By Yeshayahu Ginsburg
Rafael Nadal made his long-awaited return to tennis after a 7-month absence last week in Vina del Mar, Chile. The South American clay court swing (fondly referred to as the Golden Swing) seemed like the perfect place for Rafa to get his tennis legs back. They are usually smaller tournaments highlighted by clay-court specialists and, because of the location and timing of these events, often have relatively weak fields. Not to say that winning any ATP tournament is ever easy or that the players are weak, but the average player in these tournaments is less likely to be someone who could trouble Rafa than, say, a big hitter on a hard court.
This is probably why it was so shocking when Nadal lost in the final to Horacio Zeballos. After all, all we had seen all week were comments about how great Rafa was doing in his return and how he seemed to be cruising to a much-needed title. Rafa had only dropped 14 games in his first three matches. Now, it could be the ease with which Rafa won those matches that blinded us to the issues he was having, but there were certainly things there. It really only took the loss to Zeballos for us to realize that Rafa is still nowhere near 100%.
Now, maybe it’s unfair for us to expect him to be. After all, the man had not played competitive tennis since Wimbledon, over 7 months ago. Maybe, because we have seen so much seemingly-superhuman feats from Rafa in the past, we expected him to return and to instantly compete at the level of an all-time great just like he has shown us throughout his career. But the truth is that he is just a normal human being and will need time and match play to get back to his former level.
Anyone who watched Rafa’s first three matches could see that he was not quite all there yet, though the one-sided score lines may have helped us ignore these facts. Rafa was clearly not moving at his full speed. There were balls that he just didn’t get to that he would have before the injury and there were shots that he could not play with his normal lethalness because he wasn’t quite getting there on time. His movement was definitely also a little more ginger than usual, as if he was protecting his knees. Finally, his intensity was not quite there. Watching him almost gave the feeling that he could have gone after more in a lot of points but just chose not to. All of these were most clear in the final where he lost, but once you see these things there they were obvious if you went back and watched the early matches as well.
Honestly, though, I don’t think that any of these are bad things. For his entire career, Rafa has played with one attitude. He has said that he will go all-out on every single point, in every single match, and just deal with the consequences to his body when they come. And that attitude won him 11 Slams and made him an all-time great. But it finally caught up with him. The consequences of years of abuse to his knees and body have finally arrived. And now that they have, Rafa is doing the smart thing. He isn’t playing all-out in matches that aren’t as meaningful anymore. He is rightly using them to get in experience and match play. He is rightly building himself back up to a level where he can compete with and beat the best in the world. But he is doing it in a way that will not harm his body unnecessarily. The first part of Nadal’s career was defined by winning as much as possible, physical consequences be damned. But if last week is any indication, the second half of his career will be defined by prolonging it as much as possible, even if that means collecting a few extra losses along the way.
By Evan Valeri
In this series of articles, I will break down what the ultimate ATP player’s game would look like in today’s singles game. This first article will dive into which modern players have the most desirable strokes.
Serve: Milos Raonic
In 2012, Milos “The Missile” Raonic led the ATP Tour in service games won (winning 93%), 1st serve points won (winning 82%), and break points saved (74% saved). He also ranked second in the field in aces, by serving 1002 untouchable bombs, only three behind big serving American John Isner. Milos is able to keep opponents guessing because he has a full artillery of serves to choose from. At the 2012 Rogers Cup he served the third fastest serve ever at 155.3mph. Milos backs the heater up by mixing in kick serves that can jump over the heads of opponents as they curve way outside the doubles alley, and sliding slices that are tough to retrieve unless you are stretch Armstrong. And to top it off he can vary the pace and combine the spins so opponents are left standing like the house beside the road as the ball flies past. The serve of Milos Raonic is the ultimate shot anyone would love to start a point with.
Forehand: Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal’s forehand is so good it has a nickname, “The Fearhand”. Fearhand is a very fitting name for the forehand of Nadal. He hits the heaviest ball that the ATP has ever seen. With nearly a full western grip he bludgeons the ball with never before seen power and spin from anywhere on the court. Nadal can hit the ball just as effective from shoulder height as he can from his shins. Rafa’s spin gives him a huge advantage over the rest of the field. It allows him to hit the ball higher over the net giving him great margin for error. Nadal can hit the ball harder and also bend and dip passing shots like no one else because of this tremendous amount of topspin. The fearhand is a weapon desired by many and is the best on the ATP Tour.
