Monday, January 29, 2007

Another Installment in the Never-Ending Series on Trying to Find Ways to Beat Roger...It's All About the Serve

With Roger Federer basking in the warmth of his 10th Grand Slam tournament title, he is now officially more than 70% done with the historic task of besting Pete Sampras' record of 14 Slams. It will be interesting to watch and see if Federer continues his multi-Slams per year pace - 3 and counting- or if it winnows down to domination in one Slam, like Sampras did with Wimbledon. After Sampras 4th and final multi-Slam year in 1997, he won Wimbledon three times and his only other Slam was of course his career-ending triumph over long time rival Andre Agassi in the 2002 US Open. (Which is still, by far, the greatest exit from a sport of all time. Think about it - what else could measure up? Michael Jordan with the 1998 Bulls? Not really, as what made Sampras' victory especially sweet is that he had been amazingly neglected in the press and considered over the hill and done, something the over-hyped and over-worshipped Jordan never endured with the Bulls.)

So with Sampras the only obstacle to uncontested tennis immortality for Federer, it is only appropriate that this entry will focus on the classic Californian's defining asset, the serve. With his fluid, easy motion - that made it seem like anyone could learn how to serve effectively- and mix of consistency, pace, spin, placement, power and above all the ability to follow the serve with an effective volley or ground stroke, Sampras possessed the greatest serve of the Open era. It's nearly impossible to compare across a century of talent but in my small knowledge of tennis history Sampras may well have had the finest serve in the history of the sport (other names frequently brought up during such discussions are Pancho Gonzalez and Bill Tilden, to name two).

It will take someone who has a consistently pressuring serve to be able to challenge Federer on non-clay surfaces and instill the slightest bit of concern in the Swiss master. Anyone who plays tennis, be it recreationally or competitively, is all too aware of the psychological import that a first point in a game has. And never is this more apparent or of greater concern than when facing a great server. The ability to impart duress in the mind and body of a the returner on a consistent basis is the ultimate weapon in tennis. And since Federer never seems to be on the defensive, except perhaps against Nadal on clay, it will take a server of near-Sampras caliber to force Roger to feel the heat.

This is not to say there aren't effective and powerful servers out there today. Andy Roddick obviously is in ownership of a thunderous first serve from his rubber arm, often reaching 140 mph. But his problem is one of consistency and predictability. Federer seems to have figured out a way to read that powerful first serve and Roddick's second serve has never had the bite that is needed to deflate any hope in the returner that the second delivery from the server will be any easier. Sampras never let his opponent of the hook with his second serve. Also, Stefan Edberg in his prime had one of the great twisting, kicking second serves that many current players would be wise to emulate.

Marat Safin, when his game is "on" also has a fantastic first serve but there again the problem is one of consistency, like the rest of the mercurial Russian's game. Fernando Gonzalez, the Australian Open finalist has developed a good first serve too but again, not enough to strike fear in the Swiss' heart.

Recently retired Andre Agassi did not have ace-filled service games or necessarily scare his opponents with his serves but he developed an effective service game. And because his return game was so intimidating, he put the onus of service responsibility on his opponent. Current and up-and-coming players would be well advised to look to his example of taking full use of one's abilities to make their serve reliable.

Two players who have beaten Federer in the past, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal are the two players who would benefit most from improving their serves - for different reasons. In Nadal's case he has an effective serve but not powerful or deceptive one. Holding an immediate advantage as a left-hander, Nadal must take full use of that and develop a more extreme slice serve out wide, especially in the ad court. Many have implored the Mallorcan to work on that slice serve but he has yet to fully utilize it. Obtaining a Sampras serve is near impossible but in order to beat Federer, a player needs to have at least one weapon in their serving arsenal to make the returner think and guess as opposed to react and anticipate. And for Nadal it would seem obvious that the slice serve would yield the most dividends for any investment he puts into his service game. (it would also shorten points for Rafa, something he desperately needs if he is to avoid over-working and becoming increasingly injury prone).

With Andy Murray, it's not so much about developing or changing his serving style, it is more to do with improving on what he already has. Murray has deception with his motion and that is something hard to learn or be taught - it is usually just part of one's motion. Adding just a touch more power and increasing consistency should put Murray's serve among the top three or four in men's tennis soon enough.

I often think of how players from the recent past would have fared well against Federer and the two names I come back to are Ivan Lendl and Boris Becker, with the serves being the key factor in each case.

