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Legg Mason QFs: Press Conferences & Analysis of Berdych, Verdasco, Baghdatis, Nalbandian

It’s quarterfinals Friday here at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington, DC and the last eight singles players were all in action today vying for a spot in the semifinals. Two upsets were in full-effect as we saw the #1 seed Tomas Berdych go down as well as #3 seed Fernando Verdasco.

The first match of the day was between top seed Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic and Belgian Xavier Malisse.

The match saw a surprise winner in Malisse, ranked #62 in the world, topping Berdych in three sets, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2. The wind seemed to be the biggest factor in the first set for Berdych as he couldn’t rely on his serve, getting broken twice before going down 1-5. Malisse also outplayed Berdych hitting more winners off both sides. The second set was much closer statistically before Malisse double-faulted allowing Berdych to serve the set out, which he did, fist-pump jumping in the air.

The third set saw two breaks of serve and a bit of drama in the second game. Malisse hit a cross-court forehand that just clipped the line. Expecting it to be a bad call, Berdych challenged. Hawkeye review showed it ‘out’ by less than 1 millimeter, but recall that Hawkeye is only accurate within 3 millimeters. Berdych was, of course, surprised and started walking up to the umpire exclaiming: “That is not accurate! It’s not in and you know it!” Played continued but Berdych was visibly frustrated even into the following point when he pointed again to the mark with his racquet and shook his head. However, Berdych stayed collected enough to win the game. Berdych lost his next service game, followed by three backhand down the line misses bringing the score to 4-1 for Malisse. Berdych has a strong backhand and it seemed to be working for him more than his forehand during the match. But he continually would run around his backhand to hit a forehand and then send it straight into the net because of insufficient backswing. An easy forehand volley into the net by Berdych gave Malisse match point and that it all he needed to break Berdych again and win the match.

Malisse’s press conference was light and quick. He is quickly becoming a favorite presser of mine because of his unexpected easy-going personality. During the first set and some of the second, he was intentionally twisting his right leg and foot as if something was bothering him. I asked him about it and he replied that it was just a small bone under his big toe that flares up from “time to time” but that it wasn’t anything to worry about. It’s more of an “annoyance” than any real injury. He also reflected that he was “returning well” in the first set and that the “third set was one of the best sets I’ve played.” He responded to a question asking about the quick time turnaround from yesterday’s matches lasting until the early morning hours and starting today already at noon. He replied that he much more preferred to play at noon than at 3 P.M. when the heat was stronger.

Berdych was up next and his interview was much more telling of his condition. He came in sulking and looked disappointed. I thought it was because of his performance today. It was, but there was more to the story. He said that he felt “sleepy” in the entire first set and that’s why his serve was broken twice. Mind you, his match yesterday finished around the same time as Malisse’s but he did say he finally got to bed at 2 A.M. His next comment then stopped me in my tracks because of it’s honesty. He was hoping that being the #1 at a tournament you would have a better schedule than this. Being up first today after playing so late into the night yesterday frustrated him and he expressed his disappointment in the tournament. He was then questioned if he had taken this issue up with the staff and he simply said: “No. But maybe I’m not going to come next year. If you like the tournament, if you like the place, then you always want to come back. But if you get an experience like that, we will see.” I have to agree with him here. He was the #1 seed and he wasn’t even scheduled on stadium court or grandstand because other Americans were still in the draw. He was on an outside court and the atmosphere is very different there, more intimate but trickier with the noise. Recall that yesterday he stated he doesn’t enjoy night matches because of the lights. But he didn’t like being up first either. The best solution would probably have been to put him up first for the night session instead.

The second matchup of the day featured #3 seed Fernando Verdasco and #8 seed Marcos Baghdatis, who dueled it out in a tight two sets before Baghdatis come out on top, 7-6(3), 6-4.

