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.