Category Archives: AMS Rome

B**tch and Sing Dept: Early Rounds in Rome

When the draw came out this weekend for the ATP Masters event in Rome, several matches leaped out right away from the opening round as promising good battles. Roger Federer faced Nicholas Almagro, a Spaniard with a pretty huge forehand and a good record on clay. Ivan Ljubicic got to see another huge guy in his opener, Jose Acasuso of Argentina. Marat Safin faced a younger version of himself in Amer Delic, formerly of Bosnia, now a U.S. citizen. Tommy Haas faced off against the crafty Radek Stepanek. Marcos Baghdatis got Carlos Moya. Richard Gasquet drew Fernando Verdasco and James Blake faced off against Frenchman Gael Monfils.

It never occurred to anyone, certainly not to me, that Andy Murray would be the one who ended up in a barrel of trouble against Gilles Simon, or that Lleyton Hewitt would go out against Oscar Hernandez. Their matches looked relatively easy. But unfortunately the one bad day of weather – the opening day – saw sun, then clouds, then rain and delays affect play. After dropping the first set, Murray grabbed the second 6-1 and had the momentum then the rain delay came. He could not keep it going and Simon ran away with the third set, 6-3. Goodbye, Mr. Murray. He arrived in the Top Ten just recently only to lose his first match here. A poor omen, no? So far the only changes he seems to be showing in his game are that he’s incorporating more black into his wardrobe. Brad Gilbert would hope he incorporates a little more. It has not been an auspicious start to his year.

Hewitt should have handled Hernandez even though Oscar has been showing up in the later rounds lately and we are starting to remember his name. It was fun to see Hernandez play for the first time. He’s got a quaint roly-poly windup on his forehand and his backhand, but he hits through the ball well and kept Hewitt pinned behind the baseline. The rain delay compromised Hewitt too. He never found his rhythm. The upshot of these upsets is that Tommy Robredo, the top seed in this portion of the draw, has a better road ahead of him. Now he only has to worry about Guillermo Canas, who blistered his way through another qualifying round and found himself in Robredo’s section. They could meet in the Round of 16.

Ljubicic had a few decent results last year on clay but Acasuso is more comfortable on this surface. Ivan had an off day serving and was not nearly aggressive enough against the big-hitting Argentinian. Acasuso kept his nerve and his serve and closed Ljubicic out in two sets. Thank you, Comcast, for cutting away to your monthly testing of the emergency response system right when Acasuso had two match points on Ljubicic’s serve. I don’t know which one he closed on, but he had two chances. Sigh. At least I am safe in my bed!

Haas against Stepanek promised an interesting battle of experienced hands at the all-court play but Haas’ problems continue. After a good start early in the year, Tommy is now taking two steps backward. Injuries are creeping in and today he retired with a shoulder problem after dropping the first set. Carlos Moya is another veteran on the clay but today Baghdatis kept his mental house in order and offed the Mallorcan in two brisk sets.

James Blake against Gael Monfils should have gladdened our hearts – had they met a year ago when both were doing better. Now they look as shaky as lambs off to slaughter. Lucky for James he ran into a guy today who is even more of a Head Case than he is right now. Monfils has lost six times in a row in the first round of the tournaments he has played. Blake closed it out relatively easily in two sets.

One of the more entertaining matches featured Safin against Delic. Both are big guys with smooth deep strokes and powerful serves. Today it was a battle to see which forehand would head south first. Delic impressively captured the first set then saw his forehand nearly break down completely in the second. In the third he lost the break early to Safin but showed some fortitude in preventing any more hemorrhaging of games. Safin kept it together when he needed to and squeaked out the victory, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4. Next up for Safin is countryman Davydenko and considering how erratic both have played this year, I would not want to call this match. I hope it’s Safin but don’t bet anything because we never know which Safin will show up.

