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Pieces of Everybody 06/04/2008 - 2:14 PM

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I watched a fair amount of women's tennis these past few days, so I thought I'd give it a break and check out the men's quarters today. I was feeling pretty invincible, so I left my helmet back in the press center as I went to watch Roger Federer grapple with Fernando Gonzalez. The press section at Suzanne Lenglen is right behind the baseline, and you know how Gonzo is with those optic yellow IFOs.

Not too many players are inclined to step up against Gonzo and trade shots with him on his terms, but you know how The Mighty Fed is; going in against most guys, his attitude is, Hey, everybody gets a trophy! He's not the type to rub your nose in his excellence, so if you want to bang big forehands from the baseline, bring it on, and if you're lucky you might walk away feeling pretty danged good about yourself - even though you lost.

And so it was. Roger was kitted out, like Maria Sharapova (and half of the rest of the planet, it seems), in that navy, authentic flight attendant uniform. And he wasted no time conveying to the faithful in Lenglen that it was time to fasten their seat belts and stow their tray tables. At the start, though, the distinction between pilot and co-pilot was unclear; it was that kind of day for Gonzalez. The 10-1 head-to-head advantage Federer toted into the arena was comforting for TMF fans; on the other hand, the men have the same number of clay-court titles (7), and they share 7th place on list of active players headed by Rafael Nadal with 21 (that's no typo). But let's leave that problem for another day - Sunday, maybe?

Anyway, Gonzo was on fire in the first set, with TMF happily throwing gasoline onto the blaze. It didn't seem to bother him that playing right into the wheelhouse of the only man in the Roland Garros draw who hasn't lost a match on clay (Gonzo was 16-0) may not have been his best strategy. It should be abundantly clear by now that on any surface, against any man (but one), Roger don't need no stinkin' strategy. He can let an opponent set the table, serve the meal, pour the wine, choose the desert - and guess who ends up getting stuck with the check?

You know, I'm only semi-kidding about that strategy bit. This match, at least the first set, was a marvelous demonstration that when two quality players go into a match with the right, bold, relaxed attitude, one thing and one thing only counts: which one can utilize the court space that tiny bit better, in a way that, even if it doesn't exactly put an opponent back on his heels, forces him to hit shots slightly outside his comfort zone - a little too high, a little too low, a little too far wide to either side for the hombre to get a great look and unload a harsh blast.

Gosh it was nice watching two terrific players hitting the ball without inhibition, picture-perfect placements pouring off each of their rackets, leaving you free from having to figure out just who was trying to do what, and with what degree of success, like some freakin' tennis expert or something. You want to talk about the shanked volley that saved a break point for TMF at in the first game of the first set (a game he saved after being down love-40), go right ahead. Or the way Gonzo stepped around a penetrating forehand service return to powder an inside-out winner to save the second game of the second set? Feel free. Just leave me out of it, I was too busy enjoying myself just watching this one. It's something everyone ought to try sometime. . .

But getting back to the match: I sat with Chuck Culpepper a London-based Los Angeles Times correspondent, and  an old pal, ESPN commentator Luke Jensen. It was agreeable company in which to savor a match, and a player who has created an unprecedented marriage between "beautiful" tennis and winning tennis. Over the years I've seen many players who had pretty games; the signature weakness of most of them was an inability to convert their conspicuous talent and versatility into hard Ws. I asked my friends if either of them could think of a guy with a comparably fetching game, and we began comparing TMFs various strokes with those of other icons. Luke put it best when he observed. "It's like he has pieces of everybody (great)."

Wish I'd thought of that line myself. So I did the next best thing, I stole it.

Back to the match. Gonzo took the first set, with Roger giving him the reins to see how well and far he might run. To be honest, at times Roger seemed a smidgen apprehensive, as if he were thinking, What did I get myself into, going out to trade boomers with this guy? And Gonzo gave TMF all he could handle in that first set, winning it, 6-2.

