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Clay Court Forecast 04/08/2009 - 5:00 PM

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By Pete Bodo

This one is pretty easy: cool in the mornings, with periods of sun mixed with clouds and a 40 per cent chance of light showers. But when that thunder starts to roll in from Spain. . . Run for your lives, it's women and children first, stay out from under the trees, and if there are any men left, dial 1-800-Save-Us-From-Rafa!

That's pretty much how it's been for about the past three years, with Rafael Nadal going on perhaps the greatest run of clay-court tennis every put together by a male player. The only guy who might hold his own in that conversation would be Bjorn Borg, whose prowess on red dirt was comparable to Nadal's, but who played in an era that generally had less depth-of-competition, especially on clay. So why should things be any different this year? Well, because things change - maybe not on a predictable or annual basis, but everyone embarking on that red clay road is different from the person and player he was 12 months ago (How Zen is that?).

But seriously, let's look at some of the top clay-court contenders and evaluate their chances in the upcoming season on clay.

No. 1, Rafael Nadal: You know what I'd like to know? Whether Rafa is at that point in life when he can look at the spring clay-circuit in Europe and think: Same crap, different year. How many more danged times do I have to win Monte Carlo? It says a lot for Nadal that he's entitled to think that way, even though he's nowhere near the third stage of greatness, which is when most great players begin to experience the equivalent of metal fatigue, fall prey to ennui, or simply start looking to re-order their priorities as they exhaust their non-renewable mental resources.

This sudden appearance of a blue-chip event in Madrid on the calendar may come at a good time for Nadal, because his indecision about playing the event (the last I heard, my sources said it was "fifty-fifty" that he'd wind up in the Magic Box) introduces an unknown into a scenario ruined only by the fact that it has lacked unknowns. And Nadal is too aware and experienced a competitor not to go on Stage 2 alert when the customary order has been disrupted.

Nadal left Miami enveloped in some mystery, alluding to "personal" issues that may have prevented him from playing his best, most fully focused tennis. I didn't get the chance to write about this before, but I will now:  In his quarterfinal loss to Juan Martin del Potro, Nadal seemed mostly to be going through the motions. The sure sign was that his shots lacked their customary depth; most of his groundstrokes landed closer to the service lines than the baseline. That made del Potro look awfully good, much like Andy Roddick made Roger Federer look good in that unfortunate Australian Open semifinal of 2007 (Roddick got just six games).

In Roddick's case, the issue was execution - he fed balls right into Federer's strike zone, begging for punishment that Roger was all too happy to provide..Nadal last week seemed less a victim of over-eagerness or thoughtless impetuousity than distraction. He went through the motions, waving at all those forehands and backhands like a man swatting flies while his mind was on other things. That's what happens when the ideal, total degree-of-focus is absent. You put on a game face and try to make a match of it. But even your most prodigious swing often leaves the ball six or eight feet short of its intended mark.

So Nadal goes onto the clay with unspecified distractions playing on his mind (although they may be banished by the time the first major event [Monte Carlo] rolls around) and some doubts about whether or not he ought to play Madrid, where the high-altitude may be an impediment to ideal preparation for the French Open (there's a mere one-week break between the Madrid Masters event and Roland Garros). 

It may seem counter-intuitive, but these two challenges (and it's impossible to quantify the potential impact of the first one) could stimulate Nadal rather than trouble him. His rivals will find themselves thinking, I hope he's just not that into me. . . . But I don't believe Nadal is the type to fall asleep at the switch, so I look for him to have another outstanding year.

No. 2, Roger Federer: He may have been relieved that the hard-court swing is over, but it's hard to imagine how the world's second best player on clay can find a whole lot to get fired up about as the tour moves to clay. There's this little matter of Nadal. Just how many more times does Federer need to lose to Nadal before what was once a wake-up call becomes a requiem? And how does Federer turn around his growing habit of losing interest, or focus, or confidence, or determination, or (fill in the blank) as a match progresses toward crunch-time? And then there's that bad back narrative. . .

I never thought I'd find myself writing this, but the same talented rivals who once were given to thinking, Sheesh, I've got to find a way to stay with this guy before he hits the afterburners. . . can now be justified in thinking, I've just got to stay with him and keep the pressure on, because there's a chance he might crumble.

Federer fans undoubtedly will be outraged to read that. But that's exactly what any ATP guy who's prepared to man-up will be thinking. You might as well get used to it. 

However. . .let's remember that one of the nice things about clay is that it gives a player a chance to feel around and find his game. On clay, both in practice and matches, you hit enough balls to get in whatever groove is available to you, and you can get into intimate contact with some of the more artful and delicate weapons at your command. Federer knows how to have a conversation with the ball. Inside every container of tennis balls sit three Mr. Wilsons, or Miss Penns, hoping they'll be extracted from the tube by Federer, thinking, Me talk pretty one day. . . 

To me, this clay-court season will tell us something about how much Federer really wants to play, how much he still enjoys what Andre Agassi would describe as "the process." His big enemies will be impatience and a low tolerance for frustration, along with the temptation of skipping work on clay in order to better plot his ultimate revenge in a few months time at Wimbledon.

My feeling is that the impatience will win out.

Roller No. 3, Novak Djokovic: The Djoker is in a situation comparable to Federer's, if that can be said of a guy who's got one Grand Slam title, a dozen short of Federer. But Djokovic also has far fewer miles on his odometer, and (presumably)  greater reserves of ambition, youth and stamina. So the clay season is a great time for him to embark on a makeover of his game, which has gotten stuck in the twilight zone of incertitude. Lately, the guy simply doesn't seem to know what kind of game to play, and whether to attack or dig in and trust his considerable ability to change the direction of the ball, exchange savage groundstrokes, and cover his flanks. I don't think he needs to attack, at least not by the traditional definition (rushing the net). But he does need to be aggressive and to trust his strokes, following where they lead.

In this regard, the nature of clay-court tennis will work in his favor, even though it doesn't exactly reward the most common attack strategies. But the number of balls he'll have to hit may help him get back in touch with the bold quality missing lately from his game. He doesn't have to dive around, spearing volleys, but setting himself up get a ball that he can whale on off either wing in the  mid-court will serve the same purpose - which is rekindling his sense of purpose.

With Djokovic, you always have to factor in strange physiological reactions and issues, all of which makes me unwilling to predict that his results will be unpredictable.

No. 4, Andy Murray: He's perhaps the biggest question mark of the clay-court season. According to Djokovic, Murray's ability to transition from defense to offense is as good as that of any player. He's the best counter-puncher since LLeyton Hewitt in is heyday. But if you look at Hewitt's record on clay, you'll see that exploiting those strengths may be harder on clay than any other surface. The transitions just can't be pulled off that quickly, because you know how it is on clay - there's always that extra moment for the other guy when you turn the tables on him; there's always that extra ball to hit.

On the other hand, Murray's quickness and inventive use of court space will enable him to do a lot more than react, and he's superb at mixing up pace and spin. In recent years, Nadal has been able to hit right through guys who have those talents, and Federer has been able to match them, short-angle for short-angle, drop shot for drop shot, and use other elements in his formidable arsenal to end the conversation with Mr. Wilson. But few of those guys have had the range of Murray, or a wingspan that makes it difficult to slide the ball by.

Murray's short-term problem may be motivation and enthusiasm. Given the hard-court season he's just finished, you can understand why he might want to coast a bit, biding his time as he feels around for just the right balance between dictating and exploiting his great skill as a counter-puncher. My feeling is that he'll be more dangerous as the weeks roll on, and use the warm-up tournaments as a way to seek out his best strategy for Paris.

No. 5, Juan Martin del Potro: Delpo doesn't have a single win in a Masters Series on clay; he's strictly a hard court hombre. In three years at Roland Garros, he's won exactly one match. He's got an awful lot of body to lug around in endless clay court matches. On the other hand, he obviously has a chance to pick up a bushel of ranking points if he can win a few matches here and there on clay, so I wouldn't write him off entirely. A guy with a huge serve and groundies can come up big on clay, because the slowness of the surface will enable him to get to more balls, and draw a bead on them, than he might reach on a faster hard court. He could be a pleasant surprise.

