. Federer is too stubborn to really have been as down as we thought he was, and Nadal is too confident to get very down after this loss either.

What I do think is significant is the fact that two players who Nadal has basically wasted on clay when he was actually an inferior player are all of a sudden breathing down his neck. I, like Pete Bodo, was ready to call the endgame on clay, perhaps we have been a tad premature?

Given all that, I still think there's a good chance that Rafa lays down another pair of epic beatdowns on Roger and Nole a few weeks from now, but what Nadal is discovering is that when you have a giant bullseye on the back of your country club shirt as the world's #1, players are no longer as discouraged when you beat up on them, they just come right back 'cos they've got nothing to lose. Despite his dominance, I have a feeling that Nadal will fast the sternest tests of his career this season. Perhaps not at Roland Garros, but certainly at SW19 and beyond. If he can surmount all of those and win the calendar slam, well, then I think we can call endgame.

Posted by Tuulia 05/20/2009 at 12:15 PM

Rosangel - completely agree with you, I wouldn't change it for anything, either.

Posted by 05/20/2009 at 12:16 PM

To have a better chance of beating Rafa Nadal, Roger Federer needs to do the following:

-Improve his backhand, both defensively and offensively
-Win more points on his first and second serves
-Reduce his unforced errors - both backhand and forehand

How can he do the above? Backhand - step forward and and take it as early as he can, hitting the ball closer to waist-high than shoulder-high. Serve - use his shoulders and upper body more effectively (simulating Pete Sampras' mechanics). Unforced errors - keep his knees BENT when hitting his ground strokes (especially short balls), rather than straightening his legs up before hitting the ball (which flattens the shot trajectory).

Hopefully this rivalry will go on for years to come.

Joseph Zohar, PT, USPTA
Irvine, CA

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