and no tournament thread is complete without the necessary tignor article (for hema
Rafa Review, Rome Preview
Posted 04/27/2009 @ 2 :05 PM
by Steve Tignor
It’s a spring Sunday ritual. Take a walk, lie in the park, examine New York City as it turns green all around you, and then go back home and watch Rafael Nadal pummel some poor glum soul into the red European dust. After yesterday’s version of this scenario played out as anticipated, I began to wonder whether it was finally time to add a third item to the brief list of life’s absolutes: Can we now say, “Death, taxes, and Nadal on clay”?
Last week I stated that there isn’t much new to say about how Nadal wins, on clay or any other surface. At 22, he’s already reached the stage where he’s hoisting trophies for the fifth straight time, as he did on Sunday with the supersized cup that he can barely lift over his head each year in Barcelona. So, seemingly with nothing left to observe about the guy, I put down the notebook for Nadal’s final yesterday against David Ferrer and sat back to watch as a spectator.
But that’s the thing about Nadal. Within his seemingly regimented—“one-dimensional”—game, he rarely fails to come up with something unexpected, something you haven’t quite seen even after watching him hundreds of times. Against Ferrer it was Nadal’s down-the-line forehand that looked new to me. He routinely cut off the angle on his opponent’s crosscourt backhand near the service line and, without stopping to set up in any conventional sense, drilled his forehand into the corner for an easy winner. I associate this “running through the ball” style of transition attack with Roger Federer, not with Nadal, but the Spaniard had the confidence yesterday to throw all grind-it-out caution to the wind.
That said, there’s one other notable aspect about Nadal that continues to stick out this clay season: Even while he’s doing something unprecedented, and even while he can appear for long periods to be utterly invincible, he remains human on the court. That is, he remains subject to anxieties, dry spells, inexplicable shanks, and even the occasional tactical blunder. After winning the first set over Ferrer pretty much at will, Nadal’s level dropped in the second, and more than a few shots flew wildly off his frame. John McEnroe once said of Federer at his peak that he screwed up just enough to let you know he was human, before rising to the occasion and becoming infallible again. This combination made Federer even more impressive than if he’d been perfect all the way through. If anything, I’ve always felt this was even truer of Nadal: He lets you know that winning is work, and that one missed shot here or there—Ferrer nearly reached set point on Nadal’s serve in the second—is all it would take for him to end up on the losing side of any given day. As with Federer once upon a time, this only makes the fact that Nadal doesn’t lose those key points that much more impressive.
I went to bed Sunday night having just listened to Tennis Channel commentators Jason Goodall and Robbie Koenig call the Barcelona final. This morning I woke up, turned on the TV, and heard them announcing first-round matches at the Masters event in Rome—the tour is in full swing. As Nadal himself said after the final in Indian Wells, while contemplating a late flight that same night to Miami, “The good thing of tennis is when lose you have another chance next week. The bad thing is when you win, next Tuesday you are [playing] another time.”
It’s not that bad, Rafa: This week you shouldn’t have to play until Wednesday. But as I write this, the first round in rainy Rome is going on (speaking of spring rituals, James Blake is about to lose to a no name). The other members of the Big 4, Federer, Murray, and Djokovic, will all come to the Foro Italico with more rest than Nadal. Can any of them take him off my short list of life’s sure things?
The question for Nadal, and for this tournament, is how he feels in regard to his French Open preparation. Does he need some rest, or can he keep going at full speed all the way through Sunday? This question is tied up with whether he plans to enter Madrid in two weeks—apparently he’s wary of playing at altitude there so soon before Paris. Last year Nadal was in a similar situation when he came to Rome, and he lost early to Juan Carlos Ferrero. While he cited blisters afterward, he didn’t seem too broken up about getting a few days off before playing in Hamburg the next week and making the final push to Paris.
This year Nadal didn’t have to work overly hard in Barcelona. He won his semi and final in straight sets and didn’t have to play a quarterfinal at all after David Nalbandian pulled out. So I would expect Nadal, despite some trepidation, to go after the title in Rome the way he usually does, and to be fresh enough physically to do it.
But even with a couple days off, his first round could be tricky. Nadal will play the winner of Andreas Seppi, who has beaten him on hard courts, and Sam Querrey, who has challenged him on clay. The other half of his section is relatively stacked—Verdasco, Tsonga, Gasquet, Almagro, Gulbis, and Andreev are all there, but Nadal will only have to face one of them, in the quarters.
First-round matches to watch: Almagro-Gulbis, Tsonga-Gasquet. Semifinalist: Nadal
After reaching his first clay-court semifinal in Monte Carlo, Andy Murray continues his learn-the-dirt campaign of 2009. Think of it as a tennis version of Hillary Clinton’s crafty “listening tour” of New York state in 2000. Murray is taking the pressure off himself by saying that this spring he's essentially conducting research for the future.
He’ll have to be a quick study, because his first opponent might be Argentine dirtballer Juan Monaco. The two played a three-setter on hard courts on Miami last month before Murray prevailed. If they play again in Rome, we’ll get an idea of how the Scot matches up against a guy who makes his living on this stuff.
If he succeeds there, Murray might have to play either Nikolay Davydenko or Fernando Gonzalez in the quarters. He beat Kolya, a more natural clay-courter who seems revived after coming back from an injury, in a tough two-setter in Monte Carlo. If they play again, it should be equally tight. Semifinalist: Davydenko
Which Novak Djokovic will we see in Roma? He’s the defending champion, and he’s coming off a Monte Carlo run that brought out his best tennis of the year so far—more than at any time in 2009, he fought well when he had to and didn't let his emotions get the best of him.
But if we’ve learned anything about the Serb over the last year, it’s that he’s more prone to unpredictability and mental inconsistency than we once thought. Still, I like his draw. Of the guys in his immediate vicinity, only Safin and Robredo seem at all capable of beating him, and those two play each other in the first round. On the other side we might get a showdown between Del Potro and Wawrinka, a match I’d give to Stan based on current form. Semifinalist: Djokovic
Do you have a clue as to how Roger Federer might play in Rome? If so, you’re a step ahead of me. No matter what he says, his personal life must be a bit of a distraction at the moment, and so far it’s one that hasn’t relaxed him on the court.
Federer’s draw won’t help take the edge off, either. Last year he lost to Radek Stepanek in Rome, and he might find himself across from the Agitator again this time—they’re slotted to play in the third round. That is, if Federer gets past his potential opening match against Ivo Karlovic, never a fun thing to do, no matter what the surface.
On the other side, Simon, Ferrer, Berdych, and the improving Italian Fognini will fight it out to make the quarters. I got burned picking Ferrer to reach the final in Monte Carlo, but I liked the way he dictated much of the play in the second set against Nadal in Barcelona. Semifinalist: Ferrer
Semifinals: Nadal d. Davydenko; Djokovic d. Ferrer
Final: Nadal d. Djokovic