Monthly Archives: April 2006

Calling out Nadal: Monte Carlo final 2006

It’s called bulletin board material. A particularly mouthy, and sometimes not too bright, player will call out the other team before an important game. The quote is posted on the bulletin board in the opponent’s locker room to make sure everyone is appropriately offended and the mouthy player’s teammates remind him to keep his mouth shut next time.

This time the player’s name was Roger Federer. After his semifinal win over Fernando Gonzalez in Monte Carlo, this is what he said about playing Nadal in the final: “He’s quite one-dimensional with his game. …After Dubai, I thought I actually saw the way I should play against him.”

Confidence or wishful thinking? Let’s see.

It’s not looking good at the beginning. Federer hit a double fault on break point in his first service game. He looked out of sorts. Balls were either out of the court or right where Nadal wanted them. Federer went down 0-3 with a drop shot that went wide. Then he had Nadal down 0-30 in the fourth game and hit an approach right at Nadal who, of course, passed him. Serving at 0-4, he hit an approach shot that landed right in Nadal’s wheelhouse.

This is not so good for me or tennis. I spend the hard court season thinking of new ways to extol Federer and the clay court season lauding Nadal. Where is everyone else?

It wasn’t the net play that let him down in the first set though, he got to the net fifteen times and won eleven points there, it was his baseline play. Federer managed to hold his serve in that fourth game but he had fourteen unforced errors by that point, the vast majority on his backhand side. And he would have preferred to get to the net more than fifteen times but Nadal kept him too far behind the baseline with his topspin loopers.

Nadal’s combination of anticipation and defense is unparalleled in the game. In the second game of the second set, Federer tried to pass Nadal down the line after drawing him to the net with a drop shot. The ball ticked the net and Nadal flicked it back. Federer took the ball out of the air with his backhand but Nadal picked it off at the net and put it away. Anticipation.

At 3-3 in the second set, Federer hit an inside out forehand that landed just inside the baseline. Nadal went into a full squat to get the ball back down the line and put it out of reach. Federer’s winner became Nadal’s winner. It gave Nadal a break point and he went up 4-3. Defense.

This is not so good for me or tennis. I spend the hard court season thinking of new ways to extol Federer and the clay court season lauding Nadal. Where is everyone else?

Nadal served for the second set at 5-4 and got a bit of nerves. Still, it took Federer four break points and a Nadal drop shot into the net before they were back on serve. In the tiebreaker, Federer had everything working. He got his first serve in and was able to move Nadal out of court and get to the net. The match was even at one set all.

In the third set, Nadal was the aggressor and he continued to hammer Federer’s backand. Up 4-3, Nadal got his second break point in the game on a Federer backhand mishit then served out the set to go up two sets to one.

Federer was sailing along at 40-0 in the first game of the fourth set then hit three errors and lost the game. In the next game he mishit yet another ball and yelled something that sounded very much like “idiot.” If that wasn’t bad enough, he argued a line call that gave Nadal a break point to go up 3-0. Federer seldom argues line calls. Nadal was now up two breaks and it looked pretty bad.

Then Federer stopped making so many errors and you could see that he might have figured out how to play Nadal. He got both breaks back and made it to the tiebreaker. Federer went up 4-2 with superb net play and a Nadal-like topspin angled shot then he missed an approach opportunity and put a ball in the net. Nadal took the opportunity to be aggressive himself and finally put the match away with a forehand winner down the line.

Nadal had his fourth victory in five matches with Federer, 6-2, 6-7(2), 6-3, 7-6(5).

Federer did not have a good day today. “I was not serving well enough or just playing well enough from the baseline. I thought I gave him a little too much,” he said after the match. That’s about right. The second set was the only time all day his first serve percentage got above 60 percent. And when was the last time he converted only four of eighteen break points?

Still, we have to ask: has Federer found a way to play Nadal? Federer was able to get to the net and win most of his points there – the cornerstone of his strategy against Nadal – yet Nadal said after the match, “I was beating him easier today than in Paris (the French Open).”

If Federer gets to the net as he did today and has a better game from the baseline, then we can answer that question.

Jousting in Ettenheim: Fed Cup 2006

The first round Fed Cup match between the US and Germany is being played at the Tennis Club Ettenheim in Ettenheim, Germany. As the players filed off the clay court after the opening ceremonies, six women in beautiful satin gowns with large hoop skirts paraded past the net carrying large staffs that could have been mistaken for medieval jousting lances except for their forked ends. I am probably mistaken, if they were martial weapons, women wouldn’t be carrying them, but Ettenheim has been around since 800 so it’s easy for my imagination to see medieval jousting battles in this small town in the middle of the Black Forest.