Backhand: Novak Djokovic
This could be the most complete shot in the game today. Novak is able to do anything with his backhand. He hits it offensively and defensively with equal effectiveness because he is just as comfortable hitting from an open stance as he is stepping into the shot. Djokovic can pull his backhand flat up the line for a winner at the drop of a hat, roll it with topspin on a crosscourt angle, or hit a deft slice to stay in the point or keep the ball low. Novak Djokovic strikes the backhand better than anyone in the world from anywhere on the court and it’s practically impossible for opponents to dissect and breakdown this stroke.
Volleys: Roger Federer
Many people may view this pick as a bit of a surprise. It would have been easier to choose more of a doubles specialist like Bob or Mike Bryan, Radek Stepanek, or Michael Llodra, but the volley in today’s game is more than just hitting the ball out of the air. Having a good volley in singles consists of not only getting it done once you get to net, but choosing the right time to attack and having the approach shot skill set to put you in the best position to hit effective volleys. Roger owns all of these skills that make up a great volleyer in today’s singles game. He picks smart opportunities to come in; hits his approaches to the correct locations, and once he arrives at net he can place his volleys anywhere. Federer can hit soft drop volleys, angles, deep penetrating skidding volleys, and can put away overheads on both the forehand and backhand sides. Roger Federer has the volleys that the best singles player in the world would need.
Return of Serve: Novak Djokovic
Considered by many to be the best returner in the modern game, he also appears in the conversation of best returner of all time for good reason. Djokovic is better than anyone at getting the ball back in play. In 2012 Djokovic ranked second behind Nadal in first serve return points won, break points converted and return games won, but those people that believe Nadal is the superior returner are construing this information incorrectly . Djokovic played nearly twice as many matches as Nadal, and Nadal’s shortened season was dominated by playing on the dirt. Djokovic also ranked second in second serve return points won, behind Andy Murray. While there have been better aggressive return players in the long history of tennis, think Agassi, Djokovic has a complete return game. He has the ability to be aggressive with returns while also somehow getting a stick on serves that catch him leaning in the wrong direction. He gives himself a chance to get into points, and with the game becoming more and more about staying in points rather than ending them, this is crucial and is what makes him the best in today’s game.
Combine the strokes of all these players and you would have a player with the most complete, rock solid, all around physical game. But as we have seen in the past, just because a player has superior technique and strokes doesn’t mean they will win every match. Tennis is said to be eighty percent mental, and without a good game upstairs, a player will never rise to the top of the ranks. The next article in the series will discuss what it would take to own an opponent mentally.
by Stephanie Neppl
Words won’t do justice to try and convey what the atmosphere of a Davis Cup Final feels like. Even an hour before play started at Estadio Olímpico de Sevilla on Friday afternoon, the Argentinean and Spanish chants had begun and they would only intensify through the day and what would become a late night.
This was never going to be a quiet affair, but Spain versus Argentina was beyond loud. The crowd was boisterous, it was mischievous, it was ecstatic. Drums, brass instruments and horns were allowed inside the venue and they were used often, and not always appropriately.
When the ceremony began, I got goosebumps as the players were announced onto the court. Such applause, such appreciation and such idolatry particularly for David Nalbandian and Rafael Nadal. Rafa was of course the last of all players to be introduced and he was lovely in acknowledging his home country.
The first match, as expected, was very one-sided. Rafa has been a big match player for most of his career, and he had the massive advantage of playing on his favourite surface in his home country. It wasn’t at all that Juan Monaco played badly, Rafa was just vintage Rafa on clay. It is amazing to watch this Rafa – the way he moves the ball around, the great way he is able to defend. This is just one example why it is so hard to put Rafa away on clay:
In the end, there was nothing Monaco could do as the King of Clay put Spain up 1-0 with a comprehensive 6-1, 6-1, 6-2 win.