When Lendl first arrived on the scene in 1980, he ushered in a sea change in the sport by developing an offensive baseline game, with his inside out forehand, a shot previously not used to such effectiveness, the cornerstone of his power. Yet he didn't win his first Grand Slam title until age 24 at the 1984 French Open, and this initial triumph was aided greatly by his developing a powerful first serve. Ask any player from his era and they will all have anecdotes about Lendl serving out of trouble by delivering an ace at 30-40. And since Lendl had so much power on his ground strokes, he would have caused Federer fits on the hard courts.

Boris Becker's strength was always his serve. John McEnroe often speaks of how he felt behind the times and antiquated after being defeated by Becker's power game for the first time. Like Lendl, Becker also would serve out of trouble on innumerable occasions. Opponents knew that Becker was capable of serving three and four ace games at any time. No player in today's game instills that kind of trepidation today.

So here's to hoping that some of the afore-mentioned players in today's Top Ten develop that intimidating presence at the service line and cause at least the slightest doubt in the seemingly impenetrable psyche of the Roger.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

You Only Get One Chance to Make a First Impression...something Gonzalez now knows..

I'm still bleary eyed from being up all night -or should I say I awoke very early this morning, as I was left with the unenviable task of debating which was preferable - staying up all night and then going to bed around 6 after the match or going to bed early and just staying up? I opted for something in between which proved to be foolish as it left me little sleep on either end of the final) so I'll make this entry short which as it turns out is appropriate as Federer once again failed to provide significant drama in his resounding victory for his 10th Grand Slam title.

If Federer is going to be beaten - especially by someone without the surname Nadal - one has to keep the pressure on early and play fearless tennis. Fernando Gonzalez has played in such a manner all tournament and it yielded him two set points in the first stanza against Roger, on his terrific serve. But no matter how how well Gonzalez had played in Melbourne up to this point, competing in a final against Federer creates tension and nervousness that one can't hope to prepare for.

Gonzalez was clearly rattled on the second set point as he lined up what should have been a relatively easy forehand winner but he swung too hard - perhaps wary of seeing the swift Federer already moving into posoitoin - when just a solid stroking of the yellow orb would have been enough, and the ball fell limply into the net. After that point, the outcome was never in doubt.

This is how it almost always is with Federer; an opponent has an early chance to put pressure on, take the lead and force Federer to play from behind which he is not accustomed to. But the balance shifted with Gonzalez' confidence going down and Federer's skyrocketing and the die was cast.

Gonzalez started slicing his backhand more, forgoing the offensive, flat drives he had so successfully played in his previous matches and court positioning was also one of retreat, standing several feet behind the baseline whereas in the first set he was stepping into the court, as he had all tournament long.

As the television commentators, especially Mary Carillo and Dick Enberg, tell the viewer all the time one runs out of pages in the thesaurus when trying to describe the Swiss star's level of play. So I will refrain from raining superlatives. And while I'm briefly on the topic of commentators, while ESPN did a fairly decent job all around, the constant chatter is tiresome which is why watching tennis late at night with the volume low is one of the benefits of Australian Open tennis viewing here in Gotham.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Wilander, Sampras...Gonzalez?

After Fernando Gonzalez continued his blitz through the draw, demolishing Tommy Haas in straight sets early this morning, I immediately thought of two previous historic dashes through a tournament which resulted in a Grand Slam triumph: Mats Wilander at the 1982 French Open and Pete Sampras at the 1990 US Open.

Unseeded and with little attention paid to him, Mats Wilander stunned the tennis world by shredding the draw at the 1982 French Open, claiming wins over the number 2, 3, 4 and 5 seeds - #2 Lendl in the fourth round, #3 Vilas in the finals , #4 Clerc in the semifinals and #5 Vitas Gerulaitis in the quarterfinals.

While Pete Sampras was not the unknown entity that Wilander was, his number 12 seeding didn't exactly focus early attention on himself during the 1990 US Open fortnight. But starting with his 4th round defeat of sixth seeded Thomas Muster, Sampras defeated three Hall of Famers to claim the first of his record fourteen Grand Slam titles - Ivan Lendl in the quarterfinals, John McEnroe in the semifinals and his long time foil Andre Agassi in the finals.

Can Gonzalez pull off the impossible and defeat the seemingly impenetrable Roger Federer? If he did, I would rank his run through the tournament as equal to the Wilander and Sampras marches.

