ATP Tennis 360

June 25, 2010 4:24 AM

Neverending story

"Ball boys became ball men", said Tom Fordyce on his blog on the BBC website. And it summarize probably better than every word or number what the "match of the century" was: who assisted to Isner-Mahut in the future will say "I was there". Because it was a life-defining moment.

Nonetheless, Queen Elizabeth's protocol wasn't changed. John McEnroe tried to persuade the organizers to make them play on the Centre Court, but that didn't happen. She came back to Wimbledon after 33 years on thursday, the third day of the longest match in tennis history, and took place in the Royal Box to see Andy Murray easily defeat Jarkko Nieminen while, on the court 18, the two heroes were writing an unforgettable page of sport, epic, history and legend. Isner finally won, breaking at the fifth match point after 138 games in the fifth set (70-68), 183 total games played and 980 points exchanged. They complessively played for 11 hours and 5 minutes, 8 hours and 11 in the only fifth set (the previously longest match took 6h 33 to finish). Isner, the American giant (2m06, the tallest player in the pro circuit) served 112 aces, Mahut 105: Karlovic held the record of aces with 78 registered in the Davis Cup rubber against Stepanek where the old record for combined aces were established with 96.

Mahut, a grass-specialist, an ex Wimbledon junior champion who in the 2007 Artois Championship (the Queen's tournament) defeated Nadal and lost to Roddick in the final match without never being broken, served 65 times to stay in the match but finally cracked.

But there was a minor change to the protocol in the end. Tim Henman and Ann Jones, two ex British champions, went on court to reward the two heroes in a short but somewhat moving ceremony. After 11 minutes and 5 minutes they were given a 10" Tipperary Crystal Bowl (to be engraved) and six Waterford Crystal Wimbledon champagne flutes. Also the chair umpire, the nice Swedish Mohamed Lahyani, were rewarded for his "patience" with a bowl, a tie and some cufflinks. "I travel Economy," he said. "Seven hours sitting still on court is nothing".

The only avoidable moment was the photo shot with the players and the referee beside the wall with the score.

June 17, 2010 4:48 PM

Tiebreak or not tiebreak, this is the question

wimbledon-01-g.jpgIs the epic directly proportional to the number of games played in a match? Probably yes, if we consider some unforgettable Grand Slam match like Camporese-Becker, Santoro-Clement (the longest Roland Garros singles meeting), Roddick-El Aynaoui or the 2009 Wimbledon final between Federer and Roddick.

Should the epic come before the sport priorities when deciding or adjusting the format of a tournament? Probably not. The most recent case gives a new light to the singularities we can see only in the majors, and neither in all the majors. Perplexities returned to rise when the Frenchman Nicolas Mahut, a grass-courter, defeated the Briton Alex Bogdanovic (who had "honoured" the wild card guaranteed to him in the last seven years in a row losing everytime at the first round) 24-22 in the third set in the second qualifying round.

46 games are, more or less, four "normal" sets: so Bodganovic and Mahut played somewhat a best-of-seven-sets clash; the more, Mahut passed to the last qualifying round, where the match are three-on-five.

It's just the fifth time in the Open era a player needed more than 20 games to win the last set:
1989: S.Warner def. M.Anger 7-5 1-6 7-6 3-6 28-26
1993: G.Muller def. P.Lundgren 4-6 7-6 20-18
1999: J.Thomas def. S.Prieto 6-4 4-6 23-21
2005: C.Guccione def. O.Patience 4-6 7-6 23-21
2010: N.Mahut def. A.Bogdanovic 3-6 6-3 24-22

The question is? Is it reasonable a tournament establish to play two rounds with best-of-three matches and, from the last qualifying round, changing the rule? Is it reasonable three Slams hasn't the tiebreak in the last set, while the Us Open folded to tv powers?

I don't think. Personally I commended when ATP decided to uniform Masters Series, actual Masters1000 events: it was a complete nonsense that in the same tournament only the title-match was played on the longer distance. Although five-setters like Coria-Nadal in Rome in 2005 are far more remarkable than the 6-1 6-2 succes by Nadal over Murray at the 2009 BNP Paribas Open.