Best of the Rest: Jump all over me if you like, but remember that a young Andy Roddick (he's no. 6) leapt onto the tennis radar off of clay courts, and had a pretty nice little run in Paris the first time he played there (2001), taking down Michael Chang in five sets in the second round. Given the way he's ramped up his commitment, and the new pride he takes in his fitness, he could make an impact, especially on the Grand Slam stage, where his abilities as a competitor have the greatest value.

Gilles Simon (no. 7) has RGAS (Roland Garros Aversion Syndrome, a strange disease that afflicts players of French extraction at the French Open). Simon has won exactly one match in four outings at Roland Garros, but hey - they also play in Monaco, Rome, Madrid. . . He's definitely better suited to hard courts, but I wouldn't write him off.  Fernando Verdasco (no. 8) has good clay-court credentials, his game is on the upswing, and he should be in nice comfort zone for the next few months. Nikolay Davydenko (no. 9) is still out with injury, and Gael Monfils - no. 10 and a semifinalist at Roland Garros last year - has plenty of potential, but someone needs to remind him that he's not Olivier Rochus - he's  6-4 and packs a wallop, so maybe it's time to junk the rope-a-dope and hit the gas.


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Posted by sukhi 04/08/2009 at 05:06 PM

first?

Posted by lollipop 04/08/2009 at 05:08 PM

Nice post, Pete.
Who do u believe would be a bigger challenger to Nadal, Murray or Djoker?

Posted by Kevin 04/08/2009 at 05:08 PM

First!

Posted by Beckham (still on my 15 mins) 04/08/2009 at 05:09 PM

Uggghhhh, the season I completely detest is here again...and with the drama the Fed is going through right now, is just icing on the cake, no??? The good news, I only have to watch 3 tourneys if I can catch it, the bad news, I actually have to watch 3 tourneys....pffftttt...death to clay!!!!

Posted by Sher 04/08/2009 at 05:10 PM

okay i didn't read the rest of the post, too busy cracking up at the

" hope he's just not that into me. . . ."

LOL pete

(so funny, and kind of captures the form nadal brings to his matches with federer)

Posted by crazyone 04/08/2009 at 05:16 PM

*I never thought I'd find myself writing this, but the same talented rivals who once were given to thinking, Sheesh, I've got to find a way to stay with this guy before he hits the afterburners. . . can now be justified in thinking, I've just got to stay with him and keep the pressure on, because there's a chance he might crumble.*

Honestly, I'm a big Fed fan and I'm not outraged, and neiher should any other Fed fans who's watched any Fed matches in the last year or so. This is just the truth. Wait long enough, and his concentration totally goes to pot.

That said, while I do think impatience will win out this season, I'm hopeful enough that Fed will still enjoy the process in the long run, if not in the short term. After all, Andre didn't always enjoy it either, and it took a severe down period for him to really appreciate it.

Posted by avid sports fan aka "Sigh-Rena" 04/08/2009 at 05:22 PM

Thanks Pete for the post. How much effect does change in altitude have for the players? I remember AmyLu I think mentioning something about not practicing for long in high altitude regions when it comes to soccer that usually teams just arrive the day before and that way it helps. (the discussion came up after Argentina was soundly beaten 6-1 by Bolivia and people where wondering if it had to do with the altitude change). I don't know if the reverse is the same in tennis and also when you move from high altitude to low altitude.

I am hopeful of Rafael having an exceptional clay season :) and Novak and Roger revamping. But I don't think many things will change with respect to the predictability of the players that will reach the QF and better in the ATP-1000 masters series and the FO.

Posted by Aussiemarg{Madame President in Comma Rehab in 2009} 04/08/2009 at 05:22 PM

Pete yes i know hes not that into me either? lol!

Clay time yay!

Rafa Will be switched on,I have no worries there at all

To become the first person in the history of the game to be able to win 5 straight RG titles?

Madrid to me being high altitude and all? waste of time no offence there.Having one week break before going into RG makes a world of sense to me.Hey Rafa is human after all? he has to pace himself he has a lot of point to defend.

Thinking ahead Queens,then Wimbledon

Watching Rafa last year where he took the game to another level,gee a Masterclass performance indeed.

Borg still remains my idol for so many reasons.

Rafa is the greatest clay courter I have seen,ok in my humble opinion.

Posted by Sher 04/08/2009 at 05:23 PM

Well at this point changing coaches can't hurt for Gulbis, right? Right. Seriously need him to start getting to third round or so because there's no tv coverage till then and I haven't seen this boy play for a few months now!

Posted by Cotton Jack 04/08/2009 at 05:23 PM

Given that
a) Roger is having a chewy time
b) Djok is too
c) Mr Now has a miserable record on clay
surely the clay court specialists will be thinking: time for us to regain our places at the top table of the clay-court season. Bu who might they be?!

Posted by Beckham 04/08/2009 at 05:23 PM

C1: word!! he's gotten so good at it, that I can actually even predict when it's going to happen! The Fed used to be such a great front runner, the "new" Fed donates leads left, right, and centre. Who woulda thunk it???

Posted by Pspace 04/08/2009 at 05:25 PM

Fun stuff, Pete.

"""
I've just got to stay with him and keep the pressure on, because there's a chance he might crumble
"""

Murray has said pretty much the same thing. Though, I don't think it's that new. Fed has always been a frontrunner. Get him in a dogfight, i.e., constant pressure 15-15, 30-30 on his serve, he'll get conservative. If we look at Nadal's early remarks on Fed, he says that Fed's greatness comes from his ability to focus and be consistent on important points. But, and this is a big _but_, what if he has to play many many important points? Can he come up with the goods then? Well, that probably depends on day form.

Posted by crazyone 04/08/2009 at 05:26 PM

Sher: did you see some news about Gulbis that I've missed?

(he's relevant, he reached the QFs of the French Open last year)

Posted by GVGirl 04/08/2009 at 05:26 PM

Pete,

You made me laugh today with the made up quotes!

LOL at "Run for your lives, it's women and children first, stay out from under the trees, and if there are any men left, dial 1-800-Save-Us-From-Rafa!"
"Same crap, different year. How many more danged times do I have to win Monte Carlo?" LOL

By the way, I'm sure everyone knows that Safina will become #1 as of April 20th.

Posted by Aussiemarg{Madame President in Comma Rehab in 2009} 04/08/2009 at 05:29 PM

Guys thinking a lot of Rogers back problem here with regards to long rallies on the clay and all?

Could this clay season I know Roger has cut back on tournaments here,actually cause further problems for him?

Gee i hope not me being a fan and all.

Posted by Emma (insertwittymantrahere) 04/08/2009 at 05:34 PM

"Same crap, different year. How many more danged times do I have to win Monte Carlo?"
LOL, that was a gem.

Nice post, I think Rafa will own yet again, and that Bambi and Hott Sauce will have good results on the dirt.

Posted by Master Ace 04/08/2009 at 05:42 PM

"At this time last year, Rafael Nadal just lost to Nikolay Davydenko in the final at Key Biscayne. Last title was at Stuttgart in 2007 following a 5 set defeat at Wimbledon to Roger Federer. Most people were saying that he is only a great clay courter.
However, when Monte Carlo started in 2008 after playing a Davis Cup match, Rafael Nadal is 85-8 with 10 titles.

Titles
Clay: Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Hamburg, French Open
Grass: Queens, Wimbledon
Hard: Canada, Olympics, Australian Open, Indian Wells"

I posted this over at Your Call but will here also since this is where he started his great 12 month stretch. What helped Rafael to finally hit the after burners to number 1 was to dominate the clay season once again holding off Roger at Monte Carlo, Hamburg(Roger won the last 4 times he entered), and the French Open, where he only lost 4 games in the final AND Novak at Hamburg when the number 2 ranking was up for grabs. After the domination of the clay season, he was not satisfied and took Queens(defeating Novak in the final) and Wimbledon(defeating Roger) and number 1 was basically his.

Posted by Matheo 04/08/2009 at 05:48 PM

for the coment @ 5:22
I just have to say altitude has noithing to do with a players preformance. I am a bolivian who lives and plays in la paz where argentina lost 6-1 against bolivia and apart from the ball moving faster here there is not a big diference in tennis. We play with presureless bals and things feel like they do at see level. The altitude thing is just a lame excuse

Posted by Christopher 04/08/2009 at 05:50 PM

Just when I think Pete's fixated on macho western references, we get "Sex and the City" and David Sedaris. And they say Murray has variety!