TMF:

"Well, the thing was I almost got myself in trouble in early in my own service games, you know.  And then I would have 30 All points sometimes where maybe just not quite sure what to do yet, you know, just sort of getting into the game.

"Those were reasons why I got broken early on.  That didn't happen anymore towards the end, you know, because it wouldn't be at 30 All, it would be at 40 15, and everything is just a touch easier when you're up in the game.

"I made sure I got more first serves in, you know, because I realized it was not going to make much of a difference if I would serve 210 or 190.  He would chip it back the same way. But that got me more safety, and then I could my forehand started to work better and better.  I started to move him around, and I think I played a smart match in the end."

Such details are of passing interest, of course. They explain why TMF lost the first set, 2-6, instead of winning it by that margin. Those reasons undoubtedly flickered in Federer's mind, like shadows on a wall, when he was - very inconspicuously, given the way he was hitting the ball - in danger. But the last bit of the quote was both revealing and explanatory.

Okay, full disclosure: during the first game of the second set, I jotted the note, "Roger needs to slow it down." And that's pretty much what Roger did, given that mixing it up, hitting a few wrist-jarring first serves, ending points by sneaking in to put away volleys is tantamount to slowing it down against a player, like Gonzo, who has just two gears - fifth and overdrive. As the second set unfolded, you could almost feel Federer imposing a template on the game. He took command of the pace, and stepped up to challenge Gonzo to beat him at his game, rather than his own. It was Roger Federer, in his own, magisterial, bad-self way, letting Gonzo know that while he would indeed get a trophy, it would be a smaller one than his own. Like it or not.Gonzo

Now TMF was in silent running mode. While Gonzo let out hellacious grunts and groans of effort, the only sound to emanate from Federer's diaphragm was a brief, heavily aspirated Ugh! when he hit his increasingly on target serve. It was the brief, violent grunt of an Albanian weight lifter clean-and-jerking a Volkswagen. But coming from Federer, and in comparison to the other barnyard noises floating around, it was, well, gentlemanly.

I doubt it was much consolation for Gonzo that his 16-0 mark was being pulverized by a gentleman, and he showed admirable self-control as the games rolled by, culminating in a 6-2 set for Federer. But when Federer broke Gonzo in the first game of the next set, the frustrated Chilean smashed his racket, but good. I ask you, is there a greater signal of utter surrender in tennis than a flummoxed player smashing his racket? What would all you nostalgic baby boomers think if you went to see a Who reunion gig and Pete Townsend did that guitar-smashing thing three songs into the set?

I left the match after the third set; I'm not a big fan of spectating at executions. I wandered over to Chatrier Court, to catch some of the battle between Gael Force Monfils and David Ferrer. I thought going in that this would be an extremely tough test for Monfils, especially when you factored in his nationality, and the way the French habitually stink out the joint. I'm going to keep to powder of my observations dry on Gael Force, but he played a fine match to reach his semifinal berth against TMF.

It may seem odd, but in a way it's a great opportunity for Monfils - who's going to accuse him of going all French on us if he loses to TMF?  Hail, everybody (but one) is supposed to lose to Federer, and as Gonzo showed today, that's a liberating condition that enables you to swing from the heels. And who knows? Maybe a giant California condor will swoop down from the sky and pluck TMF off the court and drop him in the Seine. Stranger things have happened, TMF losing to Fillippo Volandri among them.

You know what they say: that's why the play the game, even though nobody (including "but one") plays the game like Federer.

You may now unbuckle your seat belts, turn on your electronic devices, and ask your flight attendant if you really have to pay for the smokehouse almonds.


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Posted by Syd 06/04/2008 at 09:34 PM

I am worried for Federer against Monfils. Really. And Ferrer got some amazing shots back and still could do nothing from the second set on. Ferru was talking to himself, had lengthy conversations with his coach, smiling, laughing, shrugging his shoulders, scowling. Nothing worked.