But the rules must be clear. The same tournament should have the same rule from the qualifying rounds to the final. And the same category of events should be uniformed. ITF should decide: allow or not the tiebreak in the last set? In my opinion, yes.

But, more importantly, the difference in the distance between the second and the third qualification match is frankly unacceptable. Also because a match like Mahut-Bogdanovic hinder the result of the survivor in the next round.

It's true that Mahut finally won his last match gaining a berth in the main draw, but he's one of the just two players (the other is Namigata) out of 10 to win their third round match after imposing in a second round clash with more than 10 games won in the last set.

June 7, 2010 3:39 AM

Five times Rafa

sport_roland_garros_2010_nadal_trofeo_morso_ansa.jpgRobin Soderling knew what he had to do. The ice-eyed Swede needed cannon serves and huge forehands, had to play with pace and anticipation to the deuce side and find angled accelerations. But he only sometimes managed to pass from theory to practice.

Eight break points wasted are definitely too much for the second-time losing finalist, not enough rewarded for his aggressive attitude, negatively balanced by an excessive amount of unforced errors.

The public hoped to see a big upset, but the hulking berserk didn't cash in on the momentum in the initial part of the first set, the only glimpse of uncertainty in the otherwise perfect match by Rafa.

Nadal admitted, after his triumph, to be the recordman for break points saved, and said when he had to grapple with them he gave something more. Today, when he had to face them, he profitted from the tremblant opponent who mis-hit from the left side often searching a masochistic excess of anticipation with lacklustre down the line backhands.

Soderling didn't succeed in presenting Nadal some unusual strategical problems. He simply tried, totally in vain, to overpower the Mallorcan from the baseline but was under the cosh, practically the equivalent of a sporting suicide.

In both the first two sets Soderling lost his serve at 2-2, and even when in the first he bravely saved two set points, nobody seemed to believe he could write a different ending. The worse, neither he felt to have a chance to meddle in an announced triumph, the more when he surrendered to another key break in the second set.

Nadal's defence appeared unbreakable, and so it was at the end of a 138-minute one-sided title-match. The Mallorcan had the gumption to admit "I've had to play my best match so far in this tournament" when the Italian old tennis star Nicola Pietrangeli gave him the trophy.

In this way he completed his series of revenges. Nadal defeated the guy who inflicted him his only defeat so far at the French Open just an year ago and came back at the world n.1 position he last held on June 29th, 2009 leaving Federer one week shy of equalling Pete Sampras's all time record of 286 weeks at the top of the ranking.

From now on, the real Spanish-Swedish duel can start. Nadal has now five Roland Garros' trophies in his showcase, one more than the French musketeer Cochet, one less than his "rival" Bjorn Borg, who posed his seventh seal at 23, an year younger than Nadal nowadays.

But his once seemingly unattainable primate, isn't any more so unshaken. Nadal won the Roland garros without losing a single set for the second time, as Borg, who conquered 11 majors: 6 time the French Open and 5 time Wimbledon. Nadal arrived to 7, winning also once at Wimbledon and once in Australia.

If he can continue as this year, with an astonishing streak of 22-consecutive victories on the clay letting him to become the first man in history to win all the three Masters1000 on this surface before the French Open, and the first already qualified for the ATP Masters Finals, Nadal could go on and triumph five times again in the next five or six years.

June 3, 2010 5:30 AM

Roland Garros quarters: ups and downs

C_3_TopNews_89739_foto.jpgWe only have one candle, to burn down to the handle: no matter what they say, no matter if they say you're the G.O.A.T., you can't live forever in the ethernal shape of triumph. Even Roger Federer had to obey to this law while Robin Soderling went on to send whipping forehands drawing the lines. And accept, as some thirty years ago nobody could beat Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row, evev he can't impose 13 consecutive defeats to the muscular Swedish, who had already against the Swiss earlier this season in the exhibition tournament host in Abu Dhabi.

