Brasil Open

Rafael Nadal – It’s a Matter of Time

By Lisa-Marie Burrows

Rafael Nadal is back. How long have his fans and supporters been waiting to hear those words? A very long 222 days.

Time is a great healer, or so we are told. The Spaniard may have been back for less than two weeks, but in that time he has reached the singles and doubles final at Viña del Mar and has been crowned champion in São Paolo.

Today he won his 51st ATP Tour title and 37th on clay, but is Rafa back at his very best after a great two weeks of his comeback? I doubt it, but give him time.

‘Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time.’ – Abraham Lincoln

Taking time out from the ATP Tour to recuperate and recover has been necessary for the 11-time Grand Slam champion to ensure his knee heals and to prevent further injury. Undoubtedly his rhythm and feel for the ball is not at its best, but at least he is back on the courts competing again and without taking the time to recover, he may have made his injuries worse.

He may have ‘lost’ seven months on Tour, but in doing so it’s possible he has lengthened his time competing and that is the most valuable thing.

‘It’s better to do the right thing slowly than the wrong thing quickly.’ – Peter Turla

Nadal has won his first title in eight months and has received a mix bag of press about his return. He has been honest that he is not 100% and still feels some occasional discomfort in his knee. Whilst playing at the two South American tournaments, he revealed that he has struggled with his movement and timing on the ball, but after months of not playing, that is natural.

The Spaniard will not be playing in Buenos Aires next week and this is a sensible decision. It will give him an opportunity to assess his performance over the last two weeks, evaluate how he is feeling physically and relax mentally after two weeks of interrogation about his knee and level of play. Taking things slowly now may create better results in the future.

‘All the flowers of all of the tomorrows are in the seeds of today.’ – Chinese Proverb

The South American swing of the Tour is a good test for Nadal. He may not be playing against the top 5 players, but match practice is more vital. Clay is his favourite surface and one that is the least likely to cause further injury to his knee. Participating and winning at these tournaments are small stepping stones towards his bigger goals – winning against the best and adding further Grand Slams to his outstanding list of achievements.

Not being able to do the one thing you love always has the ability to make you realise how much you miss it. Have the last two weeks planted the seeds for future success for the King of Clay? I believe so, but only time will tell…

Ask Bill – Novak Djokovic is the Best Tennis Player in the World

Novak Djokovic is the best tennis player in the world. His movement is superior, his versatility allows him more tactical options than nearly anybody, and he is adept on all surfaces. If he wins Roland Garros in a few weeks, he would be the form pick for Wimbledon and his game will always be suited to the Deco Turf courts at Flushing Meadows.

In the (short) off-season last winter, Djokovic switched from all polyester strings (mains and crosses) to a poly-gut hybrid. He has acknowledged that he has maintained the same control while this equipment adjustment has given him some extra pop. He has also worked really hard on pounding the weights. He is a physically strong young man, and keeps getting stronger.

It has always been common wisdom that strong, fast legs are essential to succeed on clay courts. I’ll accept that as a given. I know that Andre Agassi used to work really hard on strengthening his upper body in preparation for the clay court season. His reasoning was that balls bounce so high that he needed to be stronger to effectively handle those shoulder high (and higher) shots. The polyester strings enable players to generate more action than ever, so topspin groundstrokes just fly off the terre bateau.

This upper-body strength philosophy would help explain why the muscular Rafael Nadal holds such an edge on the dirt. I saw a replay of his 2005 Brasil Open victory, which was Nadal’s second ATP Tour title, and he has gotten visibly stronger and thicker in these past three years.

Interestingly, there was footage of Nadal working diligently on his serve on the practice courts of Rome. I recalled a story from last year’s French Championships when he was spending a lot of time on his serve. Mats Wilander wandered over to his practice court and asked him why he was working so hard on his serve during the French Championships. Nadal’s response was that he does not need a better serve to win on clay but he needs to improve this area to win Wimbledon. His response was not boastful, as he remains a humble young man. It does, however, speak volumes about his ambition.

I wish I knew what was going on with Justine Henin. About two months ago, I saw her training on the red clay of the Monte Carlo Country Club. She was doing intervals on-court and working on her forehand, which remains her dominant shot on the dirt. At that point, I would have suggested that she would absolutely be sailing into Roland Garros as the big favorite. Instead, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Elena Dementieva, Dinara Safina (and sixteen other Russians) are looking stronger. It could be a weird French Championships this spring.

Major kudos to the 22-year-old Dinara Safina. Over the weekend, she took her first WTA Tour Tier 1 title in Berlin. If her serve improves a little, she could be a major factor at the Big W this summer. This will be the year when she reaches her first major semifinal.

How about those American clay court grinders?!? First, Sam Querrey makes a run to the Monte Carlo quarters, and then James Blake and Andy Roddick reach the quarters and semis respectively at Rome. I would expect that there will be an American man in the second week of the French for the first time since 2003.

It appears as though there will be ten American men who will receive direct entry into Roland Garros. The only other nations in that league are France, Spain, and Argentina. There has been a quiet resurgence occurring in the Land of Coca Cola, highlighted by the 2007 Davis Cup victory. Who deserves the credit? Well, it seems that whenever there is blame about a lack of international success then the U.S. Tennis Association becomes the default whipping boy. Given that, they deserve the accolades at this juncture. Ryan Harrison and Chase Buchanan are young Americans in the pipeline, and these boys are positively among the best juniors in the world. As they continue to climb the ATP ladder, they will force other young Americans to improve to keep pace. Stay tuned.

It was a pity to see Andy Roddick need to retire during his semifinal match against Stanislas Wawrinka. Apparently, he tweaked his back while moving furniture into an apartment he recently purchased in New York City that he will share with supermodel fiancé Brooklyn Decker. Getting to the semis, especially with a gimpy back, was a tremendous effort for the New Yorker.