The match lasted just 1 hour and 42 minutes, but it felt much longer with the heat and inconsistent play from both players. Considering how long these two players have been on tour, it was surprising that this was their first meeting. Neither player went on any real ‘run’, neither served well and the changing wind didn’t help either. The first set tiebreak alone saw several double faults from both players. In the second set, Verdasco seemed frustrated as he sent ball after ball either straight into the net or flying past the baseline.He couldn’t quite find his rhytmn in his return game either, especially on the backhand side. Play was inconsistent and it was very tough to read tactics. The turnaround point came when Verdasaco sent a deep forehand down the line to pull Baghdatis back — almost to the stadium banners — which Baghdatis retrieved and sent across the net. Verdasco then moved in on the ball to send flying, but at the last minute changed his grip and tipped a drop shot across. Baghdatis, however, read the shot (almost before Verdasco had made up his mind), and began running for the net. He guessed correctly, made contact with the ball and put away the crosscourt winner. Baghdatis then broke Verdasco to go up 5-4 and serve out the match, which he did successfully. The best part of the match was something that came right after the last point was won. Baghdatis walked over to the other side of the net, got down on his hands and knees near the service line and kissed the court. He truly loves this game and there is no denying it.

In Verdasco’s press conference, there were a few things of note. He felt that he “didn’t play well” and that it was “tough to play” because the “wind was changing” and the “bounce of the court was irregular.” All in all, he was “not feeling the ball good.” He was asked how last night’s late end affected him today and if he felt tired. He responded that it was indeed a factor with not enough rest. He went further on and said that all week the earliest match starts at 4 P.M. so you wake up, eat, and get to bed much later. Then today, the time was pushed up to the early afternoon and he needed to change when he got up and ate. That change is never easy when your body gets into a rhythm. He also talked about how much he enjoyed the D.C. crowd and that he felt the support right away. He said there are a lot of Spanish-speaking people in this area and it felt great to hear them cheer for him. The last thing he talked about was his upcoming schedule and his plans post-US Open. He talked about wanting to do well in Toronto next week and improving on his first round loss in Cincinnati last year. He also wants to make a better appearance at the US Open by going beyond his quarterfinal appearance last year. “I push myself to be in [the] best shape.” He then went on to say that he will take some time off after Flushing Meadows to workout. And hopefully take a well-deserved vacation, but he didn’t say.

Baghdatis’ press conference came after his doubles’ loss with partner Stanislas Wawrinka, but he was still in a happy mood. Even in the doubles match, he was enjoying the absolutely packed stands on Grandstand court and he flourished with the cheers from the crowd. In the interview room, he was candid and smiling, making eye-contact with each questioner. He was first asked about what was tough about the match. He responded: “Everything.” He said that playing at night was not the same as the day because the humidity changed in D.C. He also said it different playing on Stadium versus an outside court and that “today I felt like the balls were flying a bit so I couldn’t control them very well.” He also recently changed coaches and has been in the ‘new’ partnership for only two weeks now. I put ‘new’ in quotes because it is the same coach he had when he was 17-20s years old, “so it’s not a big change for me.” In fact, he said, it’s “perfect.” Something that players have been getting asked since Andy Roddick crashed out last night was their thoughts on the American men falling out of the top 10 for the first time since 1973. He gave a heartfelt answer saying that playing this high caliber tennis is very tough and takes a lot of energy. But this was golden: “I didn’t know it was th first time since 1973 … That’s a long time!” He feels fit and healthy and ready to move on to the next challenge.

The third singles match of the day was between Roddick-killer Gilles Simon and wildcard David Nalbandian, who was playing in his first tournament since April due to an injury.