On the soaked red clay the raking Soderling's forehands bounced quick and low, Roger hadn't time to go round the backhand to play inside-out forehands from the ad side and on the left diagonal he saw a dream vanish. Soderling gave him all to make the Chatrier a place worth playing in, and with the help of Magnus Norman he did it. And Federer with every probability will have to delay his chance to beat the only record held by Pete Sampras yet surviving, his 286 weeks passed as the world best player. The more, he had to stop the astonishing series of 23 consecutive semis in Grand Slam events: his last major defeat short of th semis was at the 2004 Roland Garros against Guga Kuerten.

Beauty will save the world - Or at least the Roland Garros. More dostojevskian than Janko Tipsarevic, who had the sentence tattoed on his forearm, Jurgen Melzer was a precious genius at work. And as every respectable genius, he passed through every emotion, from a Playstation tennis made of unpredictable geometries and volleys making more than a eyebrow raising in upset to mistakes explicable only as the dark side of the genius. His comeback victory ovr Djokovic after 4 hours and 15 of hard-fought tennis was a masterpiece of skill and personality. The first was largely displayed during the third, fourth and fifth set, the second made him win. In the tenth game of the decider, Melzer had the easiest of match points, a forehand volley just to cross with Nole in the opposite angle waiting for the handshaking. Instead the ball ent to the net: deuce. If Djokovic had broken, would have Melzer succeeded in forgetting what happened? Nobody knows. Because the Serb didn't break, Melzer played quicker and quicker, with pure instinct, refusing to think. He saved two break points, one with an astonishing forehand acceleration from the center, and then Novak netted three forehand returns in the last game, when Novak was also slightly unlucky when the umpire Bernardes valued wide the crosscourt passing shot that would let him 0-30 up: the Hawk Eye showed it was good.

No suspense - Watching a Spanish derby involving Nadal on the clay is like watching a crime movie knowing who the murderer is. Almagro confirmed again he can play a perfect tennis, but playing well and winning are two different sports. Almagro is ideal in the first, but became a bit subservient when forced to play the second, where instead Nadal is the greatest champion.

May 30, 2010 2:18 PM

Roland Garros: half time report

The 2010 French Open first week is behind our shoulders. In seven days Roland Garros has shown bright smiles and dark eyes, between scheduling choices hard-to-explain and

remarkable on court exploits.

His third round victory to Julien Reister (the 24th Hamburg-born qualifier has been one of the biggest upset in this edition), obtained in what the Italian journalist Rino Tommasi defined "isosceles score" (64 60 64), was specially important for Roger Federer. It was in fact his success number 700 in his career and led him into the tenth place in the all-time-ranking for match-victories. On Sunday he defeated his fellow friend Stan Wawrinka, who suffers playing against the most famous of his countrymen and had defeated Federer just once in the 2009 Montecarlo Masters where Roger arrived totally out of form and surrendered after a lacklustre performance, and came 541 victories away from the all time leader, Jimmy Connors. To leap-frog the legendary American, Federer should go on to win an average of 70 matchesper year along the next eight seasons: practically a mission impossible.
Anyway, here's the first ten positions in this ranking: 1.Connors 1242; 2.Lendl 1071; 3.Vilas 923; 4.McEnroe 875; 5.Agassi 870; 6.Edberg 806; 7.Sampras 762; 8.Nastase 755; 9.Becker 713; 10.Federer 701.

The charme of this ranking lays in the consideration that this is one of the few record Federer will not manage to beat. If he could mantain the actual standards, after the Olympic year Federer could attack the fourth position and hope to arrive, as the highest aim, in third position. Undoubtely, however, his 1000th victory will be welcomed as the 1000th Pele's goal in Rio de Janeiro.

In the tournament, Federer has also recurred more than usually to dropshots. "Throughout the match I try and feel if it's the right time to do it. I have to choose the right time. Not for the very first points of the game or the match. You can decide to have a dropshot at that moment, but to me it's mainly about tactics. I use my dropshots only when I'm convinced. You shouldn't do it for the sake of it. Today it's a lot clearer to me. This is it. It works well, and I'm going to use this against these players. I think it's good" he said after beating Wawrinka. No one could dare say he's wrong.

