What gives, guy? Your loyal fans are wondering. Two days later and your rather swift and decisive loss to Nadal in Monte Carlo is still going down hard. Maybe you need less time off in that fancy new penthouse in Dubai before you end up in the doghouse. (Check out the Annie Liebowitz pix here. Of the penthouse, that is).
Watching you is normally such a joy, Roger. One of the great joys of my life, actually, because your matches are so pleasurable to watch. For the most part. Monte Carlo was very annoying. All the things we thought you had taken away from previous encounters with Rafael Nadal seemed to go right out the window. “I feel like this match gave me some information,” you were quoted as saying afterwards. “I’m absolutely in the mix with him on clay. I feel like I’m in good shape for the rest of the clay-court season, and it’s going to come down to the French Open to see who wins.”
Keep whistling, baby. What more information could you possibly digest? You probably dream about it you know it so well. You serve Nadal like gangbusters, you return his serve well, you make major use of your forehand to open up the angles, and then you charge the net like you were born to live there. And you offer signs of some heat like you really want to rip this bouncing baby Spaniard a new one and win the bloody match already. Think semi-finals, Shanghai. What are you, Swiss or Swedish? Sometimes we wonder. But I understand that the reason you didn’t was that you didn’t feel it in your bones, you did not have confidence yourself, so we wouldn’t expect you to show it in your demeanor.
The good news is – and you hinted at this in your presser afterwards – that you were still able to keep it somewhat close even with all the misfiring going on. But guy, where is your learning curve that you were supposedly going to show us this spring on clay? Maybe I should clean my contact lenses once in a while, but I did not see it on Sunday.
After your losses to Canas, you defined your own problem by saying that you had forgotten how to play the big points. That could be said of Monte Carlo as well. In the first set, Nadal held the door open wide for you to break him in the 8th game. But your forehand suddenly committed three bad errors, in one game alone. You had two break points, gifts from on high, but you could not turn them your way, and this cost you the match.
When was the last time we saw your forehand break down to the point where you lose three points in a game? It’s hard to stay pumped up when your numero uno shot takes its leave of you. By this point in the match, you had already run up ten errors on the forehand side alone, compared to only one winner. One of the Tennis Channel guys commented how he felt you were hitting the forehand too flat; it needed more spin. What it probably really needed was a better sense of timing. I heard a lot of shanking sounds for a final match.
At the start of the second set, you saw you were getting your butt kicked and you tried to make some changes. Time to break out that kitchen sink. You rushed the net five times in your opening service game. Too little too late, we say. In the third game your serve really added to your woes and you quickly got down 0-30. At 15-40 you missed another first serve then tried to come in behind the second. Desperation time. Nadal knows where to park that one and it‘s where you‘re not. He had the only break in the second he would need. 6-4, 6-4 was the final score and it probably doesn’t convey how thoroughly Nadal held you in his grip Sunday.
Other parts of your game crashed too. Your backhand let you down a bit. Not like the forehand side. But still. The backhand went for topspin nearly the entire way, a bit of slicing here and there might have helped. Were you afraid it would sit up on the clay, unlike the grass where it stays lower, and you’d get it knocked back down your throat by Nadal? Something to worry about, but this is the kitchen sink time, guy, you have to try it. On the return of serve you couldn’t find the groove either. You talked about this earlier in the week, saying how the return game gave you trouble early in the clay season. It’s a timing thing. It wasn’t that Nadal kept you OUT of the points, guy, it’s that your own game’s deficiencies sunk you on Sunday. Your serve didn’t really let you into the points, nor did the forehand, or your baseline play in general. You will never beat this guy from the back of the court. At least not this court.
But knowing these things, Roger, should you not have been better prepared for them? What happened to that get up and go you felt for the clay season? You supposedly were going to mount a big campaign to do well on the red stuff this year. Maybe you hoped to play your way here into contention, and for a moment there – against Ferrer and Ferrero – you nearly had me convinced you could do it. But that was Ferrer and Ferrero, “F” as in flyweights, not Nadal. You have to come prepared, and I did not sense you were ready. And you have to be, when you are facing an opponent who looked in great form throughout the week.
So back to the drawing board, Roger. It’s clear to us that you have hit the first real snag in your otherwise rather spotless, and fortunate, career. Fortunate because you have paced your body well and suffered no major injuries, and that is important if you want to not only reach the top but stay there a while. But you are having a hiccup. Don’t obsess about it, just do your homework better next time. Put down your fine Gucci threads and take up the hair shirt, my son. I want to see you in better form in Rome.
It worries me though when you say things like this: that you expected to see better results against Nadal in Rome, Hamburg and then (curiously) Monte Carlo NEXT year. Roger, aren’t you forgetting something? Was that a Freudian shank, or what?
The good news though is that Mats Wilander has already said you would win the French this year. As long as Nadal doesn’t make it to the final. So work harder on your game, but line up a hit man. Just in case.