But seriously, I think your analysis of Fed and Rafa is particularly interesting. As a fan, I'm happy to see Fed's patience tested as much as possible these days. I think he plays an interesting clay court game (it was his best surface last year, in many ways) and it should be easier on his back if it's any kind of a disk problem.

As is often the case, however, I'll have to part company with you on Andy Roddick. With the serve neutralized on clay he's basically not that different from Canas (though he wasn't back in 2001 when his forehand was much more of a weapon). Still, he was off to a good start last year before the injury so who knows. In terms of Americans, I'm more interested in what Sam Q. might do.

Posted by ebh 04/08/2009 at 05:51 PM

Don't forget that Federer is the second best clay courter. He should do fine this season. He is also the only one to truly beat Nadal on clay.

Posted by neilintoronto 04/08/2009 at 05:52 PM

Thanks for the lesson about the pressureless balls and altitude Matheo :). I don't think Rafa will ever become disinterested in this part of the season. Its as natural as going home to go fishing. He just uses a racquet instead of a pole.

The Gulbis news is on the front page of TW for those interested. I think its good he's shaking things up.

Posted by Master Ace 04/08/2009 at 05:54 PM

1. Nadal : He is trying to 5-peat Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Roland Garros along with trying to win Rome for the 4th time in the last 5 years(only blisters in 2008 against Ferrero slowed him down). However, he made up for Rome by winning Hamburg.

2. Federer : Interesting that he will play only 2 clay tournaments before Roland Garros and both of them will play faster than Roland Garros. Will his frame of mind be focused?

3. Djokovic : This part of the year is where he came to the clay season with loads of confidence but Roger defeated him at Monte Carlo in the Be Quiet match and Rafael defeated him at Hamburg and Roland Garros. He did win Rome but the critics said that he won without defeating Roger and Rafael. Also, at Rome, he had two retirements(Nicolas Almagro - QF and Radek Stepanek - SF) along the way.

4. Murray : Agree that he is the biggest question mark of the clay season. Wonder what will Alex Corretja will incorporate into his game.

5. Del Potro : He may want to get some good results right now 'cuz after Wimbledon, he will have lot of points to defend

6. Roddick : His new style can do him good this year but he will be getting married shortly and the question is how rusty will he be when he returns. I think he returns at Rome like Federer.

Over/under wins for Rafael if he plays Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome, Madrid, and Roland Garros : 25
If he plays all tournaments except Madrid : 20

Clay prediction : Rafael Nadal will 5-peat Roland Garros

Posted by avid sports fan aka "Sigh-Rena" 04/08/2009 at 05:56 PM

Matheo - Thanks for the explanation on altitude and I hope you did not get the impression of making a "lame excuse" from my post. I was just asking for clarification of what effect it may have on the game because although not necessarily with respect to sports alone but I believe there are changes a move is made from one altitude extreme to another.

Posted by Aussiemarg{Madame President in Comma Rehab in 2009} 04/08/2009 at 05:58 PM

Matheo Regarding your thoughts that playing Madrid was waste of time due to high alititude problem and being a Lame excuse?

let me qualify that statement.Yes I am aware how the balls fly in high altitude Rafa has played there before remember?

My point being he is not a Machine,also has lots of points to defend.

Monte Carlo surafce is the closet to RG surface as most are aware?

What is the benefits on playing Madrid? for starters.

Thinking back to last year with his nearly super human effort on the clay.Got blisters from Barcelona then went striaght to Rome by the way going for a 4th straight tile there got beaten?

Rafa has to pace himself.No question in my mind at all.

He can make history and become the first player to win 5 straight titles at RG.That in itself will be a amazing record.

Posted by Jenn 04/08/2009 at 06:00 PM

Thanks, Pete, that was entertaining. More importantly, I think it was a very honest and reasonable assessment of where the big guys are right now going into the clay court season. I personally do think that Rafa will win another RG title this year, but I don't expect it to be without some drama, including tight matches, and perhaps not without some unexpected warm-up tourney losses along the way.

Surprised that Rafa is still undecided about Madrid. An enormous new tournament in his home country? Besides, I thought there was a severe penalty for not playing the 1000 series/Masters tournaments?

I expect Andy Murray to struggle a bit on the clay, but rebound over the summer and win the USO this year. Its just SO hard to say about Djokovic and Federer.

I predict there will be a rather unexpected finalist at RG.

Posted by Aussiemarg{Madame President in Comma Rehab in 2009} 04/08/2009 at 06:01 PM

oops my post should have read

My thoughts that Madrid was a waste of time sorry!

Posted by avid sports fan aka "Sigh-Rena" 04/08/2009 at 06:09 PM

and this is what I found about high altitude tennis balls (I want to assume this is what they would use in Madrid)

"High altitude balls, during manufacture, are pressurized less so that, when opened at altitude, the balls are not too bouncy, as would be the case with normal tennis balls at altitude. I believe they are also manufactured to have approximately a 6% greater diameter. This greater cross-sectional area ,when traveling through thinner air (i.e., at altitude), should produce roughly similar flight characteristics as regular balls at sea level. "

Posted by jb (Go Smiley Fed!! ) 04/08/2009 at 06:09 PM

Great post Pete - about the only think i'll disagree with is the assumption that Fed fans are going to be mad about the chances fed may crumble. I think in general, we're capable of seeing the difference between his patented 2nd set walkabouts / regroup of years past,and his completely loosing the program and the matches. Le sigh.

I'm also thinking Gauloises's Elf may actually do pretty well this season. Watching him play on the clay in Davis cup (NOT the final) I was surprised at how well he moved, how willing he was to attack the net and just how tough he was in the win. So he may make some good progress. Or not. We gonna see.. :)

Andy R - I'm thinking he may be surprising. He's played well on clay in davis cup; and was playing quite well last year when he got hurt. We'll see there too.

My biggest question marks are Fed and Murray, really. Not quite sure how they'll come to play. But Nole I think may finally start to find his rhythm and spice (hopefully).

My favourite bit was about someone reminding young Gael he's not olivier rochus... :)) Allez bambi!

c1 - ernie has split with his coach... its on the front page.

Posted by neilintoronto 04/08/2009 at 06:10 PM

I can't remember for sure, but isn't Madrid the one non-required Masters Series?

Posted by crazyone 04/08/2009 at 06:12 PM

neilintoronto, it's Monte Carlo that's not required.

thanks, I've seen the Ernie news now. Hopefully he can get some results on clay--otherwise his ranking is going to drop a lot. Hopefully he can be that surprise finalist that Jenn was talking about (and hopefully against Federer, jejeje).

Posted by neilintoronto 04/08/2009 at 06:15 PM

Thanks c1, i figured it was one of the "redundant" clay ones heheheh.

Posted by avid sports fan aka "Sigh-Rena" 04/08/2009 at 06:16 PM

Madrid is one of the mandatory ATP-1000. MC is the one that is not mandatory.

Posted by Aussiemarg{Madame President in Comma Rehab in 2009} 04/08/2009 at 06:21 PM

Neil Dont worry Rafa just has to ge there to Madrid,smile and hit a few balls,PR work is over then go home? lol!

Posted by Mike 04/08/2009 at 06:22 PM

'Clay prediction : Rafael Nadal will 5-peat Roland Garros'

MA ... who do you think he'll beat in the final?

Posted by Pspace 04/08/2009 at 06:29 PM

Does Tsonga get the "Least Likely to Make an Impact" award/curse? It's a pity, 'cos he's one guy who really seems to embrace the pressure and could use the crowd. Ultimately though, I think he might as well hone his s&v game for Wimby.

Posted by Master Ace 04/08/2009 at 06:31 PM

Mike,
Let me answer that question on who Rafael will beat in the final after Madrid.

Posted by Aussiemarg{Madame President in Comma Rehab in 2009} 04/08/2009 at 06:34 PM

Pspace Good question with Joe? to me lately in his play he has been looking tired?

Needs energy for the clay especially RG with 2 weeks of tennis there.