Rafa Nadal encountered no hurdles in his run to the final and an expected victory as the main favourite. And the Brazilian Thomaz Bellucci, his opponent in the next fourth round match, shouldn't be more hard to surpass. Fernando Verdasco confirmed his scarcely far-seeing scheduling arriving in Paris having played probably more than everyone else in the circuit. And this is exacerbating his frustrations and fears. His inacceptable behaviour in the Nice final against Richard Gasquet was a signal, repeated in the third round against Kohlschreiber, genius with no concreteness who in the fifth was 3-2 up and 0-30 on Verdasco's serve but slipped into complacency and lost 12 out of the next 13 points.

The Madrid-born, happy to see Jose Mourinho sign for Real after his Champions League triumph, will have to face "Nico" Almagro who is finally playing a Slam as his talent should require. The slightly fat and crotchety Spaniard can play wonderfully when he wants and has dominated the Ukrainian "raelic" guru Oleksandr Dolgopolov jr, who had defeated Fernando Gonzalez obtaining his first win over a top-20 opponent.

If Andy Roddick showed a passive mood while the surprising Russian Gabashvili bombed him from the first rally, when Sam Querrey lost without fighting because, as he said in the press conference "I wasn't enjoying myself, I was only thinking that I would be home", it's hard to find different explanation to justify the American loathing for the clay. The only meaningful exception to this rule was Robbie Ginepri, the 2005 Us Open finalist came through problems in the previous years and arrived in Paris after six consecutive defeats and the consolation of the Tallahassee Challenger's final. "There I started awakening myself". In Paris he defeated Querrey, the Italian Starace and Juan Carlos Ferrero 6-4 in the fifth. Probably few will know that he's living with a strange neck injury impeding him to move correctly his head. It's something linked to his nerves in that area, and the only healing technique is burning them so that brain doesn't feel pain. The nerves will form again in 16-24 months and then the procedure has to be repeated.

The French disaster started with the unofficial "night session" between Gael Monfils and Fabio Fognini. The heart of darkness wrapped up everything and obscured umpure's and supervisor's minds. In the name of the subtle hope to see the match finish before the night fell down, pressed by a naif Monfils who, despite in cramps, insisted to play supported by a knot of noisy French kids from the stands, they obtained only to let them play in the dark and didn't close the match.Monfils was defeated, as Gasquet who lost in his preferred and more predictable way. He has the almost unique adroitness to recur to an infinite arsenal of weapons, to play a beguiling tennis for a pair of sets, but then all of a sudden, possibly when being two sets and a break up, starting stammering. When the onus was on him, he led pressure and negative memories put him under the cosh, so he lost courage and slipped. As in 2008 Wimbledon fourth round, history copied history (for a minor glory) and marked the distance between human and fiendish, between mistaking and persevering.

May 27, 2010 5:21 AM

They invented the night session at the Roland Garros. Without the reflectors

monfils notte.jpg

The match between Fognini and Monfils, ended at 22.02, will remain as one of the more tournament-defining moments in modern history.

The noise by a knot of kids (yesterday it was the traditional Kids Day), the total absence of lights, the silence (contemporarily every other matches was suspended) transformed the final games into a "blind bullfight".

Fognini, summoned by his coach and his father, rightly protested to stop the encounter. Monfils, tried to persuade that the match could have gone on. And risked to commit one of the heaviest errors of his career.

Having been two sets and a break up, he earlier led Fognini, the most mercurial and talented Italian player, to come back. Fognini was back to the wall again, at 5-2 in the fourth with two breaks down, and gave life to an unforgettable show. Eight games won in a row, till 7-5 and 3-0 in the fifth. Then he wasted a break point to go leading 4-0 and immediately after handed a break back with two bleeding doubles in a row.

At this point it became dark. Fognini waved his racket up and down towards Carlos Bernardes, the chair umpire, who recurred to ITF supervisor Stefan Fransson, the same who made Adriano Panatta, then Davis Cup team captain, fool during a singles rubber in the 1997 Davis semifinal in France. Fransson imposed to continue playing. Fognini lost three match point against an opponent with cramps before the match was stopped at 5 all.

Many are speaking about scandal. Surely the influence of a French player and the French crowd had a role. But I think organizers hoped to finish the match to lighten the program, already retarded by rain showers.