I’m sure you didn’t realize that jousting is the state sport of Maryland. Don’t worry, it’s ring jousting not mortal combat. The winner is the one who can poke their lance through the smallest ring.

Get used to it. Davenport is on the down side, Venus is uncommitted, and Serena is missing in action. This is the face of women’s tennis for the foreseeable future.

Jamea Jackson’s job might be harder than that. She’s ranked number 75 in the world and her opponent in the first rubber was number 14 ranked Anna Lena Groenefeld.

The US Fed Cup team, coached by Zina Garrison, has one thirty-two year old, Jill Craybas, and three youngsters: Jackson is nineteen; Shenay Perry, ranked number 88, is twenty-one; and Vania King, number 91, is also nineteen. Get used to it. Davenport is on the down side, Venus is uncommitted, and Serena is missing in action. This is the face of women’s tennis for the foreseeable future.

There’s a lot to be said for having nothing to lose. This is Jackson’s first Fed Cup appearance and she’s not supposed to beat Groenefeld. Groenefeld is leading her country and the pressure seemed to affect her. She hit double faults and made poor shot choices. Jackson won the first set easily, 6-2.

Groenefeld made her way back into the match with fits and starts. At 3-3 in the second set, she broke Jackson. Serving for the second set at 5-3, she was all the way back. Her serve was working and she hit three balls behind Jackson for winners to take the second set 6-3. I expected her to take over now but it didn’t happen.

Jackson got a break point at 3-2 in the second set and Groenefeld over-hit the ball – she still seemed anxious – to give Jackson the game. No one wanted this match. In the next game, Jackson hit two ugly backhand overheads in a row – how can you hit a two-handed overhead on a high ball, I ask you? – and gave the break back.

I have to give Jackson credit, she’s in the bottom 25 the top 100, not the top 25, yet she was doing what she had to do: use her quickness to get the ball back and hit winners when the opportunity presented itself. She couldn’t afford mistakes, though. At 4-4, she hit a double fault then Groenefeld followed her return to the net to get a break point. Groenefeld’s next return was a beautiful inside out forehand that landed on the line and she was ready to serve for the match. Surely now she would take over.

Nope, four straight errors. This was a match where you could skip the first two sets, much of the third and watch the last few games without really missing a lot

Jackson got a match point when Groenefeld hit another double fault while serving at 5-6. After the fourth deuce of the game, Groenefeld hit an error to give Jackson her second match point. One more Groenefeld error and Jackson had the match, 6-2, 3-6, 7-5.

Craybas beat Julia Schruff, 4-6 ,6-2, 7-5, to put the US up 2-0. The US should be able to take one of the three matches tomorrow. The doubles follow the reverse singles in Fed Cup unlike Davis Cup where the doubles come in the middle day. The young US team has now gone from underdog to favorite. Hopefully they can handle the pressure better than Groenefeld did.

Coria shoots Nadal

Guillermo Coria was down 2-4 in the first set of his quarterfinal match against Rafael Nadal on the fourth deuce of a game he had to have. He’d played two three set matches in a row, finished late last night, and now he needed a point off the tireless Nadal.

Coria hit a softie second serve and Nadal ran outside the court for a forehand return. Coria then ran Nadal all the way to the opposite side of the court and tried to hit behind him on his next shot. He followed that with a shot down the line and Nadal had to slide over and hit a one-handed backhand. Coria came in and hit an approach that Nadal had to lunge for. Coria covered it easily and hit a drop volley to the point farthest from Nadal’s last position. [blockquote]By the time Nadal got to the ball, and he did, he was in a virtual split gliding across the “Monte Carlo” graphic in the red dirt closer to the ballboy than the service line. Coria put the ball back to the far corner, again, and by the time Nadal got to it, all he could do was put up a relatively short overhead. Coria couldn’t put the overhead away and Nadal tried to hit it down the line past Coria but didn’t succeed. Coria hit a backhand volley well within Nadal’s range and Nadal hit a passing shot. The ball floated just above Coria’s backhand shoulder and Coria volleyed it hard down the line and out of Nadal’s reach. Finally.

Coria was still standing at the net as he put his racket up to his shoulder, aimed at Nadal, and took an imaginary shot.

Nadal got a break point in the game then Coria watched helplessly as a Nadal backhand tipped the net and dropped onto the other side. End of game, Nadal was now up 5-2.