RG is the most physical slam of all and the hardest to win in my view.

Tsonga game probably more suite to grass.

As I say We gonna see no?

Posted by † Hallelujah 04/08/2009 at 06:42 PM

please wake me when it's over

Posted by charles 04/08/2009 at 06:50 PM

my clay rankings:

Nadal is the clear #1 on clay

At #2 it starts to get a little dicier - Federer has been filling that role with a considerable lead over #3 for the last few years, but he has looked more vulnerable than ever this year. Nevertheless, his performances this year have been underestimated, imho... to wit, average # ATP points earned per tournament played this year: 1. Nadal (705) 2. Federer (503) 3. Murray (437) 4. Roddick (333) Yes, that's Fed at #2. But it is undeniable that he has looked less formidable this year, even than last year. But Fed understands the clay game, and until proven otherwise I think he still has the chops to lick everyone else.

#3 on clay and possibly challenging for #2 has got to be Djokovic. He was the only one to finish no worse than SF in all four major clay tournaments last year, including a repeat SF at RG

#4 on clay may well be Del Potro. His record on European clay is not good, as pointed out above, however, that was the pre-summer 2008 JMDP. Let's not forget that he is the defending champ at 2 ATP500 clay tournies

#5 on clay, my vote goes to Verdasco. He's got the right kind of game and experience on clay, plus solid results, and he's hit a new level this year.

#6 on clay, probably Monfils. Serious talent, can he be consistent? probably not, but enough talent to make up for it

#7 on clay, Davydenko. Clear talent and results. Can he overcome his injury, rust, and age?

#8 on clay, Ferrer, endless legs, solid results on clay, but game getting a little limited as he ages

#9 on clay, Nalbandian, he's capable of just about anything except being predictable

#10 on clay, Simon, in a whole new level from a year ago, has the game and experience to play well on clay, will it translate to results?

#11 and up on clay,
Roddick, on American clay he's great, but really struggles on the European stuff.

Murray, pretty much zilch for clay results, but simply has too much game not to be in the conversation - he's got to figure clay out eventually, no?

Tsonga, so much game, so many injuries, clay is a big question mark for him

Robredo, always in the mix at clay events, a good bet for 4R at RG or maybe even QF, but SF is out of reach

Wawrinka, great clay game, can always cause trouble on any given day, but like Robredo, can't seem to penetrate the final levels at RG

Posted by AmyLu 04/08/2009 at 06:53 PM

Welcome Matheo! While I completely agree that the game doesn't really change at higher altitudes, I will say that as a person who doesn't live in a high altitude place, the altitude of Quito affects me -- it takes me a few days to adjust, and the biggest effect I notice is that I can be short of breath when walking, climbing stairs, etc., so I don't think concerns about the altitude are completely lame or unfounded -- most people feel side effects when their bodies are adjusting to high altitude places (and in the US most doctors will highly recommend that you take anti-altitude medication to help combat those). But, I still don't think that's a worry for Madrid (I didn't have any trouble acclimating there, like I do in Quito), as it's nowhere near as high as the cities in South America where soccer teams travel to.

I'm not completely surprised that Rafa is still undecided on Madrid -- I'm sure the thought of messing with a schedule/strategy that has proven to be a winning one is slightly daunting, and I also wonder if some of his reluctance stems from non-tennis reasons. Articles that came out when Madrid was trying to switch to this portion of the season indicated that Barcelona was highly against the idea, as Barcelona has a long history and tradition of being the premiere clay event in Spain. They are now being trumped by Madrid -- and after all, these are two cities that have a long history of rivalry. The club in Barcelona is Rafa's "home" club so it's left me to wonder whether that plays any part in his decision-making process at all.

Posted by fangorina 04/08/2009 at 06:56 PM

Ugh clay. My least favorite surface. Good post though. If the TV coverage permits,I will watch as much as I can though. I do not think we can expect the top seeds (other than Rafa, and maybe Murray) to get through to the semi's in every clay court event like we saw on the hard courts. That means we may get some player variety in the later rounds.

Posted by alex 04/08/2009 at 06:57 PM

Nice read, pete - I like the bit about the tennis balls wanting to be hit by fed. I wonder what they say to each other when they see rafa looking down at them? Probably "You go first!" "No way, it's your turn!"

I've seen a tendency, not just in pete's post here, to put nole in the same boat as fed. IMO nole fans, unlike feds', don't need to be all that worried - every time people start writing nole off, he pops up and wins a tournament - e.g. Shanghai, Dubai. Fed's problems seem a lot more chronic than nole's and, like pete does say, he doesn't have youth on his side.

It won't surprise me to see muzz breaking through on clay but, as a fan, I just hope he doesn't overspend himself in advance of wimbie and the USO.

Posted by avid sports fan aka "Sigh-Rena" 04/08/2009 at 07:09 PM

AmyLu - Thanks for the info why Rafa may still be undecided about Madrid.

Posted by Sher 04/08/2009 at 07:15 PM

I love the pic of Serena currently on SI.com page

Posted by Corrie (not Carrie or Cory) 04/08/2009 at 07:16 PM

I'm with the other Fed fans, nothing to disagree with in what Pete said. I'd only add that no-one knows how big a problem Roger's back is and how much this is affecting him mentally. Though every loss must compound the confidence problem, regardless of physical factors.

Roger seems to have come full circle and be back in circa 2003 pre Wimbledon. Based on past history he seems to need a big win to restore confidence, but that's a catch 22 and seems much less likely than 2003.

Unless Rafa has got a major distracting issue, which is very unlikely, whether he does or doesn't play Madrid, regardless, he'll win the big one.

Posted by Mike 04/08/2009 at 07:17 PM

'Mike,
Let me answer that question on who Rafael will beat in the final after Madrid.'

Fair enough, Master Ace ... something in my gut, despite what has happened lately, thinks it will be Fed ... again. But ... of course, that's based a lot on hope, rather than calculations. ;)

Posted by Matheo 04/08/2009 at 07:25 PM

I never said anything on nadal and i know he will get used to playing at a difrent altitude and i know he wont play at an altitude as high as la paz so i dont think there will be any difrence in the ballas or anything (la paz is at 3600 meters above sea level)

Posted by Matheo 04/08/2009 at 07:25 PM

I never said anything on nadal and i know he will get used to playing at a difrent altitude and i know he wont play at an altitude as high as la paz so i dont think there will be any difrence in the ballas or anything (la paz is at 3600 meters above sea level)

Posted by Matheo 04/08/2009 at 07:34 PM

sorry for the double post and i ment balls not ballas

Posted by Andrew Miller 04/08/2009 at 07:42 PM

Gosh Mr. Bodo - this was awesome! I think Mr. Bodo is definitely the "Nadal" of the Tennis Writing World, along with Mr. Tignor and Mr. Wertheim and S.L. Price.

I agree regarding Federer - only because he does not have a "Brad Gilbert or Annacone"-like figure who tells him, "hey - you know you should play Roland Garros and just give it a go. What have you got to lose? You've never won there and no one expects anything from you, but I think you can't predict what kind of tournament you'll have, so let's take a fresh look at the possibility of working hard and preparing for the tournament and getting a good experience. Let's not worry about the French Open final - let's worry about getting better to handle the first round."

Because Federer does not have that "voice" coming to him, even though it's here every week at TennisWorld, I have to agree with Mr. Bodo. But all of that said against Federer's chances, I have to think that it's actually quite a tremendous thing to see how he is on court these days, fuming and breaking racquets. That's not the Mighty Federer out there - that's the same Federer who bounced his racquet in the third set against Nadal in the Miami Masters tournament 2005, which allowed him to go 1-1 vs. Nadal and, despite the blip at the French Open, go on to ten CONSECUTIVE Grand Slam finals with, winning eight of them. That's the Federer, from that match in 2005, who took studied the opponent's strategy and vulnerabilities DURING the match, and then exploited them, so that the opponent never knew what hit him and could not adjust in time to recover from the assault.

So...maybe that Federer is re-emerging - the one who takes stock of the situation and says, "you know - something's not right. This is not just in my head - it's in my game. Man, I got to run around my backhand and start punishing this guy across the net for his less-than-stunning backhand, give him a little taste of what it's like to have his strategy "figured out" and then switch the momentum here. Furthermore, I got to view this point as an opportunity to do something special".