May 24, 2010 2:37 PM

Roland Garros day 2: Murray fought for survival

In an interview to the French paper "L'Equipe" the Argentine Gabriel Markus, Gasquet's coach, said Richard has the means to go far: "Murray at the first round is hard, but not unplayable. Richard has to stay focused, now he has enough tennis to go through to the second week".
The match proved he was almost right. This time the Scotster didn't came back as in the remarkable 2008 Wimbledon fourth round. It's time he decided to pose an end to the double-coach experiment. Corretja added only an unnatural ultra-defensive attitude who reduced the impact of his un-reflected game and genuine strokes. The final hybrid gave life to a puzzle fatally missing his last piece. Murray is now an undefined player who abandoned an old road for an unknown travel that took him self-confidence without adding significant results.

For three hours Gasquet dominated the rallies but finally he cracked from the physical point of view and Murray leapfrogged him to sign a remarkable comeback reminding the other upsetting victory in 2007 Wimbledon fourth round when he won despite being down two sets to love.
1st set: 6-4 Gasquet - The Frenchman, more consistent from the backhand side, pushed from the early stages and in the third game had the first two break points: the first went begging when he mis-hit a drop (a right choice 'cause Murray was well behind the baseline), then Murray saved the second with an ace. The Scotster, who held that game, had to wait the third game to hold without being forced to deuce. Gasquet showed all his weapons and variety of shots and broke to 6-4 after 50 minutes. Both had not-exalting first serves percentage: Murray hit 17 winners and 12 errors, Gasquet registered a more positive record (16-7). Here's the key.
2nd set: 7-6 Gasquet - Both held soon, Murray to love for the first time to 1-1. But soon after the Briton had to save another break point, the fourth, before having one on his own. Gasquet, however, saved it with a serve&down-the-line forehand combo. Both continued to be nervous and inconsistent on serve: Murray's second double handed Gasquet his 6th break point but a down-the line forehand acceleration erased it. In a festival of lifted groundstrokes and sooth volleys, the two arrived to a predictable tiebtreak. It was a cat-and-mouse like stuff. Gasquet went 2-0 up, Murray came back to 2-2 but slashed a pair of errors to give Gasquet the lead to 5-3 before coming back again to 5 all. But in the end Murray mis-hit a forehand and Gasquet imposed himself 7 points to 5 with 30 winners against Murray's 17.
3rd set: 6-4 Murray - With a pair of hold exchanges, Murray drowned 15-40 in the fifth game. A perfect drop led him save the first break point, but Gasquet transformed the second chance neutralising another cross-court stroke. Back to the wall, Murray went out 0-40 in the very next game: Gasquet served well, then counter-footed the French but failed to hit the last forehand. Murray broke and went leading 3-4 after another error from the tired Gasquet. In the eight game the French, lacking a bit of lucidity, saved two break points (with a counter-footing backhand and a solid first delivery), but a double fault sent Murray serve for the set at 5-3. The nerve abandoned Murray, pushed 30-40 down and forced to lost serve. But Gasquet trembled the same, and a double fault gifted the Brit a set point, faced with determination and saved thanks to a powerful smash. But at the second chance Murray broke Gasquet for the third time in a row and pushed the defeat a bit further.
4th set: 6-2 Murray - Murray didn't play better, but Gasquet went physically down and the Scot dashed by leaps and bounds towards the decider. The Scot broke the French for the fourth time out of the last 5 service games to 3-1. Both, after more than 3 hours and a half, recurred more to drop shots that became more and more lethal. But the French gave off, almost stopping to run behind the ball. After he failed to hit the last one of the set, doctor Montalvan entered on court for the second time. Gasquet has lost 8 of his last 9 matches in five sets
5th set: 6-2 Murray - After 4 hours and 4 minutes Murray closed holding to love. Gasquet confirmed nobody can be good prophet in his home country: in seven participations at the Roland Garros he has never passed trough to the fourth round. Murray has faced for the third time a French opponent in the first round at the French Open: he lost to Monfils in 2006 and won to Eysseric nexy year before battling against Gasquet.
A routine debut - Roger Federer enters into his first Roland Garros as defending champion with a routinary first round victory over the Aussie Peter Luczak. Dominant on serve (he conquered 12 points out of 12 in his first four service games, losing just two of them in the whole first set), Federer waited for a set before impressing the key acceleration. The Swiss broke in the tenth game, closing the set thanks to a bleeding double by his opponent. From then on he left just three games to Luczak. In his 64 61 62 success, he remained understandably relaxed, often recurred to drop shots and showed deeper backhands than usual. Luczak, as many players did, tried to attack the Swiss' backhand to better protect the deuce side, but his game this time was far-from effective and the world number one sealed the match with a crosscourt backhand winner hit running inward.
Ok Novak - Novak Djokovic encountered just a bit more difficulties against the acquired Kazakh Evgeny Korolev. On the Suzanne Lenglen the Serb dashed 6-1 in the first and seemed highly projected towards an easy victory when he overcame the short-lived resistance by Ana Kournikova's cousin breaking to 2-1. But the Kazakh fought back immediately and went leading 5-3 creaming a cross court winner to gain a break point and benefitting from a backhand wide to convert it before taking the second set 6-3. But just when a player looked in control, the other seemed to strike back. The Djoker broke twice in a row in the third set (6-1) and close 6-3 the fourth when Korolev, down 3-5 0-40 on his serve, overhit a forehand.
Surprises of the day - The German Julien Reister took just three set to book a place in the second round overpowering Feliciano Lopez 61 75 62. Taylor Dent gave life to one of the blockbuster matches of the day: a remarkable contrast of styles against Nicolas Lapentti. Starting as an underdog, the American delighted the crowd with over 40 winners, chopped returns, volleys and passing shots winning his first match at the French Open in career and gaining the right to play in one of the main courts against last year's finalist Robin Soderling. Dent won the first set 6-3 and in the second continued to be highly dominant on serve. Lapentti saved three break points while the American, out of nowhere, lost his serve at 5-3 to 15: the Ecuadorian converted the first break point of the match. But a poisonous backspin backhand return earn him the second set 6-4. He took a break of advantage also in the third, but didn't succeed in capitalizing it. Lapentti forced him to a tiebreaker and Dent perfectly led it and won it 7 points to 3 finishing with one of his trademark winning returns.