After losing the first set, 6-2, then losing his serve on the first game of the second set, Coria walked to his seat and held onto the side of his seat. “I was concerned because I was trembling. I felt nauseous,” he said after the match. A doctor took his blood pressure and Coria went back on the court. On the first point, Nadal hit a ball to the middle of the court. Coria slipped while going for it and the ball almost hit him in the head. Afterwards, he closed his eyes and shook his head as if to wake himself up. It was sheer exhaustion and he never recovered. Nadal won the match 6-2, 6-1.

You can see why Coria will play all of the tournaments leading up to the French Open. His serve is a mess and he’s not in match shape. One of those problems is easy to fix.

Coria was not the only one having physical problems today.

Fernando Gonzalez, a good clay court player, was Ivan Ljubicic’s opponent in the quarters. Luby doesn’t do clay so well. Last year, a big year for him, his best result on clay was a third round appearance if you don’t count his title at Zagreb, Croatia. And it doesn’t count because it was a Challenger tournament. He was in the top ten! What were they doing letting him into that tournament? In 2006, the tournament became a regular ATP event with a carpet surface. All the better for Ljubicic’s game.

Ljubicic had been up 4-1 in the first set but Gonzalez had battled back and was serving to even the match at 4-5 when Ljubicic limped off the court in mid-game. He had planted his left foot to move to the right and strained the bottom of this foot.

He took an anti-inflammatory but it wasn’t enough. He lost the first set and won his first game in the second set but that would be the last game he’d win.

Gonzalez almost returned the favor at 4-1 in the second set when he went into a slide then a stumble and smashed straight into a sideline barrier. His racket flew up in the air and hit a ball boy on the head as Gonzalez’s thighs slammed into the barrier. Both of them recovered and Gonzalez won the match, 7-5, 6-1.

By the way, if I search the draw for “USA,” I get zero results. Where are Roddick and Blake? Isn’t each of the nine Masters Series events a mandatory tournament?

Roger Federer beat David Ferrer and Gaston Gaudio beat Tommy Robredo by the identical lopsided score, 6-1, 6-3, so why bother talking about it? Why not just skip ahead to another Federer-Nadal final. Isn’t that what we want?

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be happy to see Federer-Nadal version five. A rivalry is a good thing and I’m excited to see if Federer has found a solution to Nadal. But I’m happy Fed Cup – jeez, can’t I get away from that name? – has arrived so I can talk about someone other than you-know-who and Nadal for a change.

Coria battles the yips

I have a small monitor on my desk and I sometimes tune it to a tennis match without the audio while I answer my email, do my bills and whatever else it is I do when I’m not writing this thing. Yesterday I watched Guillermo Coria go down 1-6, 1-5 in his second round match with Paul-Henri Mathieu then turned the monitor off. I figured it was all over. That was a big mistake.

Yes, it’s time for the clay court season. Not the U.S. Clay Court Championships in Houston where a bunch of Americans turn out and ease their way into the clay. This is the start of the French Open run with the Masters Series event in Monte Carlo and all of the big clay courters are here. My fantasy team is full of Spanish and South American players though I can’t say I have this fantasy thing down yet. Most of my players met each other in the second round and knocked each other out. Duh.

Nadal and Federer are through to the third round. They both started slowly and are gathering steam. Robin Soderling beat Potito (insert obvious nickname here) Starace in front of the few fans left after a rain delay. Starace is Italian and most of those fans were too. In addition to cheering for Starace, which you’d expect, they enjoyed applauding Soderling’s errors. Sometimes I’m embarrassed that my parents are Italian.

Coria is in a tough place. He’s in a psychological battle with his serve.

Coria came up with a masterful dropper in the first game of the match and brought his arm up in a pose that was halfway between a fist pump and a biceps flex. He needs to get pumped up. He’s been struggling lately. He’s had injuries that have bothered him to the point where he doesn’t trust his serve any more. It’s not likely that he’ll get to the final of this tournament for a fourth straight year. Mathieu has been inconsistent. He made it to the semifinals of the Masters Series Montreal last year but he lost in the first round of five tournaments this year.

Coria broke Mathieu in that first game then promptly served a double fault on his very first serve. Not a good start. Mathieu immediately got the break back.

In the fourth game, Coria swung at a Mathieu lob and completely missed then ran back and still managed to get the ball over the net. On the next shot, he tracked down a Mathieu drop shot and hit a winner. He’s a quick bugger. He had two double faults, though, and even when he did get the first serve in, Mathieu was down his throat waiting for that softie serve. It’s never just the first serve either. Coria won only one point on his eleven second serves and Mathieu took the first set, 6-1.