Now, Federer aint gonna take advice from me, and he really shouldnt. And who am I to tell the world's greatest active tennis player (sorry Nadal, you dont have the slam count YET!), a man who reached the Australian Open Final or Semifinal every year since 2004 (6 years in a row and counting?) and whose performance in the big Masters series event has been WITHOUT QUESTION his best performance at those events SINCE 2007, "you're doing something wrong."

I think (HOPE!) there IS a RECKONING going on in Federer - it can be seen in his quotes and his actions on the court. I think Federer is getting some feedback from the environment, which is tell him to rethink things and adjust to the reality that others now know there is a way to beat "how he plays". Sure, it rarely happens, but let's face it - that way is now "common knowledge" - players are beating Federer and adjusting to him WAY BETTER than they have in the past, and that's something that Federer should think about - his actual STRATEGY AND STYLE OF PLAYING. Djokovic (and a much diminished version of the Djokovic that all have seen and praised or demonized) himself identified it, even playing somewhat subpar against Federer. THAT should be UNSETTLING and I THINK IT IS UNSETTLING TO FEDERER.

I just wonder if Federer is getting out of the mode of, "I know my game and I know his game." It's got to be different for Federer...he no longer knows the "others game" - he only knows "his game" now. So I hope that he IS scratching his head, so much that he orders some DVDs and CDs as Mr. Bodo mentioned Djokovic should do and SPEND SOME TIME reviewing them and seeing what his opponents are doing, take SOME NOTES, and COME UP WITH SOME NEW LOOKS OUT THERE. Not a new drop shot - but A NEW OBSERVATION.

Not the same mentality, "I've played him many times" but a new one, "I DONT KNOW what to expect - but you better believe I will pay attention." I want the dude to come up with a case study and get his self-awareness back in order and then capitalize on it.

Federer's got to see the game has changed and that he's changed it, but he hasnt adjusted to the game he himself improved. I am waiting for that moment and I want it to happen at Roland Garros. I'd like him to get a scout and get some notes on other players' NEW tendencies and how to handle them, and what shots to use.

But hey, you cant always get what you want....but I am hoping Federer sees this an opportunity to keep doing some special things. I dont want to see the guy break with every loss - I would like him to figure out what happenned and get better with each match, not this, "gosh glad I made it through WHEW" but more of "hey, I loved it. This is WHAT I LIVE FOR. I am looking forward to IMPROVING as the BEST VERSION OF MY PLAYING and knowing that TOMORROW I GET ANOTHER CRACK AT THIS, I AM LOOKING FORWARD TO IT!"

Ah yes...I am looking for Federer to go back to his roots as a player, back to 2003 when he played Andre Agassi in Houston, his fourth match against Agassi - November 10, 2003. We can even see this pre-Mighty Federer (The Mighty Federer, of course, knows everything there is to know!). This Federer though was different:

"Q. How special is it to beat Andre for the first time here in the States?

ROGER FEDERER: Yeah, we haven't actually played too much, you know, against each other. First time was in my home tournament in Basel, which was when I was 17 years old. I couldn't expect to win there. But I came close in the Miami finals and, you know, I wouldn't say finally, but it's just nice to beat such players, you know, one time in your career.

Q. When your forehand went off in the first set, were you always confident it would come back in time?

ROGER FEDERER: Yeah, it's true, you know, I could also feel it myself. I was missing by a lot, you know, so which didn't help. But, I don't know. He always puts you on the run, you know. Kind of once you have a chance, you feel, "Now I've got to be aggressive." This is when you overhit. I knew that if I just don't freak out, you know, mentally, I could -- my forehand would come back eventually.

Q. Could you just take us through the matchpoint as you saw it. Quite an interesting little rally, wasn't it?

ROGER FEDERER: You mean the last one?

Q. Yours.

ROGER FEDERER: Yeah. I mean, I saw the ball clearly out, you know, so... But I'm the last guy who stops play just by a close call. I really was sure it was out. Plus it was a miss-hit, so you feel it even more. I hope he didn't take it the wrong way, because I didn't try to kind of win like this. But luckily for me, I played a great shot after, you know, to win and not talk about this. Talk about the last shot instead.

Q. Did you get big confidence from beating Andre?

ROGER FEDERER: Well, I'm just coming off that win, you know, so I have to see how I play the next match. But, no, the group is tough. I have bad records against everybody. So it's a great start, you know. I'm very, very happy the way it went today. I hope I can just play as good again, back to back matches would be great."

Yep...the guy had a Wimbledon title but was not too confidant, was he? But what happenned by the end - when he didnt beat Agassi based on a strange ball call? WHAT HAPPENNED?

Well...it seems that Federer was pretty humble. After humiliating Agassi in the final in 2003 in Houston, Federer said a little something about improvement.

"Q. Andre said that he thinks you can even play better. If so, how are you -- what can you improve?

ROGER FEDERER: Well, if he says that, you have to ask him. I thought, you know, I played already pretty good. No, but was very good, you know. It's nice to hear that, but there needs to be a lot of work done to achieve better than this today. So that's what's coming up for me in December; I'm ready to do it."

I hope he's ready to do it now - he doesnt have to, but I would like to see Federer back in improvement mode rather than maintenance mode. He's got to navigate the world he's created - get back to basics and make the game simpler. That's my hope.

Posted by Andrew Miller 04/08/2009 at 07:47 PM

If Federer does not win Roland Garros - then I'd like to see Roddick win it. I know I am asking for the impossible (and I've seen Nadal come back from "issues" to do the impossible and continue to win the slams - Nadal is amazing and I respect his mentality and his results as one of the premier players) but I'd like to see a new king of Roland Garros. I think it could happen this year, though it's pretty darn hard to bet against the guy who's never lost a match on the dirt in Paris.

Posted by Corrie (not Carrie or Cory) 04/08/2009 at 07:58 PM

Andrew, I think I was thinking as you are, that Federer is back to 2003, but before the career enhancing win(s) over Agassi. But this time he's not just older, and physically hurting, he's got three shattering GS final defeats in the immediate past to deal with. I think this time it's going to be much harder to break out.

Posted by jb (Go Smiley Fed!!) 04/08/2009 at 08:07 PM

lol andrew miller - i'm already planning on attaching a little red wagon trailer for andy roddick to the fed french open crazy bus!

but thanks for the old fed interview - interesting read.

Posted by Joe 04/08/2009 at 08:12 PM

We know who is going to win RG, but the question is.... who is going to be in the finals playing against Nadal??? Federer? Djokovic? Murray? Verdasco? who knows!!!

Posted by roderik 04/08/2009 at 08:15 PM

DelPo as a contender in clay season, why? Just because he won that match against Rafa?

Posted by Matheo 04/08/2009 at 08:18 PM

well actualy delpos first two titles were on clay and he played both realy well and now with the bosst of confidence he has i wouldnt right him off

Posted by frances 04/08/2009 at 08:44 PM

good analysis pete - solid but definitely will face tight situations (most probably murray just like how he faced the then dangerously djokovic last year) however, I have big faith that he will still remain supreme and i hope not dejavu situation that murray will dwindle down like djokovic did after the clay season-- however it would be nice for roddick to still maintain his game and even improve-- an upset over the top seeds (excluding my rafa ofcourse) would be a welcome change for clay and points for roddick:P

Posted by frances 04/08/2009 at 08:47 PM

Master Ace--you said RAFAEL will 5-peat RG

how about Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome, Madrid?

any diplpomatic thoughts

for some raeson your opinion sounds like it really matters to a lot:)

Posted by TennisFan2 04/08/2009 at 08:55 PM

I'd like to see Rafa get his 5th RG (really 4 in a row is just not dominant enough is it now)...

Master Ace, I like your 12 month breakdown. I think it is interesting to take things out the calendar year to show a players run (even with the short winter break). Nadal has had quite a run.

It's interesting to compare the field in Nadal's last 12 months to Federer's best 12. Would you say the field has been a bit more competitive for Rafa?