May 16, 2010 6:27 PM

Nadal triumphed and made history

nad.jpgRoger Federer was preparing to hit a forehand with great anticipation, but because of a false rebound he failed to hit and handed the 18th Masters1000 of his career to a someway regretted Nadal, who is now 15-0 on the clay this season and has won 42 sets (and 8 tiebreak) against Federer.

This last point sealing thr 6-4 7-6 victory, the 14th in the h2h and tenth on the surface preferred by the Mallorcan-born Spaniard, perfectly summarizes the history of the best rivalry in modern tennis, made of unspoken tensions, of unique alchimies and a subtle subplot of fears and energies, motivations and desires.

Twelve months ago, Roger Federer defeated Nadal in Madrid and lifted up the trophy of the Mutua Madrilena Open (just his second success over the Mallorcan on the clay), not knowing, and not even daring to imagine that some days after Nadal should have surrendered to Robin Soderling and Roger should have completed his career Slam, entering in the elite with Fred Perry, Roy Emerson, Don Budge, Rod Laver and Andre Agassi.

364 days after, Roger and Rafa, brightest examples of two opposite conceptions of tennis, went oncourt again to write another chapter of the story of The Match.

The first set was tight and highly contested but rarely dramatic. Federer served firstly and opened delivering two aces and took heart at once in return with a winning forehand hit in advance. The first break point, however, slipped away when Roger netted a backspin backhand in return to a venomous second delivery by Nadal.

The tactical scheme was clearly predictable. Nadal, struggling to realize easy points on serve, was forced to play a series of long rallies but didn't take risks from the baseline. The Spaniard hammered on Federer's backhand with balls, full of top-spin, bouncing high over Federer's shoulder. So the Swiss, anyway capable to hit winners from the ad-side, hadn't the same advantage that Davydenko or Del Potro could have thanks to double-handed backhhands.

And Rafa broke first in a lacklustre first set; the amount of errors broaden, and three mistakes gave Federer immediate chance to counter-break and a forehand jumping over the live led Federer to draw at 2-2. Like a champion, Federer regrouped himself, took heart but spooned a good chance into the crowd wasting four break points before Rafa could manage to hold in the elusive tenth game thanks to a hooked forehand pass.