If he were to defeat the Swiss star, Gonzalez will have defeated the number 1 (Federer of course), 2 (Nadal), 5 (James Blake), 12 (Tommy Haas) and 19 (Lleyton Hewitt) seeds. Now, Wilander's victories of four of the top five seeds is more impressive on sheer numerical rankings and Sampras played a brand of tennis never before seen, introducing the greatest serve ever to be on display in men's tennis - a win over Federer at the peak of his career on a surface perfectly suited to him - and yes, this style hard court favors Federer's game even more than grass, contrary to some belief - would elevate Gonzalez' play to equal standing with the afore-mentioned.

What separates Gonzalez potential Grand Slam title from the inaugural salvos from the careers of Wilander and Sampras is that the two Hall of Famers were just starting out. Gonzalez is in tennis' version of late middle age. But in some ways this is what makes his level of play so impressive. He was not an unknown coming into Australia, as players were well aware of the raw talent and power he possesses. And the manner in which he has played Federer-like, flawless, error-less tennis has already made this a career changing event for the soon to be 27 year old Chilean.

My predictions have been so awful that I'm going to throw objective, seasoned analysis aside and select Gonzalez to win in four sets. This pick is generated more from a rooting interest and a desire to prove that Federer is indeed human! But if Gonzalez does indeed play at the level he has exhibited thus far in his lambasting of his previous three foes, I can't imagine this match not being very close. It should be entertaining to watch.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


Seven and a half months now and counting since Rafael Nadal last won a tournament or even reached a final.

Proving that his dismantling of local hero Lleyton Hewitt and his demoralizing trouncing of James Blake in the two previous rounds was no fluke, Fernando Gonzalez unleashed his full arsenal of weapons and defeated one of the pre-tournament favorites Rafael Nadal in three surprisingly easy sets.

Augmenting his well known nuclear forehand with superb serving and error-free play Gonzalez never let Nadal into the match. Rafa did hold a break point in the third set but could not apply enough pressure to rattle the focused Chilean who throughout much of his career has been hounded by a fragile psyche and inconsistent play.

After watching this dismantling one is left with the impression that not even Roger Federer could have survived the offensive onslaught that Gonzalez inflicted so completely on the world's number two player.

It's hard to identify a turning point because Gonzalez was in control from the start. Nadal did seemingly play through a bothersome thigh injury in the last set but by that point the die had been cast. I had suggested that Nadal needed to serve a very high percentage of first serves and he did, placing 70% of them in play. However, the second serve statistic proves most telling as that is when Gonzalez can cheat to the forehand side and line up a missile. Nadal won only 35% of second serves and that proved to be fatal.

Gonzalez simply did not make mistakes. His ratio of winners to unforced errors has been astounding the entire fortnight and tonight was no different, striking 41 winners to just 16 unforced errors. The usually mistake-free tennis Nadal plays was obviously disrupted by the anxiety caused by Gonzalez' power, forcing the Spaniard into going for more whenever he had the opportunity, as he secured only 14 winners to 21 unforced errors.

Hard to say what Nadal could have done to blunt the offense brought on by Gonzalez. If anything, it serves as yet another wake up call that he is going to have to continually step into the court - except on his beloved clay - and get control of the point at the start of the rally if he wants to continue to elevate his game for all surfaces. This had to have been a disheartening defeat for him as the slower hard court surface would seem to have been suited for his play.

Does Tommy Haas, who defeated the third seed Nikolay Davydenko earlier in the day, have a chance against Gonzo? After watching this exhibition my first reaction is to say he'd be lucky to have a close set against Gonzalez. If he were to make it a close match, Haas would have to volley beautifully because that would be his only opening, to put constant pressure on Gonzalez and hope his ground strokes break down.

The winner of the Roddick-Federer semifinal would normally think that their toughest match is behind them. Not in this case. If Gonzalez does indeed beat Haas and reaches the final, whoever triumphs in the first men's semifinal will have their hands full and may find themselves, as Nadal will be this evening and Blake and Hewitt experienced previously this week, having nightmares where they're watching in futility as forehand missiles launched by Gonzalez whiz by.