Posted by TennisFan2 04/08/2009 at 09:19 PM

TennisFan2
It's interesting to compare the field in Nadal's last 12 months to Federer's best 12. Would you say the field has been a bit more competitive for Rafa?


i know this question is meant for MA- but i definitely think that RAFA has more challenge in his time of supremacy vs Federer-- no offense intended to any fans and to TMF himself-- but it is true that TMF really dominated anyone in all surfaces but clay in his time-- murray and djokovic level is at a much competitive range that NADAL and FED have a high chance of being upset by any of the two vs roddick and hewwit in TMF's time..

Anyway- I am very happy of Nadal's elivated level in Hard Courts-- and I wonder if he can still elivate his almost perfect tennis clay --

VAMOS RAFA

Posted by bagel4732 04/08/2009 at 09:44 PM

I think that, in theory, Roddick's baselining ability gives him the potential to go deep in a tournament. However, he seems to have an aversion to European clay, especially RG. But, then again, last year he did make the semis of Rome, so that run might give him heart for the clay season.
~!

Posted by federerfan 04/08/2009 at 10:57 PM

well i will say it, rafa aint 5peating at RG.
just for the kick of saying, i said so! if he wins it, i will one amongst a zillion who said so! :)

Posted by Master Ace 04/08/2009 at 11:50 PM

Frances,
I think he also 5-peats Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Will have to wait until Rome before giving judgment on Rome and Madrid.

Tennis Fan2,
I have to look at Rafael 4/2008-3/2009 and Roger 3/2006-2/2007 in detail over the weekend to compare their opponents. Without looking for details, I would say Rafael but I won't be official until I look at the details over the weekend.

Posted by frances 04/09/2009 at 12:12 AM

master ace-- thanks!! i agree on your judgment again -as for madrid- i think its best for him to skip it just because i think he also has to think long term-- its a posibly that he can even manage to win madrid and rolland garros == but he also has to consider his tank of enery for queens and wimbledon--but well never know

hmmm i wonder what anyone thinks about this? i think nadal would have surely play in madrid no question if it was set on another timeframe like adter USO or something.

but one thing for sure-- i do want federer to beat murray in clay-- he needs a boost of confidence right now

Posted by Marian wtg Rafa!!! 04/09/2009 at 12:35 AM

Call me blind, but where is the signature for this article?

Is it by Peter?

Nice article though!

I agree with most you said on the top 4 (no surprise that the good players are favoured on clay) and if I may add:

- Rafa said last year "that he proved that the clay circuit is impossible to play" as he proved with his blisters in Rome.
You want him to play Madrid as well (high altitude and all)? Can he drop say Barcelona and one more?

I see that other posters here recommend that Rafa has to do a better job at planning long term :)

- Rafa in Miami's final didn't seem as much distracted to me, but slow getting in position to execute the shots and nervous.

- Doesn't Murray have a problem moving on clay?

- I do not agree that Del Potro is better served on clay rather then on hc.

- I agree with what you said on the rest of the guys, although you left Nalbadian and Tsonga out.Roddick also put up a valiant effort on clay against Rafa, in Madrid DC semi.

Cheers!

Posted by Frank 04/09/2009 at 12:40 AM

I think Federer is becoming a more emotional tennis player again, and I think that's a good thing, especially if if channels that agression in his matches.
I'll say one thing about the clay court season this year: Nobody really expects Fed to pull off anything special. He's heard his best days are behind him, he's read it, he probably can't avoid it.
But wouldn't a French Open title really clear up all that talk, not to mention raise his confidence exponentially? The clay court season and a shot of aggression might be JUST what Federer needs. About this time last year, Nadal started his amazing run to #1. Might we not see the same from Federer?
I have a funny feeling we're about to see Federer do some special things even he's not done before.

Posted by Marian wtg Rafa!!! 04/09/2009 at 12:44 AM

Frank:

Re "I have a funny feeling we're about to see Federer do some special things even he's not done before."

You know what they say about boxing ( Since tennis is often compared to boxing): that each champion has at least one great fight left in him :P

Posted by Or 04/09/2009 at 01:41 AM

I'm not sure that being emotional is doing Roger much good.

He won his 13 GS by showing emotions mainly after a big win. I'd like to think that the AO ceremony, or maybe that smashed racquet - were good for him, clensing in a way - but as he stated himself in the past, he had to get calmer on court because dealing with all those emotions were ruining his games.

When he says he feels determined, I believe him - I don't think he needs angry emotions to get himself to care, he cares too much already, he needs to find his inner confidence. Anger won't do much to help him with that.

As for Rafa - I don't see how this loss against Del Potro was any different that his loss against Roger in Hamburg 07. A guy who played a little too many matches, needing a break. He'll come back roaring for clay, and if he's smart - he won't play Madrid.

Posted by Karen 04/09/2009 at 01:43 AM

Pete, I still remember last year you asked us to suggest a name if Rafa could have won the four clay court tournaments in 4 years consecutively. Now Rafa is seeking a consecutively 5 years victory in that 3 tournaments, may I ask you back whether you can think of a good name if Rafa can do so? ^___^

Posted by Marian 04/09/2009 at 01:52 AM

Andrew Miller, Word!.

If Federer's back wasn't troubling him so much now, he would enjoy playing tennis more at this stage of his career. If you cannot rely on your serve to get you out of jail when you are 30 all as before, you are going to lose confidence.

I'm on the group of fans who would like for him to take time off until the US Open. Maybe the grass of Wimbledom would be greener (and faster) in 2010.

Posted by Maha - Roger, you have left me no reason to exist. (But I still love you) 04/09/2009 at 02:04 AM

"About this time last year, Nadal started his amazing run to #1. Might we not see the same from Federer?
I have a funny feeling we're about to see Federer do some special things even he's not done before."

Here's hoping, Frank!

Posted by jewell - Make tea, not war. 04/09/2009 at 02:16 AM

Hey Pete and everyone.

"Clay Court Forecast/But seriously, let's look at some of the top clay-court contenders and evaluate their chances in the upcoming season on clay."

Serena going for a Calendar Slam? Can Venus finally win the FO? Will Ana defend her title? Can Safina hold onto her no. 1 on clay and can she get out of her slump? Can Demmy get a Slam? Can Jelena Jankovic pull things together and win the French? - do not answer that, Samantha. ;-) Will Masha come back (please?) Could Momo pull one last (first) glorious FO run out of the hat? Could Caroline make her breakthrough? Not to mention Zvonareva and Azarenka's stories.

I would so like to see a WTA post as well as an ATP one. *bats eyelashes, smiles winningly*

No credit for Elfie? He still had to hang in there and win the match, even if it was all on Rafa's racquet. (I'm never sure what that means, exactly, hope I'm using it right.)

Agreed that Murray is the biggest question mark.

Much as I like Feddy - I think he might put in a few earlyish-round losses on clay (but not at RG.) On the other hand - he must know you can't win if you don't play the matches, and if you keep trying to win there's ALWAYS a chance. It's not always going to be Rafa in the final, not even on clay. And even if it is - he wasn't without chances last year or even at the AO.

Also I think clay might be the "saving" of Djokovic this year. I don't think he's that bad of a year so far either although agreed his game is all a bit off/on. But Dubai and Miami final are not to be sneezed at. He just seems more likely to squeeze through fighting on clay, somehow.

Hope Kolya comes back too, I miss his presence in the mix.

If none of the top four are to win RG this year - vamos Gasquet! I know it's the triumph of hope over reality, but isn't that part of the point of sports? Anything is possible, LOL.

Posted by daryl 04/09/2009 at 02:27 AM

"The only guy who might hold his own in that conversation would be Bjorn Borg, whose prowess on red dirt was comparable to Nadal's, but who played in an era that generally had less depth-of-competition, especially on clay." pete do you read what you write.
There was Orantes,Vilas,Pecci,Penetta,Nastase Higueras,Solomon, Dibbs, Lendl, Gerulaitis. I think that should stack up to of course Roger but then we're left with Djokovic,Murry,del Portro,Roddick, Simon oh yea Borg had a lot less Depth on clay?????

Posted by Marian wtg Rafa!!! 04/09/2009 at 03:11 AM

Daryl: Yes to your point!