This was the breakthrough of the match. The second set became finally a rollercoaster of emotions and spectacular winners. Federer, always on the verge to slip into complacency, knows he needs to recur to every weapon in his armoury and showed off a pair of drops and a backspin backhand that constitutes different question marks from the tactical point of view to Nadal.

In the first part of the second set Federer showed his best game on the clay, but as often happened to him when Nadal is on the other side of the net, the Swiss didn't manage to maintain this standard long enough to make the match turn on his advantage.

And when, as this time, on the other side there's one of the brightest versions of Nadal, the duty becomes harder and harder to accomplish. The Spaniard seemed extremely feet and succeeded in a pair of demolishing ball recoveries. His unparalleled ability to transform defensive situations into offensive opportunities, to save him while being forced on the ropes are lethal blunts to Federer self-confidence.

And Federer, today far from being at his best but undoubtedly on the rise respect to the defeat to Montanes, paid the stammering serve and some bleeding mis-hits. The Swiss in the second set chose to risk more but misfired a series of easy forehands because he arrived late on the ball, his serve lost effectiveness in the key moments and his return weren't so deep as usual.

Nadal grapple with him and emerged better. Shrewdly he forced Federer to hit well behind the baseline and when he managed to approach the net constantly answered with winning passing shots. He broke to 4-2 but the match was not over. Federer bounced back and broke Nadal to 4-4 profiting from a pair of uncharacteristic errors.

Predictably the set went to a tiebreaker and again Federer succeeded to dash better but Nadal came back to close as the winner. The Swiss led 4-2 but let Nadal draw netting a drop-shot and sending a forehand long.

Nadal fought and had two match points. Federer saved the first with a brutal inside-out forehand, but his best shot betrayed him in the last point of the match.

Nadal became the first to win 18 Masters 1000 in career and, at the same time, the first to win all the three event of this type on the clay. The more, with a delightful counter-dropshot played with an uncommon one-handed backhand, Nadal testified his gane is not only made of muscles and runs. His talent is as pure as Federer's, it's just of different nature.

The Swiss confirmed his sometime masochistic desire to be splendid. When he, 4-2 up in the second set tiebreaker, tried to mask a second drop-shot in a row his match substantially finished. He could have been two points away from the third set, while soon found himself forced to handshake Rafa. His limit, if we it's correct speaking about limits for a man capable of 16 Grand Slam titles, lays in his "snootiness", particularly dangerous on the clay, where he cannot close the points quickly, cannot base his game on the one-twos (serve and forehand) but has to deal with geometries. As in 2006 in Rome, when two remarkable wasted match points could have changed the story of their rivalry, Federer brought this tendency to its extreme consequences.

In the same situations, Nadal, and here it stays the greater difference between them, seals the victory, in a way or another. While Roger gave himself apparently just two choices: winning beautifully or lose. Against Nadal the second alternative is dramatically prevailing.

May 10, 2010 5:52 AM

Why are American players so loath to play on the clay?

sam-querrey.jpgThe Serbia Open final was, for a series of different reasons, remarkable. First of all because it's not so usual to find an all-American clash in a title-match on European claycourts. The close friends John Isner and Sam Querrey, losing finalist in another all-American clash in the doubles final in Rome to the Bryans, interrupted a gap dating back in 1991, when Jim Courier defeated Andre Agassi to lift up the Roland Garros trophy.

Isner spooned a great chance to in his first claycourt title wasting a match point serving at 5-3 in the second set. The golden spell of form with his serve, that led him make the breakthrough in the hard-fought battles against Zeballos and Wawrinka, deserted him in the crucial moments and Querrey converted a break point with a forehand passing shot.

Then, in the key ninth game of the third set, he surrendered a 40-0 lead and then fought off 4 break points before Querrey cashed in on the momentum and sealed a 36 76 64 victory in an hour and 55 minutes when Isner netted a forehand and threw his racquet down in frustration.