Posted by Syd 06/04/2008 at 09:38 PM

And getting to dropshots was not really a problem for Monfils. Neither was returning off both wings when Ferru tried to wage a war of attrition by running Monfils side to side and just Grinding it out.

Posted by CL 06/04/2008 at 09:49 PM

Syd - I'm worried too....but then again, I'm always worried re Fed these days. BUT...and I do think this is what mici was getting at, now that I have had a second or third read; Ferrer doesn't serve nearly as well as Fed, he doesn't serve and volley at ALL and even if dragged to the net, has a hard time putting the volley away. He was about 1/10 in DSs. He's fast, but not as mobile AND powerful as Fed. He had put in a ton of time on court and at a certain point I think he just stopped thinking. It may be a bad match up in that it won't give Fed any kind of rhythm, or perhaps the wrong kind of rhythm, but I think that in 5 sets, Fed has a least a CHANCE of figuring things out. And I also think it is safe to say that Gael is not, at least not yet, the most mentally stalwart out there. He seems to have improved, but the amount of pressure on him just expanded by about a factor of 1000. And I do think Fed will do more than "laugh, smile, shrug and scowl." And don't forget, he has Jose to help him. I'll bet Jose is the type to watch a tape of Gael's match. No dummy he. So, as ever, we shall see.

Posted by CL 06/04/2008 at 09:54 PM

Syd - the reason Gael had little trouble w/Ferru's DS is that they were TERRIBLE. Half didn't even make it over the net. He hit one very good one and it worked, but his % was lousy. And Monfils IS so far behind the baseline, for the most part, he can't really hurt Fed from there it seems to me... I dunno.. I'm perfectly willing to start frazzling and in this wacky season anything is possible, but jeeze it sounds like people think Fed should just pack it in. He should just play smart and Fed like.

Posted by mici 06/04/2008 at 10:10 PM

cl: no 1 said that fed should just pack it in.
but I am not a sheep, and I know what trubles fed and what doesn't, and what match-up are harder for him.

molfis isn't the best match-up for fed espclly on clay and especlly and this point.

the kick serve, his speed, his long limbs, solid vollys all of this make the match-up tricky 1 for fed.

in their last match molfis was like he alays is very fare from the base line that is what he feels most comftable with, and whan he does that he plays defensive tennis in rellys untill he unleshes and goes for flat strong shot.

what fed did was snik to the net while molfis was doing the defansive shots and volly, drop shot and just put the ball away.

that is what you have to do, because molfis is so fast and long it's hard to put a ball past him with a winner, and the more sapce he has the more difcult is going to be, so you have to go to the net on your own treams have to, so fed vollys, drop shots and serve going to ve very importent here.

the thing is molfis saw that tactic in mc in the 2 set and he started to do the same himself (by the way that it also how he played in their 1 match when fed won 7-6 7-6 I think was very difcult match)and it worked for him, it just was to late.

fed has the tool, but that doesn't mean that this isn't the best match up for him, and he still have to jave those stoll working at the day.

and again that kick serve is very very importet v fed, it like nadal top spin serve to fed bh.

you be sure if molfis have to save break points he is going to kick serve to fed bh.

Posted by CL 06/04/2008 at 10:29 PM

mici - I do get it... but I think Fed just brings a lot more weapons to this fight than, let's say, Ferru did. Someone else on another thread just pointed out a major one - Forehand. If Ferru's forehand hadn't been SO off today, and it really was...he missed MANY straight forward FHs.... Gael's life would have been a LOT more difficult. Of course Fed's FH can go off too, but well, let's just hope it doesn't. And one other thing in Fed's favor, that I mentioned above...he now has a coach. A very good coach..who I think and hope is smart enough to take nothing for granted and will help prepare Fed for Geal's counter moves. So i am concerned but hopeful.