Posted by Marian wtg Rafa!!! 04/09/2009 at 03:13 AM

Or at 1:14: Totally in agreement with you, on all accounts.

Posted by Jai 04/09/2009 at 06:04 AM

The scheduling is going to be tricky for Rafa this year. First, since he's got Barcelona on his calendar, he's committed himself to playing three straight weeks (MC, Barcelona, Rome) and we know what had happened last year by the time Rome came around. Second, if he skips Madrid (either because of the altitude or because he needs a break), it will mean that he won't be playing for a full three weeks leading up to the French Open. And he's known to be a rhythm player. Somehow I'm not confident about him entering a Grand Slam (even one that he has a 28-0 record in) without having played a competitive match for three weeks.

Posted by tina 04/09/2009 at 06:40 AM

So if Safina will definitely become number 1 in 10 days or so, will everyone here subject her to the same crap they gave Jankovic?

As for the clay season, I don't know why many people on here dislike it so, or find it mindless. I could happily watch those long dirt rallies all day, waiting to learn the outcome of each point as if waiting for the next installment of Dickens when he was syndicated. The other plus for me, personally, is that so many of these tournaments will be in my time zone, and some might even make it onto terrestrial television....

Novak hasn't performed exceptionally well on the dirt, it's true. But maybe, just maybe, playing in Belgrade will give his mojo a little boost. I'll be there, so I'll keep you all posted on that front.

Posted by Rosangel 04/09/2009 at 06:48 AM

*You know what I'd like to know? Whether Rafa is at that point in life when he can look at the spring clay-circuit in Europe and think: Same crap, different year. How many more danged times do I have to win Monte Carlo? It says a lot for Nadal that he's entitled to think that way, even though he's nowhere near the third stage of greatness, which is when most great players begin to experience the equivalent of metal fatigue, fall prey to ennui, or simply start looking to re-order their priorities as they exhaust their non-renewable mental resources.*

Thoughts like these are very much in line with some of the thoughts I've had about Rafa's career. I've often compared him to Bjorn Borg on a number of levels, not the least being the fact that each was a prodigy compared to the rest of his immediate generation. Many people pronounced doom regarding what might happen to Borg's body (in his case, with some focus on what would happen to his right wrist), but in the end it was his mind that put an end to his professional career. In theory at least, Rafa can have several years of excellence left in his career, but that said, there's no-one of his own generation that he can be compared to directly in terms of career progression.

I am very much interested to see what happens to Rafa by the time he reaches the age of 26 or so, which is the stage when Borg not only decided to leave the game, but in large part appeared to turn his back on it for many years, to the point where he gave many people the impression that he didn't care about it much at all. For now - with a few exceptions such as his last match in Miami - Rafa remains probably the strongest player, mentally speaking, that I've ever observed. We never really had the chance to see Borg in what Pete terms the "third stage of greatness" - he went out when he was still close to the height of his powers.

I'm sure he'll always have a liking for Monte Carlo - it was the scene of his first Masters Series title, and it was also the place where he made a splash on the big stage by beating the then-reigning Roland Garros Champion, Albert Costa, back in 2003.

I wouldn't blame Rafa if he were to stay away from Madrid this year - he's certainly at the stage where it's more important for him to try to achieve a record five-in-a-row at Roland Garros.

As for Andy Murray, I have more hopes than expectations for him this clay season, and even on grass. The British press will no doubt be expecting great things at Wimbledon - but hey, we're still looking at a young man whose best results have tended to come in the best-of-three match format. In Slams he has just one final and one quarterfinal to his name. That's one reason why articles like the one I've linked below (by British commentator Simon Reed) are so ridiculous at this stage.
http://tinyurl.com/copbwh

Posted by gabriela valentina(NADAL, Death Cheater) 04/09/2009 at 06:55 AM

"but everyone embarking on that red clay road is different from the person and player he was 12 months ago ......."

I have only come thus far in my reading of the article but I had to stop and post that this is a very salient point! I want to read on. My curiosity has been aroused . excellent beginning.....

(back to the article)

Posted by kiko 04/09/2009 at 07:28 AM

As AmyLu said Barcelona is Rafael's home club and he will always play there unless prevented by injury, especially this year that the much respected and well-liked new DC captain Albert Costa is debuting as tournament director.

The Madrid tournament suffers from having been steamrollered through by $$Ion $$Tiriac aided and abetted by the fawning Madrid city council against all advice, common sense and solidarity. As well as destroying established European claycourt tournaments of great prestige, it is a disruption in the claycourt calendar rather than a lead up to RG. The players will have to completely readjust all of the timing and rhythm they have built up in the previous claycourt tournaments to be able to control the balls in Madrid and then try to refind their timing again for Paris.

Playing at altitude, any altitude, DOES alter things when it comes to fine tuning for a major event like RG. I reckon that if Rafa wins Roma he will have acquired enough points (blister-footed 1st round exit last year remember) not to have to bother about appearing at the Madrid Masters and be able to concentrate instead on his preparation for the French Open.

Where I think we might possibly see him playing this year in Spain again - as in Barcelona out of a personal loyalty to the organizers that he quite understandably does not feel in relation to corporate Madrid - is at the Valencia tournament, which has been switched to late summer/autumn and where the rights are now owned jointly by JC Ferrero and David Ferrer.

Posted by gabriela valentina(NADAL, Death Cheater) 04/09/2009 at 07:47 AM

well,the rest of the article embarked on the fuzzy grey road of predictions for the clay season........

Immediately after making the extremely pertinent observation that nobody is today who they were( as players )at this time last year, the article nevertheless dares to make predictions. After such a telling introduction,I would never have undertaken something so risky but then I'm not under any obligation to file a red -meat post !! (thank your lucky stars!!!)

I found myself nodding in agreement where Roger and the Djoker came under scrutiny. The bit on Rafa fails to note that it wasn't ONLY his game against DELPO which was played with uncustomary inattention but all his prevoius matches at KB and even some at IW (the one against Nalby comes to mind). That's an awfully long lapsus.....

Hope springs eternal in some breasts where one's favourite players are concerned,and Pete is entitled to his quantum leap of faith in his fetiche player,Andy Roddick. Personally,I thought some of the other players from the U.S. showed a definite improvement on clay, notably more remarkable than Roddick's, when I last saw them at DC in Madrid in the latter part of 2008. I am thinking of Sam Querry and Mardy Fish(if memory serves me correctly).

I also think that more of the French players will have something to say on clay as well as some of the lesser Spanish notables (Almagro? Granollers? etc etc)

While on the whole I agree with a lot of things written in the article,I certainly take exception to the idea that the competition Borg was up against had less depth than Nadal's! Nope! Just wasn't so.... as a look backwards would prove. There may have been fewer lower ranked players from the pool of troublesome gadflies with the potential to stage an upset but there was no dearth of clay-court GREATS!

All in all I enjoyed the article and it added to the delightful feeling of excitement that creeps in as we approach my favourite tennis season.

(BTW,I have writeen my post under the assumption I was commenting on an article posted by Pete Bodo,but there is no by-line anywhere which proves that this is so. If this was written by someone else,pls ignore any references to Pete. (it did seem,though to be in his style and the bit about Roddick seemed a give-away)

Posted by Master Ace 04/09/2009 at 07:50 AM

"Serena going for a Calendar Slam? Can Venus finally win the FO? Will Ana defend her title? Can Safina hold onto her no. 1 on clay and can she get out of her slump? Can Demmy get a Slam? Can Jelena Jankovic pull things together and win the French? - do not answer that, Samantha. ;-) Will Masha come back (please?) Could Momo pull one last (first) glorious FO run out of the hat? Could Caroline make her breakthrough? Not to mention Zvonareva and Azarenka's stories.

I would so like to see a WTA post as well as an ATP one. *bats eyelashes, smiles winningly*"

Jewell,
Good WTA request. Thought about it yesterday. Normally, I wait until the week before the French Open to give my thoughts and how each lady has progressed during the clay season. Will still do that one. If I did a preview, it will take me a few days to gather solid information.