Federer and Roddick should be hugely entertaining tonight- well, early morning Gotham time- and I hope it goes the distance.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Nadal-Murray: Start of something special; Roddick is ready for Roger

Rafael Nadal's grueling five set victory over Andy Murray should be a portent of things to come between the two. In the end, Nadal's fitness proved to be the difference. It was a high quality match and a perfect test for Rafa. Murray's all-court game, ability to change speed and spins and overall shot-making prowess is not too dissimilar from Roger Federer's game, though obviously nowhere near Roger's league at this point.

Murray's self-berating screams may have reminded some that his attitude still needs some adjustment but I see his moans more in the light of self-exhorting and it's clear to this viewer that coach Brad Gilbert has made a significant difference in the competitiveness of his star young charge.

Gracious gesture of the match - Nadal pointing to the crowd to acknowledge Murray as they cheered at the end of the match.

One more comment about this match - the line call that wasn't challenged. Would the outcome been different? Murray will probably have that in his head for a while....

The nearly four hour match may have been exhausting for Nadal but he is rewarded in other ways - the two players who would cause the greatest threat to Nadal advancing to the final were eliminated, James Blake and Thomas Berdych.

Fernando Gonzalez, Blake's conqueror, will by no means be an easy foe for Nadal. Coach Larry Stefanki has clearly made a tangible difference in Gonzalez playing a smarter brand of power tennis - though clearly his game is still built around his nuclear forehand. One of the overlooked aspects of Gonzalez is his ability to play on all surfaces. (I made a reference in the last blog entry regarding the Chilean's stirring victory in Davis Cup play, contested on grass in California versus James Blake last year).

Nadal and Gonzalez last met in the 2006 Italian Open, during the midst of Nadal's historic clay court season. Nadal beat Gonzalez easily in straight sets serving an extraordinary -84% - percentage of first serves. If Gonzalez' level of play against Blake is any indication, Nadal will have to serve near that well again to continue to put the pressure on Gonzalez and not allow him to dictate points.

Gonzalez knows that Nadal will try to direct as many topspin forehands as humanly possible into the Chilean's backhand side - very similar to the strategy he has employed so effectively against King Roger. Gonzalez will look to take advantage of every short ball that Nadal offers and attack aggressively. I look for the return of serve to be the key factor for both players. I see Nadal winning in 4 tight sets.

Andy Roddick is looking primed to face Federer in the semifinals - almost sure to be a night match which means adjusting sleeping habits yet again. Clearly inspired by the court side guidance of coach Jimmy Connors, Roddick is going into the semifinal in perfect position - if such a position ever exists when facing the world umber one. Roddick held off spirited challenges by Marat Safin and Mario Ancic before an easy quarterfinal rout of friend Mardy Fish. Having intense matches in the middle of the tournament can only aid Roddick's confidence as he continues to expand his all court repertoire. And by having an easy time of it in the quarterfinals he should be 100% physically for the anticipated semifinal.

Federer, on the other hand has barely broke a sweat in his matches. Tommy Robredo did put up a fight but at no time was Roger in any real trouble. This may not be the best t hing for Federer. I don't think it's good to be worn out by exhausting matches in the early rounds but not having any significant challenge before facing an inspired Roddick may work against Federer. Federer is still the favorite but I see this contest going the distance. I look for Roddick to come out strong, especially on serve and take the first set. After that, Federer will find his groove and defeat the American in a thrilling five set encounter.

Forgotten and neglected by most who analyze the men's game - including yours truly - the steady Nikolay Davedenko has made it to the quarterfinals virtually unnoticed. His oppooent, Tommy Haas has also flown under the radar through the Melbourne fortnight. These two encountered each other at the last Grand Slam, the 2006 US Open with Davydenko losing the first two sets only to come back and win in five. This is a difficult one to judge. Again, Haas must serve at a high level. Davydenko rarely beats himself and is not easy to overpower - look at the way he took care of Berdychwith relative ease. Davydenko is playing with the confidence that the world #3 should possess and should dispatch the German in 4 sets.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Predictions Gone Awry... ESPN Annoyance

Well so much for any supposed clairvoyance I possess. So far, all of my day 8 quarterfinal predictions failed. I am most surprised by Blake's lack of fight against Gonzalez.

And the way it looks now, I may face a clear sweep of my predictions. The Rafael Nadal-Andy Murray match is being contested as I write this around 7 AM New York time, closing in on midnight Melbourne time. Murray has just taken the first set in a tiebreak. It'd be nice to watch this match but due to ESPN's baffling programming, I am left to watch numbers flash periodically on the screen from the official Australian Open web site.