The second match would turn into those Davis Cup matches fans hear about and read about but few are lucky enough to see live. Well last night 26,000 of us got to witness Davis Cup greatness and the matchup was ideal. The young, tall Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro versus the veteran, much less statuesque, David Ferrer. Del Potro can annihilate the tennis ball but is not the greatest mover on court, particularly on clay. In the first set, Del Potro looked quite hopeless at times. His heavy shots were returned, and returned well over and over again and when he did venture to net things got ugly.
Somehow, Del Potro was able to turn the tide and starting hitting with much more conviction, actually winning some of the longer rallies that earlier he was unable to do. Del Potro would led two sets to one. The Spanish bench was looked tense, the Argentinean fans much more alive after they had little to cheer for in the first match. Alberta Costa was visibly tense and started to complain to chair umpire Carlos Ramos about the noise the Argentinean fans were making (particularly during a player‘s serve).
All bets were off by this stage of the match. The Spanish fans loudly cheered when Del Potro missed a first serve, horns were blown at will and the crowd was on its feet after most points. It’s no wonder the match lasted nearly five hours.
Most fans knew that if Argentina was to keep itself in this tie Del Potro would need to win his match in four. David Ferrer would be a clear favourite to win should the match go five sets – he is the epitome of fitness. And when Del Potro was broken to give Ferrer the fourth set, it all seemed over.
Ferrer raced to a 5-1 lead and though Del Potro won two straight games to stay alive, fatigue had set in and Ferrer would clinch a 2-0 lead for Team Spain with a 6-2, 6-7, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory.
The celebration by Ferrer, the Spanish team and the crowd was an explosion of joy. One can only imagine what emotions will be shown on court today should Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco clinch a Spanish victory in the doubles as they take on David Nalbandian and Eduardo Schwank today.
Stephanie Neppl is in Seville, Spain covering the Davis Cup Finals as a guest contributor for Tennis Grandstand. She is the author of the website I Have a Tennis Addiction and you can follow her on twitter @StephInNZ for further updates.
(Ferrer and stadium photos via Getty Images; Nadal via AP)
by Ahmed Ibrahim
Round Robin formats often lead us down the path of making those calculations of who needs what results to qualify. Thankfully, Thursday’s Group B matches were a rather simple affair: The “dead rubber” and the “last chance saloon” match.
Mardy Fish, already eliminated from qualifying, faced an in-form Roger Federer while Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Rafael Nadal battled it out to fill the second qualifying spot of Group B.
Roger Federer picked up where he left off against Rafael Nadal on Tuesday night, with a 6-1 3-6 6-3 win over Mardy Fish. Early indications suggested that we were headed for another early-finishing match as Federer took the first set in 32 minutes. Breaking Fish in the second game Federer was immediately broken back. He broke Fish twice more to lead 5-1 and served out the first set from being down 0-40 after.
The crowd began to get behind Mardy Fish and he rallied from this to step up his game and broke Federer to lead 3-1 in the second set. Holding serve well as the unforced errors began to creep into Federer’s game Fish held on to take the second set. A third set was what the crowd wanted and Fish prolonged his stay at the O2 Arena.
Losing the second game in the third set Federer held to love to lead 3-0 and was upping the stakes and playing more aggressively, yet was too strong in the end for Fish.
It is good to see Fish bow out with a good fight though with three losses he will feel like he could have had a much better tournament especially after pushing Nadal to the wire on Sunday night. It goes without saying that not many first time ATP World Tour Finalists have taken sets off the former world number 1’s and to do that with both in the same group is a great result.
Whether or not we will see Fish back at the ATP World Tour Finals in years to come, or even next year, is a big question but there is no denying that Fish has had a great year and he thoroughly deserved to be here in London for his first ATP World Tour Finals.
Evidently for Federer his game was not entirely on par with that on Tuesday in his match against Nadal. Obviously not having the pressure of winning to qualify resting on his shoulders allowed to him to be a little bit more relaxed but stay focussed at being aware that Fish would want to walk off court on a high note.
The second match between 2010 finalist Rafael Nadal and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was a simple win-to-qualify match. This one went all the way to three sets in a 2 hours and 42 minute battle that threatened to leave spectators stranded if they did not catch the final trains from the O2 Arena on time.
Tsonga’s game plan was evident from the start: be aggressive, keep Rafa moving and pick the right moment to execute a winner. This worked well for Tsonga as he produced some fine displays of tennis in all parts of the court. From dictating play from the baseline he unleashed numerous crosscourt backhand winners that left the crowd gasping in awe. His net play was spot on and his dropshots were something out of a textbook.