Posted by gabriela valentina(NADAL, Death Cheater) 04/09/2009 at 07:55 AM

in TOTAL agreement with KIKO and I certainly hope that Nadal does not feel obligated to appear at the Madrid tournament. The insistence on staging a major tennis event in a high altitude city has put all the Spanish players in an uncomfortable position. They understandably do not want to seem to boycott a tennis event in their own country which would make them unpopular at home but they also feel that they are not capable of their best game in the high altitude conditions,not to mention it's being ill-timed with respect to RG!! I would say that this is true for all of them and not just for Rafa Nadal.

I feel that Tiriac and the Madrid corporation have their own interests at heart and these are not those of Tennis or of the Spanish tennis players.

Posted by Samantha Elin 04/09/2009 at 08:06 AM

I've been very critical of Safina becoming number l, but I want to say I admire her honesty when she said she didn't feel she deserved it and that she will try hard to prove she deserve it. If you compare her comments to JJ's self delusional, ego driven, nonsense about, "yes, I'm the best player in the world." Ask Roger. Than you have to admire Safina's humility and honesty. She's a nice break from the massage stealer.

Posted by tina 04/09/2009 at 08:07 AM

Did anyone else notice that the Madrid Tourism Authority or at least its tennis association even sponsors Davis Cup? The tag-line being "MAD(rid) about tennis"...

Didn't know that Valencia is owned by Ferrero and Ferrer. I love this idea of players owning tournaments in their native countries!

Posted by gabriela valentina(NADAL, Death Cheater) 04/09/2009 at 08:12 AM

Rosangel: if you are correct in seeing parallels between Borg's and Rafa's careers then maybe we(Rafa admirers) are still in luck for a time.

Blessed as we are in Borg's case with 100% Hindsight, we know that the signs of mental unravelling were there always and ,subsequent to his retirement, they exploded(failed business ventures, unstable personal life,disastrous choices at many levels etc etc)....

I don't think Rafa has ever shown signs of trodding on such shaky ground as the gloomy,introverted Swede. I may be completely wrong but ,so far ,one of the reasons Rafa has been so successful is because he hasn't engaged in any "Hamletian" self-doubting or introspection.It doesn't appear to be his nature to do so. He also hasn't shown any marked inclination to explore the glittery,glossy,unsubstantial world that fame and fortune have opened up to him.
(I say,advisedly "so far". It could all still happen but I hope not.)

Rafa has had "mini-slumps" before but he bounced back from them to even greater heights. As any dancer or athlete will tell you, before you leap upwards you have to croutch down first .........

So if Rafa is to come apart at the seams mentally before he does so physically,perhaps Time and Nature are on our side and we won't be seeing this for quite a while....

Posted by Samantha Elin 04/09/2009 at 08:20 AM

Tina, Hi, how are you? I wanted to try and answer your question. I hope people aren't as hard on Safina as they were on JJ. A lot of the criticism JJ received was her own fault and due to her big ego. When she became #1 she was very arrogant and threw it in people faces. Look at the comments her mom made about Venus never achieving world's #1 at the end of the year. Look at her telling everyone how much better she was than the other players and about how she was the best. This when she had no slams to back it up. JJ became a joke because she made herself into a joke by disrespecting other players and telling everyone how great she was. If she had been the least bit humble then she wouldn't have gotten the well deserved bashing she received from fans, other players and tennis writer. She was arrogant, conceited and people just got tired of it and put her in her place. Sorry, she got what she deserved. Safina is much more humble and likeable.

Posted by Aussiemarg{Madame President in Comma Rehab in 2009} 04/09/2009 at 08:24 AM

GV Glad to see you posting again!

Rafa has a great support team around him.Unlike Borg who never had the close inner circle Rafa has.To me thats a very important and vital ingrediant in any ones professional life.

Uncle Toni and his nephew have a remarkable relationship.The support of his parents who stay mostly behind the scenes but theres no doubt they give their son all the support he needs.

I have never seen anyone at the age of 22 with the mental strength he has.Ok he has recently expierenced a hiccup,but I am fully confident this young man has all the strength of mind to quickly address whatever happened and get back on track.

Posted by neilintoronto 04/09/2009 at 08:43 AM

Not much to add to all the great posts here. I can't believe the horror Rafa's one loss to Delpo has caused in some quarters. I think Rafa will do well on clay as he always does, and will 5peat the F.O.

Of course anything can happen, to wit, i may suddenly wake up with a full head of hair, its just that its very unlikely :)

Favourite part of this whole thread...Master Ace batting his eyelashes in order to get a similar W.T.A. write up :)

Posted by gabriela valentina(NADAL, Death Cheater) 04/09/2009 at 08:44 AM

from MATHEO's post @ 5.48
I just have to say altitude has noithing to do with a players preformance. I am a bolivian who lives and plays in la paz where argentina lost 6-1 against bolivia and apart from the ball moving faster here there is not a big diference in tennis. We play with presureless bals and things feel like they do at see level. The altitude thing is just a lame excuse
........................................................

May I disagree with you that the altitude factor is merely an excuse?

Although I am not in the medical profession and cannot substantiate my post at the moment of posting with hard clinical facts, these do exist and are available to anyone who wants to do the research. "Altitude sickness" not only exists but there is serious medical research and evidence to back it up. I myself have suffered from it in La Paz(Bolivia),another time in Bogota(Colombia) and a third time in Quito(Ecuador). People can suffer this sickness to different degrees and it is obvious that the Brasilian football team was at a disadvantage. "Altitude sickness" provokes nausea,vomiting,dizziness,sluggishness,drowsiness and general debilitation.

Bolivians who live in the altiplano ,of course,do not suffer from any adverse effects as their bodies have developed accordingly. It is no secret that cyclists from those countries that I have just mentioned do extraordinarily well in the mountains and under extreme endurance because their lungs and their whole breathing apparatus make better use of oxygen.

Many athletes train in high altitude conditions for long periods in order to build up this capacity for maximum oxygen intake efficiency.

With respect to tennis,no one is claiming that Madrid's altitude is such that it will induce "altitude sickness" but it definitely favours "BIG servers". This may not be enough of a reason to not hold a tournament there but the timing of the Madrid tournament could be disfavourable to those players wishing to do their best at RG.

The best argument against the Madrid tournament is its ill-timing with respect to RG.

Posted by gabriela valentina(NADAL, Death Cheater) 04/09/2009 at 08:46 AM

and I say "Amen!" to everything in your last post AUSSIEMARG!!!!!

vamos Rafa!!

Posted by CPM 04/09/2009 at 08:58 AM

Rosangel - I'm not sure I've seen a finer example of 'drinking the kool-ade' than that Murray article; the man seems to think he's being *reasonable* by allowing that, well, Murray might not be the favorite for the clay court season.

'Hopes, not expectations' is a good mantra for Murray fans from now until the summer hard courts.

Posted by Sandra 04/09/2009 at 09:17 AM

When did Barcelona become Nadal's "home club"? I didn't know he'd trained for any particular time in Barcelona. Are people saying Barcelona is his home club because its Catalan?

Posted by ava 04/09/2009 at 09:23 AM

Sandra, I think one of our spanish friends can answer this better but there is I believe traditionally some tension between the catalan areas(barcelona)and madrid for non-tennis reasons.
I think Rafa has a really strong relationship with the tournament and its organisers as opposed to Madrid which got MS status only because of Tiriac and his big bucks.

Posted by Caroline 04/09/2009 at 09:26 AM

RF.com has just confirmed that Roger has taken a wild card of Monte Carlo

Posted by ava 04/09/2009 at 09:27 AM

I think this Clay Court season has the ability to test Rafa's mental resilience.
I will pass judgement on whether or not he can win RG only after seeing him in MC.

Posted by Master Ace 04/09/2009 at 09:29 AM

This is to confirm what Caroline posted at 9:26 AM

http://tinyurl.com/cvc8qx

Posted by ava 04/09/2009 at 09:29 AM

WTF, Caroline, Rog is taking a WC to MC!!!!

Posted by Master Ace 04/09/2009 at 09:30 AM

Now, we are about to find out what Roger's frame of mind quicker than expected. In my opinion, this is a good move for Roger to get some match play on clay that is similar to the French Open

Posted by ava 04/09/2009 at 09:31 AM

That pic of Rafa is scary..............
So, Rog is indeed playing MC..I dunno if this is good or bad for him. Fans can decide.

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