In the past, ESPN has moved live programming to one of its infinite channels - most commonly ESPN Classic, when matches run overtime. But unfortunately not on this Monday morning. And with this match being one of the most anticipated of the tournament and the fact that it is being played at a reasonable hour for viewing, as opposed to 3AM, I find it ridiculous that ESPN is depriving the loyal tennis fan of watching the match.

In this information-impossible-to-avoid society we inhabit, I will find it a difficult task to avoid the score of this tussle before ESPN airs the taped version at 3 this afternoon. But I'll try nonetheless and hope for Rafa to triumph to preserve some respect for my forecasting.

Sunday, January 21, 2007


MUST SEE VIEWING FOR ALL TENNIS FANS! Sunday should turn out to be a scintillating day for tennis (as well as a great football day too for the sports fan, with the conference championship games being played) from Melbourne as all four men's 4th round matches are intriguing. In fact, I would rank these 4 matches as perhaps the best day of round of 16 contests I have seen in quite some time in a Grand Slam.

The entire lower half of the draw - seeds 2, 3, 5, 8, 10, 12, 13 and 15 - have advanced according to design. This is highly unusual in contemporary Grand Slam tennis. And the matches that will be played in the late evening and early morning (East Coast time) should provide ample drama for the sleep-deprived American tennis fan.

Perhaps the most anticipated match of the four is that of 2nd seed Rafael Nadal taking on 15th seed Andy Murray. Murray's coach, and ESPN employee, Brad Gilbert has apparently designed a game plan for Murray to deal with the muscular Spaniard. This will be interesting to watch as I'm sure part of the game plan is to shorten points significantly against Nadal. Though Murray has improved his fitness and overall competitive instincts, if the match goes deep into a fourth and fifth set, I see Nadal outlasting the Scot. I expect Nadal to also be aggressive and not be content with just hoping to exhaust Murray, being aggressive with any short balls and making sure to keep Murray on the defensive. This should be the start of a several year rivalry between the two.

One other note about this match - much has been made, as I've noted above, about Gilbert's influence on Murray's rapidly improve game, both fitness and strategy-wise. If Nadal were to lose this match and not adjust accordingly to Murray's strengths, then the calls will be louder for Rafa to seek additional coaching advice.
Prediction- Nadal in 4 sets

If Nadal were to defeat Murray, he would take on the winner of the James Blake-Fernando Gonzalez match. This one could easily go the distance, as their past history indicates. They've met six times, with each man claiming three victories, although Gonzalez has won the last three contests. The last time they played was a thriller in Davis Cup with Gonzalez defeating Blake on grass in California in five thrilling sets.

If there was ever a match to showcase the modern style of tennis, this is it - powerful first serves and even more powerful forehands. These two should put on a brilliant display of shot-making, however inconsistent.

Prediction: I find this one truly impossible to call but I'll go with Blake in 5 sets. Barely.

Tommy Haas and David Nalbandian will square off in the "top half" of this quarter. This contest is quite difficult to call as neither man really holds a significant advantage. The two have faced each other just twice, with Haas taking both matches. David Nalbandian has proven time and again that he is willing to go the distance. His many 5 set matches in big tournaments make picking against Nalbandian always a tricky proposition. If Haas doesn't serve at an exceedingly high rate, I expect Nalbandian to win. The Argentine must also return well and consistently try to hit with misdirection, wrong footing the German.

Prediction: Nalbandian in 4 sets

Perhaps the most overlooked player in the entire draw is Thomas Berdych. He is one of the few men in the world to claim victories over both Nadal and Federer. And he poses serious danger to the hopes of Nadal advancing to the final if he were to beat Davydenko. But Davydenko has taken all four matches against Berdych and has in fact only lost one set in the process. But I see Berdych putting up much more of a fight against the steady and consistent Russian. After all, he demolished Davydenko's tempermental countryman Dmitry Tursunov in the 3rd round in straight sets.

Prediction - I see this being an odd match with Berdych firing away with inconsistency yet playing well enough on big points to win in 5 sets.

To note - Roger Federer has benefited from a relatively easy draw while his probable semi-final opponent Andy Roddick has played two brilliant matches in a row against formidable foes in Marat Safin and Mario Ancic. I see this actually helping Roddick if he plays the Swiss genius as his attacking game is looking more refined with each match he plays.