Rafael Nadal, on the other hand, was looking to forget the beating he took at the hands of Roger Federer on Tuesday night and came out fighting hard. The crowd was pumped up to see a big battle between these two.
Going to a tie-break in the first set it was Tsonga who was too strong for Nadal with a comfortable 7-2 win in that set.
Nadal needed something big in the second set and yet did not appear to pick up the aggressiveness. Tsonga’s service rate dropped to 41 per cent in the second set and Nadal managed to shift the momentum in his favour as Tsonga’s unforced error count started to creep up with his winners count.
Serving to stay in the second set Tsonga played an awful game and his own mental toughness beat him again in a similar fashion to his match against Federer on Sunday.
Nadal failed to seize the momentum as Tsonga raced ahead to lead 5-2 before double-faulting to serve for the match. Stepping it up and going all out aggressive on the Nadal serve landed him up 0-30, a netcord sent the ball out to set up triple match point. Tsonga unleashed a monster cross-court forehand return winner that sealed his qualification into the Semi-Finals alongside Roger Federer.
Clearly, Nadal has not had a great year by his standards, admitting that in press, but his year is still not over as he will compete in the Finals of the Davis Cup in Seville against Argentina. Tsonga’s great year continues having beaten both Nadal and Federer on the grass courts of Queen’s and Wimbledon – can he go all the way in the O2?
Ahmed Ibrahim is the author of the website Tennis Addict. He is in London covering the ATP World Tour Finals as a guest contributor for Tennis Grandstand. Follow his ATP World Tour Finals updates on his personal twitter @TennisAddict_
*Returning Belgian ace Justine Henin has announced that the elbow injury she sustained at Wimbledon in July has curtailed her 2010 season. She will begin light training in October in preparation for taking part in the 2011 Hopman Cup which begins January 1. “Unfortunately the healing process is taking time,” Henin said. “This means I must be patient.”
*Andy Murray believes his final victory over Roger Federer in the Rogers Cup last week boosts his chances of lifting the US Open in three weeks’ time. “It was good for me to win today [Sunday],” stated Murray after the final. “Three good results in a row against Nalbandian, Rafa and Roger, so that will give me confidence for next week. I managed to stay tough mentally, which is always tough against Roger because he started to play some great tennis, but it’s a great way to finish the week – I played very well.” Murray also reiterated that he was in no hurry to find a replacement for coach Miles Maclagan anytime soon. The full interview can be seen at the BBC Tennis website.
*Andy Roddick has revealed that mononucleosis has been causing his nausea and tiredness in recent tournaments. After missing Toronto to get to the bottom of his illness Roddick has returned to winning ways at Cincy this week. “I’m just glad that we found out something that was causing it,” Roddick said before play taking to the court. “It’s nice to have a little bit of clarity moving forward. It’s not something that’s going to affect me, anything super-serious. It was just me wondering if I was out of shape or what was going on, why there was this lethargic feeling.” Roddick has been told he is getting over the illness so believes he will be fine for the US Open.
*Despite again hinting he may be close to retirement James Blake is one of those handed a wildcard in to the US Open by the USTA this week. Blake lost in 45 minutes to the Russian Denis Istomin at Cincinnati on Tuesday but the current world No. 107 reached the quaterfinals of the Slam in both 2005 and 2006. He is joined by compatriots Ryan Sweeting, Donald Young, Jack Sock and Bradley Klahn in being handed first-round places. Australia’s Carsten Ball and France’s Guillaume Rufin have also secured slots.
*Two famous names have been handed wildcard entries on the women’s side. Chelsey Gullickson, daughter of former New York Yankees pitcher Bill Gullickson, and Coco Vandeweghe, niece of former New Jersey Mets General Manager Kiki Vandeweghe, are to enter the first round draw. They will join American girls Jamie Hampton, Christina McHale and Shelby Rogers, as well as Aussie Sophie Ferguson and France’s Virginie Razzano in the draw.
*Juan Martin Del Potro latest – he is now NOT expected to defend his title at the US Open. Tune in next week for the next twist in this story.