Speaking of Wawrinka, the Swiss Davis Cup team would be as formidable as any in the world- and on any surface- if world No. 1 Roger Federer would commit to playing a full schedule.

As we are in the midst of clay court season, many have opened the GOAT (on clay) debate. If Rafael Nadal wins this year, he will have garnered one more French Open title than the retiring Gustavo Kuerten, Mats Wilander, and Ivan Lendl. Meanwhile, Bjorn Borg won six French titles, including a record four consecutively- which is a feat that Rafael Nadal could match in a few weeks. Borg lost two matches in his career at Roland Garros, losing both times to the same player. Who beat him, and in what years? Bonus trivia: why did Borg NOT play the 1977 French Open?

Week 6 Preview: Costa do Sauipe, Delray Beach, Marseille

Costa do Sauipe (Brasil Open)

As expected, the only ATP tournament played in Brazil is full of clay court specialists. Carlos Moya comes back to play there after missing it last year; he is the top seed. He has an interesting first round match against Santiago Ventura, but he’s the favorite to go through to the second round. Agustin Calleri is in his quarter and that should be a great match if both get that far, though the Argentine would have to beat tough guys like Sergio Rotiman and Pablo Cuevas. In the second quarter, Igor Andreev is by far the biggest favorite even though Jose Acasuso’s in the same section. Two Brazilians are also in that same quarter with tough first round matches. Marcos Daniel faces Peter Luczak, who’s played a semifinal at the Brasil Open before and Bellucci faces Nicolas Lapentti.

In the third quarter, Potito Starace’s back after his ban for betting on tennis matches. In the same quarter, we’d have to mention both Fabio Fognini and Gustavo Kuerten, who will open against Carlos Berlocq. In the last quarter, the favorites are second seed Nicolas Almagro, who has a good draw, and Filippo Volandri; both of these players really good on clay. Nicolas Massu and Guillermo Coria are both in this quarter as well.

This year’s tournament should be really interesting, considering it will be the last time the three-time Roland Garros Champion Gustavo Kuerten plays the tournament in his own country. It’s also important to remember that the tournament might be played in another city (São Paulo) in 2009, so it might be the last year for the event in Costa do Sauipe. Also, none of last year’s semifinalists are playing at ths year’s event.

Delray Beach

While Delray Beach is typically the week right after the Australian Open, it was pushed back two weeks this year and instead follows the First Round Davis Cup ties; in fact, the draw is full of players who will be arriving from all corners of the globe.

Headliner and top seed James Blake is already on his way from Austria and will arrive home in Florida to see quite an easy draw. He opens against compatriot Robert Kendrick, but despite the inevitable jetlag, it’s hard to see him not coming through this section of the draw.

In the second quarter, although Dudi Sela is the highest-ranked player and #4 seed, he will be coming off a disappointing Davis Cup tie in Israel and faces potentially formidable competition in Robby Ginepri (if he’s healthy from the neck/back problems that plagued him during the Australian season) and #8 seed Mardy Fish (if he brings his brain down to Delray Beach).

The third quarter of the draw is led by American seeds Sam Querrey and Vince Spadea. It’s likely that the two will play each other in the Quarterfinals.

The fourth quarter is probably the most interesting. Tommy Haas is the #2 seed and makes his first appearance of 2008 after missing the entire Australian season due to his recovery from another shoulder injury. Whether he is 100% fit to play and fully recovered remains to be seen. If he wins, he could face another interesting story in defending champion Xavier Malisse, still coming back from injury after missing most of last year, who has had great success in Delray Beach in years’ past – it is where he was finally able to claim his first ATP Title in 2005 after a dismal record in finals. Malisse has also played two other finals in Delray and has won the doubles title. Florian Mayer will be coming from Davis Cup duties in Germany, giving rising American Donald Young a chance to finally make a splash in an ATP tournament.

Marseille

Marseille is by far the strongest event of the week, featuring more prize money and a field that includes three top 10 players in Novak Djokovic, Richard Gasquet, and new top 10er Mikhail Youzhny, all coming off of Davis Cup play this weekend.

Novak Djokovic heads the draw but his fitness is in question after retiring in today’s Davis Cup match. If Djokovic is fit, he should make the quarters where he would face the always tough Paul-Henri Mathieu in a very intriguing match. This little section also contains tough Frenchmen Michael Llodra, Marc Gicquel, and defending champion Gilles Simon. In the second quarter, Andy Murray returns after leaving his country high and dry in Argentina due to a “knee injury.” Also in this quarter, 2007 Brazil Open runner-up Juan Carlos Ferrero makes an interesting decision to play indoors instead of in Brasil on his beloved clay, and more tough Frenchmen including Nicolas Mahut and Sebastien Grosjean could be dangerous.

The third quarter of the draw is full of good players and potential title threats. Defending finalist Marcos Baghdatis, whose coach stepped down last week, faces a difficult second round match between either Ivo Karlovic and Feliciano Lopez, which should be an exciting encounter (not). Should Baghdatis make it through to the quarterfinals, he will likely face Youzhny in a rematch of an excellent quarterfinal match at this event last year. However, Youzhny has a tough opener in rising Croatian Marin Cilic, who has posted excellent results this year.

The stars of the fourth quarter are France’s top 2 players – Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga who will be looking to meet in the quarterfinals, which would be an interesting rematch of their Australian Open Round of 16 match and quite a big deal in France. But first, Tsonga must get past Mario Ancic, a former top player who is trying to come back from various ilnesses and injuries. Also in this quarter, Robin Soderling returns to the tour after an extended injury break. Soderling will open against tough Fin Jarkko Nieminen, a semifinalist here last year.