It’s sad to see Coria the feisty warrior reduced to using the drop shot as his main weapon. Coria is in a tough place. He’s in a psychological battle with his serve. In the first game of the second set he started with a double fault and ended up hitting five more in the same game for a total of six – isn’t that a record?

When I lived in Boston, I used to hang out at the Bull and Finch bar – exterior shots for the TV show Cheers were shot there – with my friend Gary who was a crack darts players. At some point he developed a hitch in his delivery and couldn’t release the dart without jerking his arm. It didn’t help that he was in the early stages of alcoholism but once that kind of thing starts, it’s very hard to reverse. Chuck Knoblauch, a Gold Glove, second baseman, lost the ability to make accurate throws to first base. The problem never went away and he was moved to left field.

Coria might want to call up Alex Rodriguez’s sports performance consultant, Jim Fannin, or one of the two psychologists A-Rod employed at the same time. It couldn’t hurt.

The third set resulted in a strange case of roll switching. Mathieu started channeling Coria.

In the third game of the second set, Coria hits two more double faults and it got so bad that the crowd started to encourage him. Mathieu got ahead 5-1 which is where I initially turned the match off.

Coria won his serve easily to get to 2-5 then Mathieu served for the match. Coria decided to go down swinging. He hit a deep return down the line then came to the net and won the point with an overhead to get break point. Mathieu then hit the ball long and Coria was at 3-5. Did I say that Mathieu was inconsistent?

Coria, of course, started the next match with another double fault. Mathieu got two match points in the game but couldn’t put it away as Coria was hitting those deep looping groundies and starting to look like his old self. Coria was now at 4-5. Could it be?

Mathieu continued to play aggressively but he must have been thinking, “I can’t lose to a guy who hit six double faults in one game, can I?”because he started hitting his approach shots just over the line. Still, he managed to break Coria and get to 6-5 and his third opportunity to serve for the match, but those doubting thoughts just kept coming. Mathieu hit the ball long and his serve short and Coria had made it all the way back from 1-5 to 6-6 and a tiebreaker. It wasn’t looking good for the Frenchman.

Mathieu got to 5-4 in the tiebreaker on another Coria double fault, I’ve lost track of how many there were by now, and Coria hit a return error to give Mathieu his third and fourth match points. Mathieu threw away the first and had bad luck as Coria hit a net chord on the second. Two straight Mathieu backhands into the net and Coria, improbably, had evened the match at one set all.

The third set resulted in a strange case of roll switching. Mathieu started channeling Coria. He hit a so-so drop shot on break point in the fourth game that gave Coria a 3-2 lead then faked another drop shot while losing his serve to go down 2-5. He also gave up on the approach shot. Playing the baseline against Coria is not a good idea.

In the next game, Mathieu hit another drop shot – wasn’t he listening to me? – before he finally remembered who he was and started slamming the ball. He fought off seven Coria match points in the last three games. But it was too late. He’d hiccuped just enough for Coria to believe that he could win the match. Which he did, 1-6, 7-6(6), 6-4.

It’s probably a worse loss for Mathieu than it is a great win for Coria. Coria’s serving problems aren’t likely to go away after one good come-from-behind victory and his psyche is probably stronger than Mathieu’s.

Mathieu does have two ATP titles but they were both four years ago. He must wonder what he needs to do to get himself on track. Maybe he’s the one who needs a psychologist.

Monte Carlo: Fantasy Tennis, Anyone?

The ATP has started its Fantasy Tennis game with this week’s tournament in Monte Carlo. It’s basically a fan-based game whereby participants pick eight singles players and one doubles team for each tournament in the coming year. The team with the most prize money wins the grand prize, whatever that is. I have no idea what it is; we’re all doing this for the love of sport, aren’t we? I hope so, because they aren’t giving out big bucks for this.

Basically, we’re betting on human horses, but the catch is you can only use a player five times throughout the year. So you can’t pick Roger Federer every tournament he enters, we must save him judiciously for the Slams, and maybe one or two other hard court events in the summer.

Here is my team for this coming week:


Rafael Nadal
Ivan Ljubicic
David Ferrer
Tommy Robredo
Carlos Moya
Sebastian Grosjean
Marat Safin
Tim Henman
David Nalbandian (alternate) [Pat, there is no alternate, right?]

Doubles: Jonas Bjorkman and Max Mirnyi

As I look over the list, what strikes me is there are only three guys here who are actually in the top ten: Nadal, Ljubicic and newly-arrived David Ferrer. Am I crazy or what? And some of the guys who usually do very well on clay are not among my picks at all, like Gaston Gaudio (seeded #7 in the tournament), and Guillermo Coria (#6).