*However, Venus Williams insists she will play the Slam despite withdrawing from Cincinnati and Montreal with a knee injury. “…I was not feeling 100 percent and I am very sad I wasn’t able to go back to Cincinnati and make my first appearance in Montreal,” she wrote on her official website. “But I am getting geared up to play in New York in just a couple of weeks.”
*In coaching latest – Paul Annacone is not with Roger Federer at Cincinnati. Is this the end of the trial?
*John Isner has assured fans the ankle injury he suffered against David Nalbandian at Cincinnati will not keep him out of the US Open. Serving for the first set at 5-4 he was forced to retire having rolled his ankle in the previous game. “It was just a routine second serve return that went into my body, so I moved to get out of the way,” said Isner. “So I had to jump up for it. Upon landing, my right foot just twisted really quick on the outside. That was it. I couldn’t play after that.”
*Novak Djokovic’s 6-3, 7-5 victory over fellow Serb and great friend Viktor Troicki was his 100th win at ATP 1000 Masters Events. His lifetime record now reads 100-36.
*American doubles legends the Bryan bros. have returned to the summit of the doubles game following their 7th title of the year at the Rogers Cup in Toronto. They now sit top of the individual doubles rankings although they remain behind Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic in the team rankings. They beat French pairing Michael Llodra and Julien Benneteau in straight sets in the final and Mike said: “We were lucky today. We played the best match of the year,” he joked. “We had a great week. It is one of our favourite weeks of the year. We will be back in 2012!”
*Kim Clijsters’ victory at Cincinnati was her third title of 2010. She now has more victories this year than anyone else showing just how wide open the women’s game currently is.
*After winning over Taylor Dent at Cincy this week Rafa Nadal has been complaining about the speed the court is playing at. He seems to think that the two North American masters Events (Cincinnati and Montreal/Toronto) should play at the same slower speed rather than Cincy playing closer to the quick velocity of the courts at Flushing Meadows. “It is something (that) in the future the tournaments can work to make the courts more similar,” Nadal said. “For us it’s difficult to adapt, especially if you only have one or two days [between tournaments]. When you get to semifinals or final it’s not easy to adapt, especially in the beginning of the tournament. So it’s big change. This first match always is very dangerous.”
*Tennis legend Chris Evert has been inducted in to the Rogers Cup Hall of Fame this week after a career which took in 154 singles titles, including 18 Grand Slams. Evert lifted the then-Canadian Open four times in 1974, 1980, 1984 and 1985 while she also lost the final to Tracey Austin in 1981 and great rival Martina Navratilova in 1989. “Aside from the Grand Slams, you had the best crowds and you certainly had very knowledgeable crowds,” she told those gathered at the induction ceremony.
*Roger Federer’s finals appearance in Toronto has seen him reclaim the world No. 2 slot from Novak Djokovic in this week’s South African Airways ATP World Rankings. He does, though, remain nearly 4,000 rankings points behind No. 1 Rafa Nadal. Andy Murray’s title lift has seen him consolidate his No. 4 slot ahead of Sweden’s Robin Soderling. Serbia’s Viktor Troicki (47) and the Belgian Xavier Malisse (49) both climb in to the top 50 while Russia’s Teymuraz Gabashvili sneaks in to the top 100.
*In the Sony Ericsson WTA World Rankings Caroline Wozniacki has climbed back above Jelena Jankovic to be world No. 2, although she, too, remains some distance behind No. 1 Serena Williams. Kim Clijsters’ Rogers Cup win sees her jump to No. 4 in the world while China’s Na Li re-enters the top 10. Ana Ivanovic is seeing a return for her improved form as she leaps from No. 62 to No. 39 and Timea Bacsinszky is in the Top 50 at No. 49. Dinara Safina’s woes continue as she drops from No. 35 to No. 70 this week and there’s a huge leap for Uzbekistan’s Akgul Amanmuradova who rises from No. 114 to No. 76.
*Roger Federer has announced he will play this year’s Stockholm Open, according to Swedish English-language newspaper The Local. Federer was a late withdrawal in 2008 but this time promises to be ready for the event where he will face competition for the title from local hero Robin Soderling as well as thorn-in-his-side Tomas Berdych. “The competition has fine traditions with winners such as Borg, Edberg, Becker and Agassi and I also want my name engraved on the trophy,” he said speaking from Cincinnati.