Nalbandian came out on top with a score of 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 but not without plenty of drama and superb shot-making. Simon came out swinging and took a commanding lead to go up 3-0, breaking Nalbandian’s service game easily. Nalbandian was only able to win one point on Simon’s serve. It seemed that this match would be over quickly. However, Nalbandian pushed it up a gear and won the next three games. Things were starting to heat up, but Simon was still playing more solidly and moving better than Nalbandian. Nalbandian had only lost 9 games in the entire tournament going into today’s match, so the scoreline was staggering when Simon took the first set 6-3 in just 33 minutes. But, just as quickly as Simon had won the first set, he lost the second. There were four breaks of serve before Nalbandian went up 4-1. He was starting to look like the strong precise hitter we know, and the points won on his first serve nearly doubled in the second set. He began to play more freely and was very solid at the net. Nalbandian understood the pressure he put on his opponent and knew when to execute approach and drop shots. He also found the angles exceptionally well flustering his opponent to start yelling in French into the sky. In fact, both players were yelling and cheering themselves on, bringing more inspiring play onto the court, and getting the crowd even more involved.

The beginning of the third set saw the best tennis of the day so far. As quick and adept as Simon is, it was surprising that Nalbandian came out the winner on the night’s longest rally. Both continued hitting the ball incredibly low and quick, Nalbandian penetrating the back corners with precision each rally. On one rally Simon sent a deep shot that would normally be a winner and followed it up to the net. Nalbandian read his movement and sent a beautiful overhead lob past Simon that hit the baseline. Simon scrambled to get back but the ball bounced out of his reach. Nalbandian was on fire, taking a 2-0 lead, and couldn’t miss. But then, he did.Simon put away a tricky forehand volley and Nalbandian seemed to be running out of steam. The score evened at 2-all. Then, all momentum was lost seeing each player dominate for a few points before being easily defeated the next, and on each other’s serves. In the ninth game, Nalbandian was serving for the match and he started hitting forehand bombs and took a chance on every shot. He closed the match with two aces. This is Nalbandian’s first time in a semifinal this year and it was well-deserved.

Gilles Simon unfortunately never made it to do the press conference, but it came as no surprise. He was fiery and irritated with himself in the second and third sets and clearly his head was not in the right place at the end of the match. He has great shot-making abilities from the baseline and his backhand finds angles on the court to stress his opponents. His serve was inconsistent and probably proved to be his downfall as he became more agitated with himself.

Nalbandian was caught up with the television crews, but eventually made it over for an interview with the media. He was easy-going even playing with his phone when he first came in. He joked about having to actually HOLD the microphone as he spoke. It was entertaining. He then got down to answering questions. He spoke about picking his game up in the second set and serving better: “When you’re serving good it is much easier to play more offensive.” He also mentioned that although he is not 100% healthy, he is “feeling good enough” and takes it as a positive. “I try to win every match I play.” It was also his first time in D.C. and he was asked why he decided to come back here: “I wasn’t playing enough tournaments and I needed to play matches to be prepared for Toronto, Cincinnati and the US Open. I just enjoy every time I play.”

The last match of the day was between Serb Janko Tipsarevic and Croat Marin Cilic.

Cilic held the 4-0 head-to-head prior to coming into the match and he followed it up with a 7-6(4), 6-4 win tonight. Both players held their serve in the first set and were pretty even. For a guy that measures in at just 5’11’’, it was surprising to find Tipsarevic still getting even lower on his backhand side. Tipsarevic let the tiebreaker slip away from him when he loss a crucial point at 3-all that ran both players into all corners of the court for the most exciting rally of the day. In the second set, Tipsarevic continued playing more defensively but putting an insane amount of topspin on his forehand. But it was to no avail as he seemed to be just trying to keep up with Cilic’s movement and coverage. At 3-4 ad-out, Tipsarevic challenged a ball still in play that he thought was long, but he was wrong and lost his service game. Both players then held serve before Cilic held three match points before he finally converted on the fourth attempt. Since the match finished late and because of the tough scheduling from yesterday, neither player came for media interviews. Both players put in a valiant effort that saw Cilic come out the victor.

The day was full of suspenseful matches that saw the top two seeds go down in surprising fashion. The top seed left in the tournament is Marin Cilic who will face David Nalbandian Saturday evening at 7 P.M., while Xavier Malisse will face Marcos Baghdatis at 1 P.M. for a spot in the finals.