Posted by ERIC LEE 06/04/2008 at 10:37 PM

I feel strongly that Safina will win a tournament. Tomorrow, She will defeat Kuznetsova easily. On Saturday She will win over Ana Ivanovic in three sets.

Posted by craigs 06/04/2008 at 10:44 PM

Kuznetsova will win tomorrow.

Posted by Crazy-for-Rog 06/05/2008 at 01:55 AM

Thank you, Pete, for this lovely piece on my guy Roger.

Posted by Crazy-for-Rog 06/05/2008 at 02:08 AM

I thought Fed did very well to turn the match around. In that 1st set, as Pete mentioned, Roger was playing to Gonzo's pace. He looked rushed and played rushed, and the set went by far too quickly. From the 2nd set onwards, he started mixing it up more, not just hitting to Gonzo's backhand, but using his own backhand DTL to open up the court so he could then employ his forehand, and effectively moving Gonzo around. And Roger's footwork was excellent those last 3 sets, he looked like he was flying over the court. Those middle 2 sets, especially, were a pleasure to watch on the recording. (Was too frazzled to appreciate it watching it live).

Losing the 1st set forced Roger to play attacking tennis, moving into the forecourt every chance he got. But his approach shots need to get better. We know that if he plays those soft volleys down the middle to Nadal, the Spanish bull will feast on them. But it was great today to see Roger rise to the challenge with fire in his eyes, and not the resigned look that we saw earlier in the year (such as at IW and Miami).

Posted by Kif 06/05/2008 at 03:27 AM

Love the outfits, and especially the color codes: Baby blue for the "warm up" tournaments, dark blue for when it really matters.

And like jj, the post also left me with a bad taste in my mouth, but only because I now more than ever wished that Eurosport had shown the entire match, and not just the final two sets. I wish I could have seen the change from the first to the second set.

Posted by 06/05/2008 at 03:28 AM

Interestin Q&A in french from roger's press conf on the rg site

Q. Since the beginning of this tournament we've seen you many times as if you were annoyed, or sometimes we had the feeling that you were a bit bored. Is it because of the game conditions?

ROGER FEDERER: Well, this is not true, so end of your question. No, honestly, it was difficult. It rained a lot, so I don't want to look up in the sky, because otherwise rain falls in my eye. I want to remain focused.

No, I try and remain focused, and today at one stage I was a bit afraid, because the match was not going on the way I wanted and I had to fight a lot.

Probably needed to have more aggressive attitude, and so I wanted to be aggressive today. Maybe this is what you saw today, but otherwise, I'm very happy. I feel good. No problem whatsoever on my side anyway.

Posted by dimi 06/05/2008 at 04:15 AM

i dont know why anybody worries about monfils. gonzales was much more difficult imo. i dont think ferrer was close his best yesterday - too many mistakes. i think the two five-setters did cost him to much mentally. however, monfils is not really a match for federer. neither his serve nor his forehand nor his tactic. my prediction federer in three sets.

Posted by Chloe02 06/05/2008 at 04:43 AM

Pete, a masterclass in funny, insightful, entertaining writing. This is why you deserve the big bucks.

Posted by Pete 06/05/2008 at 07:06 AM

Howdy, everyone:

Clarification: while it might have been Mrs. Santa who coined "playing with his food" (it sure sounds like her), I'm almost certain it was the late, great Steggy. If anyone is in touch with her, say hi.

Also,I greatly appreciate the support shown above; whenever I'm tempted to slack off or just mail one in I always think of that - of course, I also know you won't let me get away with nothin' so running scared has something to do with it, too ;-)

In any event, that puts me under a certain amount of pressure to deliver something interesting and, hopefully, intelligent. I don't mind criticism; everybody's always looking for something to fall in love with, which makes them dislike the things that disappoint them even more. Besides, criticism helps keep the ship floating on an even keel. I could do without that full frontal personal assaults, but as I've always said when it comes to me and you, tennis at TW is a contact sport. What am I going to do, start pissing and moaning about not being appreciated? Besides, late last night, when an old Louis Armstrong number came on the radio, my Cameroonian cab driver and I agreed (on a sprint through the dark streets of this city that we both find kind of cold) that life is a beautiful thing so why sweat the details?