*Fernando Gonzalez has taken a wildcard in to New Haven next week. Ana Ivanovic also hopes to return from injury at the event ready for the US Open.
Lisa Grebe talks about Rafael Nadal’s first singles appearance at the Rogers Cup. After a tough and nailbiting first set versus Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka , Rafa picks up the pace and shows Stan who’s the man. He takes home the win with a 7-6 6-3 win. The tie break took 92 minutes and was the longest in the Spaniard’s career.
“My goal was to win,” Nadal said. “When you come back after (some) time without playing, tournaments are always difficult. I just tried my best and tried to find my rhythm.”
Rafael Nadal now faces Kevin Anderson on Thursday at the Rogers Cup.
Quarterfinal day at the Farmers Classic in Los Angeles and the big names were all tested. Querrey, the defending champion, not known for his ability to muster comebacks, and has yet to prove that he has the heart of a potential champion, looked to be on the brink of defeat against German senior citizen Rainer Scheuttler. Rainer’s biggest run at a tournament came in 2008 when he climbed the ladder of impossibility and made it to the semi-finals of Wimbledon losing to a red hot Rafa in straights. Since then, the icy German has been culminating some matches in the win column demanding respect from all the players on tour; a bona fide danger opponent swimming through the draws.
Querrey, who looks as though he would have fit perfectly as a member of the Beach Boys, slumbered around the court with a Kermit the Frog mouth that is perpetually shaped in a half smile, won the first set decisively, utilizing his big serve and capitalizing on break opportunities. He looked to be too much for the German. I expected the second set to be a repeat. But I was wrong again, as I have been for most of this tournament. Scheuttler gained some rhythm and began to feel out Querrey’s serve, and broke the top seeded American, leveling the match at a set a piece. Scheuttler continued to pound pressure on the American’s serve and had a perfect opportunity late in the third to close out the match. Then the ever elusive mistress of momentum shifted once again, as Querrey fought back. “I was pretty frustrated the whole time, but I did a great job of playing the 5-4 and 6-5 games,” said Querrey. “I played great points on those games and really battled back well.” The world no. 20 Querrey gained a mini-break lead in the third and took the match. He will next face Tipsarevic in the semis.
Andy Murray faced a trial on Friday night when he faced a streaky player, possibly a future top twenty player, Alejandro Falla who bounced back Thursday after being down a set to upset Ernests Gulbis. The top seeded Murray entered the Farmers Classic with his very first visit to the City of Angels, and has played both his matches under the lights. The first set was tight, with both players feeling each other out. Falla told reporters yesterday, when asked what he thought his chances were against the world number four, that he felt good about his chance to beat the top Brit. “I know I can play against these type of players. I played great against Federer at Wimbledon.” It appeared that Falla was intimidated by the spotlight and almost edged out Murray, who saved three set points to finally take the first set in a tiebreaker. The second seat was a steam roll, as Falla showed signs of fatigue, being run around the court by the craft and variety of Murray, who slammed the second set 6-1. “I feel much better than I did yesterday,” said Murray. “I had the same sort of thing earlier in this year after the Australian Open when I didn’t play for a few weeks. Then I played in Dubai, I was really sore after the first match, and then each match after that I started to feel a lot better. Hopefully that’ll be the case here.” Murray will next play Feliciano Lopez in the semi-finals, someone he has beaten twice in a row. The odds are in favor of a Querrey vs. Murray final, but don’t ask me. The way this tournament is going I need to take my crystal ball to the mechanic.
And he does it again. Ralf Reinecke managed to capture two of the best players in the world on cam in Madrid. Earlier this week an interview with Roger Federer it was like he was giving Rafael Nadal a subtle swipe about his clay court dominance.
The interview was on Gototennis.com and Federer has the following to say:
On clay you don’t need a volley or a serve. You just need legs, an incredible forehand and backhand, and to run after every ball. I’m not trying to take anything from Rafa: He has been successful in other surfaces as well. But on clay you can get away, you can be competitive even with a very incomplete game. I’m not saying it’s so simple, but it’s too easy.
Whether or not Federer is right remains to be seen. Until then I would suggest that you enjoy the pics.