There is method to the madness. Basically, I drew up a list of the sixteen players I thought would make it to the round of sixteen and chose the winner of each match. Below are my predictions for each round of sixteen match and why I think my guy will win.

Prediction: Nadal over Nieminen: This is one of the easier matches to call. Although Nieminen had a good year last year, Rafa had a better one.

Current status: Nadal is still around but Nieminen lost his first round match, so kiss this Round of 16 goodbye.

Prediction: Ljubicic over Santoro: Lube should win this match, but Fabrice the Magician can insert himself into any match, on any surface. These guys have a 3-3 record, mostly on hard courts. Look for a lot of nice touch and shot-making.

Current status: Ljubicic beat Andreev in three sets but Santoro lost his opening match so kiss this one goodbye too.

Prediction: Moya over Davydenko: I like Moya on clay, his career is winding down, but he has shown some stuff early this year and given the pride he has in his game, I think Moya would like to go out in style. Frankly, I am still something of a Davydenko Doubter and the fact Moya holds a 4-0 edge on the Russian makes me vote for Carlos coming out of this bottom section of the draw.

Current status: Things are going from bad to worse. Gonzalez proved too powerful for Moya and Davydenko earns my continuing doubt by losing to local favorite Paul-Henri Mathieu

Prediction: Ferrer over Chela: This will be a battle of two good clay courters. Chela has done pretty well lately but David Ferrer has worked his way steadily into the mix this past year. Even though Chela is 2-0, Ferrer is hot, so he gets the nod here.

Current status: They both got through their opening round matches, hooray.

Prediction: Robredo over Nalbandian: This was a tough one. Both guys have good, solid games but they’ve both been a bit streaky of late. Robredo is 1-3 against the Argentine but I like Tommy’s game better on the clay.

Current status: Both guys got through their respective first round matches. Another hooray.

Prediction: Safin over Kiefer: If these two crazy guys hook up, it will be one crazy match. They are dead even, 3-3. But Safin is playing healthy and he gets the nod here. This could be the most entertaining match in the Round of 16. Of course, Safin has to get by Guillermo Coria first, but I’ll take the giant Russian against the Argentine midget most days. Coria is in the dumps even though it is spring and clay court time, and Safin can walk on water anytime he wants to, when he’s healthy.

Current status: Kiefer survived the opening round, Safin did not. Safin looked good last week in Valencia, but that was last week. And Coria looked good against Mikhail Youzhny, so if he survives his second round match-up with Mathieu, he can get in line to sue me along with his countryman Mr. Gaudio.

Prediction: Henman over Stepanek: Henman has a 5-2 record against Radek over the years. Even though Stepanek has the higher ranking, I know Henman can play on clay. I want to see him do well, because I know a serve and volley player can win on clay. Henman to win, and yes, I did happen to notice that he has to play Gaston Gaudio, the #7 seed, in the opening round. I’m also checking out Henman’s Slazenger Pro X-1 racquet to purchase for myself this week, and while it’s a very nice-sounding piece of work it is also rather hard to find. Like the serve and volley style of the man who plays with it. So, in a nutshell, I like the racquet, I like the man, I like his game, so go ahead and sue me, Gaston. After all, they do call this Fantasy Tennis.

Current status: Yes, Gaston, you can sue me. And you should. Henman got manhandled by Gaudio rather easily.

Prediction: Grosjean over Federer: I’m nearly gagging, but if I have to save Roger for another tournament down the road, then he has to go down to the Frenchman in this round. Either Grosjean or Ljubicic would have a shot at him going into the final. It feels very weird to not be picking Federer to win this tournament but we have to hold our horses here. We’ll make Roger the main guy at the French instead. It will be a cold day in hell when Grosjean beats the Fed again even though they are 2-2 officially. The Frenchman grabbed those two wins in ’04, back before Roger became The Fed.

Current status: Grosjean did well, Roger too, but he struggled. A struggle for Federer means he loses a set. Grosjean can be an obstinate player; just when you think his career is on the fritz, he’s back in the draw bothering people. Just don’t move his fromage.

Fortunately, the doubles will be rather easy to pick for this tournament, I think, and the nod here goes to that classic duo, Jonas Bjorkman and Max Mirnyi.

Ouch! My guys are dropping somewhat fly-like going into Day Two. Nadal, Ljubicic, Ferrer, Robredo and Grosjean are the only members of my team still alive.

Stay tuned, and onward! Next week my co-writer, Nina Rota, and I will be able to tell you whether we’re dining on pheasant. Or crow. As the case may be.