It's funny, there's an element of performance art in this blogging thing(I know what that is, despite Ms. Rubin's Olympian contention that I'm a "hillbilly". It's also an ego trip, and that's always an invitation to criticism. Just the price you pay, and it's small. Besides, I just wouldn't satisfied by meant and potatoes journalism. Where the hail's the fun in that? I'd sooner stick my face in front of one of Nadal's forehands.

Lastly and most importantly, I have extremely interesting intel on this whole wet-court/dry-court thing that I'll share with you at the appropriate time. Back later!

Have a good time watching, everyone. . .

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 06/05/2008 at 08:22 AM

Praises to you, Pete, for gettin' up on the saddle and ridin' high, time after time, despite the steepness of the climb and the narrowness of the path. It's a rocky road you travel, and you make it look easy.

Now, on to the meat and potatoes.....

I was actually expecting Monfils to win this one against Ferrer. Call me crazy, but I felt that this particular match-up on this particular surface at this stage in the tournament favored the young buck with nothing to lose and everything to gain. Monfils speed and defensive style I believe can frustrate a guy like Ferrer, and cause him to try for too much. Besides, Ferrer, despite his great ending to 2007, has not exactly lit up the scoreboard in the Slams (2 qtrs and 1 semi coming in to this year's French).

I actually think that a Federer-Monfils semifinal is a great opportunity for Federer. Against Gonzalez, he got to play against a guy with a huge forehand, which could help prepare him for the onslaught that would come from Nadal (minus the Lefty Spin). Against Monfils, Federer gets to play against someone with amazing speed and defense, again in preparation for Nadal. If the stars align just right this time, Federer may just have landed the perfect lead-up to a showdown with his only true rival.

As for the other half of the draw, I expect Djokovic to play one good set against Nadal and fold.

Looking forward to your intel report on the wet-court/dry-court phenomenon.

Posted by Maplesugar 06/05/2008 at 08:55 AM

jon, I am sooooooo not an idiot, and I sooooooooo don't like you calling me one.

If it weren't for Peter Bodo, who sets the tenor--and the rules of this blg--we wouldn't have such a great place to meet and express our divergent views with courtesy and respect.

I don't believe you belong here.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 06/05/2008 at 09:36 AM

I had to scroll back through to see what could possibly have upset our sweet Maplesugar so... and I agree that perhaps "jon" does not belong on this blog.

To wit: "...but we are not 'guests at peter's blog' as some idiot put it- HE'S writing this for US. he panders to 'the tribe' (or whatever that is) a little too often and I think you all know it-...".

Actually, "jon," we ARE guests at Peter Bodo's blog, in as much as our behavior here can lead to the Moderator banishing us from commenting. You would be wise, if you care to continue to participate, to treat others here with respect. We can disagree, even vehemently at times, without stooping to sophomric name-calling and dissing.

I'm sorry, Maplesugar, that you were the object of "jon"'s rude and insensitive rant.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 06/05/2008 at 09:40 AM

As for thr "pandering" charge, while Peter is surely quite capable of defending himself, I think it should be noted that any writer who does not consider his audience is a writer soon without one. That does not mean writing to PLEASE one's audience, merely writing with one's audience in mind.

Posted by Maplesugar 06/05/2008 at 12:02 PM

Slice-n-Dice....Thank you for sticking up for me---and TW!

Big Hugs,
Mapes

Posted by vetmama 06/05/2008 at 12:52 PM

S-n-D: Beautifully stated.

