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.