The match confirmed Querrey's game fits better the surface than Isner's style, based for the most part on huge serves (characterized by a straight tossing arm, pronounced rotation of hips and shoulders away from the net and an almost-sideways position with his feet pointing diagonally to the net allowing him to move his racquet faster) and on the efficiency of net play.

Despite the good results in Belgrade, American players' idiosyncrasy towards the clay is far to be removed. The stats speak for themselves. No active American player passed through to the quarters at Roland Garros: the last to garner such a result was Andre Agassi, defeated by Guillermo Coria in 2003; not to forget that seven of the last 10 U.S team defeats arrived on this surface. In 2009, the Americans in the top-100 had a total 23-34 record on the clay, playing a combined amount of 27 events: a modest average of 3.5 tournaments per player.

Considering the period 2006-2010 (before the Madrid Masters) there are just two Us top-100 players with an active record on the surface: Mardy Fish (23-20) and Andy Roddick (19-14) who, anyway, has the onus on him because of his frontman role and his five titles on the surface, one more than Pete Sampras (just to say). In the same period, only Michael Russell played more than 20% of his matches on the clay (his overall record is 27-28).

The main reason probably lays in the way clay changes the game. The stick and soft surface make the ball lose more of its momentum after the rebound; so the serve-and-forehand style, so dominant among American players, becomes less effective. It's harder to hit many aces and winners, the gameplan requires a patient mindset to build the point that's not in the U.S. players' DNA.

This happens because there are few clay-courts throughout the United States, and almost non-existent outside the most expensive clubs. The change of surface decided this year for the US Men's Clay Court Championship, passed from the green clay (more similar to hard-courts) to red clay is just an isolated exception.

Young Americans becomes familiar with the more enticing, beguiling, blue or green hardcourts and hasn't enough experience to deal with the dirt. American philosophy of gaining all at once, of coming, seeing and winning doesn't produce results on the red clay.

It's not a case if Andy Roddick, spearhead of sulking Americans, whenever he's asked to, says "I can win every Slam, except the Roland Garros". Despite his game isn't so far from Robin Soderling's style. But the iron-minded Swedish reached the Roland Garros final and defeated Rafa Nadal on the row. It's a testimony to his character and the best confirmation that .

May 3, 2010 4:20 PM

The Emperor Rafa conquered Rome

Rafa Nadal is the modern Bjorn Borg. "El buen chico de Mallorca" (the good guy from Mallorca) has invented and perfected a new way of playing, has brought tennis to a new era. The more, "Nadal-phenomenal" has no visible intention to stop playing at 26 years old, as the Swede did, substantially after losing a dramatic Us Open final in 1981, although his last match was at the 1983 Montecarlo Masters.

Yesterday, kissing the rain or not, Nadal has lifted up his 17 Masters 1000, equalling the record hold by Andre Agassi who, however, completed his streak at 34 y.o., in Cincinnati, defeating Lleyton Hewitt 6-3 3-6 6-2.

Nadal has now a Masters 1000 cup more than Roger Federer, who on his own can answer boasting his 16 Slams. Practically Rafa has conquered more than a half of the 33 titles obtained by Spanish players in these kind of events. It's not an hyperbole when Alex Corretja, actually working with Andy Murray, in a Mourinho's style declaration, said "In Spain there's God, and after God Nadal".

The first all-Spanish final in the tournament was tight just for the first part of the match, just until the rain forced the organizers to delay the game. At that point the score was 4 all 40-15 Ferrer. In the previous game the players gave life to the most heartbreaking rally of the final, closed by Nadal with a smash after a backhand return volley from the Valencian once world's number four.

Another rain delay prolonged a match, lasted effectively an hour and 44 minutes, over more than four hours, but Nadal never lost his game-plan of hammering on Ferrer's backhand while his opponent recurred to stubborn variety and pace from both sides.

Rafa, who in Montecarlo hadn't wasted a set, and in the final match had conceded merely one game to Fernando Verdasco, in Rome he lost his serve just once, against the main character of this edition, Ernests Gulbis (to whom Atp Tennis 360 will dedicate a profile tomorrow). "Next year I hope to have learned better Italian" said Nadal after his success. It's the best sign that now finding something to improve for him on the clay is beginning harder and harder.

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