I think Jon should head back on over to MTF...>:(

And, I assure you Mapes, none of us who regularly read your posts would ever think you're an idiot

Posted by Hiram 06/05/2008 at 01:46 PM

I saw the whole Monfils/Ferrer match and one thing was prominent: Ferrer was trying very hard but could not hit deep whereas Monfils hit deep the whole match with less effort. No matter how hard he tried to pressure Monfils it seemed Ferrer's shots were going right into Monfils' comfort zone or they were going into the net. Ferrer essentially ceded the midcourt to his opponent. I've noticed Roddick has this problem too. He'll take an exaggerated wind-up, a huge swing, but then the ball will land near midcourt. That's inefficient isn't it? Miroslav Mecir, Marcelo Rios, were the opposite model, I would say: simple swings with maximum depth. Nadal makes a lot of effort but keeps the ball deep and severely punishes an opponent who fails to do the same. And Federer? I've seen quite a bit of his play and I would say that he is very proficient in this regard, and of course he rarely resorts to softballing as Ljubicic did against Monfils, and as I've heard he did against Davydenko.

Roger shouldn't have much trouble finding his deep shots against Monfils. He's not going to simply cede the midcourt, just as we wouldn't have expected Djokovic cede the midcourt to Gulbis, who hit with excellent depth that entire match, and gave Djokovic plenty of trouble.

Posted by Christine C 06/05/2008 at 02:11 PM

I guess Roger has quieted those who were writing him off. Would like to see him get a French Open title before he retires. Someone said his navy blue outfit looked like the New York Yankees-they could probably use him right now-ha ha

Not sure about this Gael Montiflis-when I first saw him I thought he was a woman!!! (honest to God)

Posted by vp 06/05/2008 at 02:38 PM

Wow - witty, highly enjoyable reading on tennis' greatest (and most beautiful to watch) player. I think writers like Peter & commentators like P Mac (one of my favorites) help deliver the full genius of TMF to our living rooms (or laptops).

Posted by Well Left 06/05/2008 at 03:34 PM

That first set against Gonzo bodes mal for TMF's chance to finally win the title in Paris. He has little margin for error against Djokovic and none against Nadal. After Hamburg, TMF said he knows what tactics to employ, but year after year we see something different.
TMF pounding to Nadal's forehand, approaching with topspin and not anticipating Nadal's serve up the T on critical points in the ad court...

I just hope Djoko doesn't fall behind and quit early tomorrow.
I also hope Mirka is around on Sunday, her absence played a role in last year's loss, I bet.

Posted by Liz (for Federer -- Roland Garros Champ 2008)! 06/05/2008 at 04:01 PM

Thanks Pete for the great read. This is the most entertaining piece I've ever read on Roger.


Personally, I think the stars have aligned for Roger this year. Not totally dissing Monsieur Monfils, I see no contest with him against Roger. He's a mere footnote to Roger's third trip to the RG final. The third time will be the charm, babee!

I was very disappointed in my first GS of the year--the Aussie Open. Once again we have a certain pesky Serbian and a flaky Frenchman who crashed the party at the French Open. I was denied my Roger/Rafa final in Australia and that made me cranky!

But that pesky Serbian and the Frenchman aren't follow the script. I so don't want to see a Djokovic/Monfils final at the French Open for 2008!!

In a way, I'm glad to see the Djoker in the semi with Rafa. I couldn't have wished for a better scenario. Let's see him rumble with Rafa on the clay for a couple of hours and at Roland Garros of all places.

Federer vs Monfils--Fed in 3 sets
Nadal vs Djokovic -- Nadal in 3 sets

Fed vs Nadal -- Fed in 5 sets

Once the semi plays out tomorrow, I fully expect the exchange rate for the Euro to go up because a Fed/Nadal final is going to be one hot ticket.

The Fed I saw in full flight against Gonzo is the player I would like to see in the Final on Sunday. It would make it that much sweeter if he's playing Rafa in the final.

I can't wait until Sunday....I can already hear the acceptance speech. I'm brushing up on my French...

Allez, Roger!!!!!!
Vamos Rafa!!!


I'm fastening my seat belt now....

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