Richard Gasquet continues to improve this spring on the clay. His match against another big clay court hitter, Fernando Verdasco, could have slipped away from him in the second set tiebreak and spilled over into a third set. Such as what happened in their marathon meeting a few weeks ago in Monte Carlo when Gasquet was stretched to three sets. He seems more aggressive now in recognizing when he needs to close things out, pack his bags up and head back to the hotel. The man who sits next to him in the draw, Tomas Berdych, had an easy time of it too, quietly moving through Jarkko Nieminen in straight sets. Gasquet will most likely meet Federer in the Round of 16 then Federer would have Berdych in the quarterfinals. While they don’t have winning records against the world’s number one – after all, who does except you know who – both youngsters have the games to bother Federer. I look forward to those encounters here.

As for Federer’s play today against big hitter Nicholas Almagro, we can say only one thing: Where were you hiding it, Roger? We should have seen this play in Monte Carlo. He served well, got the first serve in, and had an even better percentage (74% vs. 70%) on winning points off his second serve. The forehand showed a lot of confidence: he ran around it several times to attack Almagro’s big weapon, his forehand. But what impressed me most was that Roger seemed engagé, as the French like to say. He seemed energized and ready to rumble. A few more forays into net and he’ll be just about perfect.

OK, I stick my neck out for no man, but for you, Roger, I’ll say: Play like this on Sunday and you might actually beat that bum-picking, bottle-sorting, line-sweeping, time-eater Nadal.

My picks:
Quarters: Federer-Berdych, Roddick-Blake, Canas-Safin, Djokovic-Nadal.

(I totally agree with my co-writer Nina Rota about the bottom half of Federer’s side. It’s a total mess. Now that David Ferrer was outed today in straight sets by Igor Andreev, I am actually looking at the chances of the Yanks Roddick and Blake. This isn’t patriotism talking, it’s just that Gonzalez is so fragile right now).

Semis: Federer-Roddick, Canas-Nadal
Final: Roger Roger Over And Out

Retiring in Rome

Qualifiers and veterans are retiring this week and a few other players look like they should.

This Qualifier Is Ready for Retirement

Juan Martin Del Potro is building a highly undesirable reputation for fragility. Last week he retired in his second round match in Estoril, he retired in his second round match at the Australian Open, he even retired during his first round match in qualifying this week. Most of the time these retirements only hurt Del Potro, but when he retired in a match against James Blake in Las Vegas, he deprived Blake of an opportunity to advance to the knockout round of the round robin tournament. That in turn rang the death knell for the round robin format when ATP CEO Etienne de Villiers tried to advance Blake anyway thus showing that it was silly to think that fans could understand the round robin rules when de Villiers didn’t know them himself.

It reminds me of something I read in a book about a Zen monastery called The Empty Mirror. A Zen priest castigated his student by pointing out the consequences of the student’s carelessness:

“I saw you turn a corner the other day and you didn’t hold out your hand. Because of your carelessness a truck driver, who happened to be driving behind you, got into trouble and had to drive his truck on the sidewalk where a lady driving a pram hit a director of a large trading company. The man, who was in a bad mood already, fired an employee who might have stayed on. That employee got drunk that night and killed a young man who could have been a Zen master.”

Besides the fact that it took me less than five minutes to find this quote in a book I read more than twenty years ago just by entering “zen mirror carelessness” into the google search bar, there’s a lesson here. The only thing Del Potro might have killed is round robin and most people are happy about that, but if he’d been more aware, he would have completed the match with Blake. And if he didn’t feel well enough to play, he’d have given up his qualifying spot in Rome which would have allowed someone else to enter.

There was another notable incident in qualifying. Guillermo Canas is running up the rankings ladder so quickly that he’s now number 21 in the world. But a short while ago he wasn’t ranked high enough to get into the draw here so he had to qualify. That meant that he was ranked higher than his first round opponent – Jurgen Melzer, number 32 – even though he was a qualifier. Poor Melzer lost easily, 7-5, 6-2. And Tomas Berdych is probably not happy that he’s ranked number 12 yet he has to play the number 22 – Jarkko Nieminen. Aren’t you supposed to lower ranked players in the first round?

Clijsters Retires and Hewitt Runs Out of Gas

We knew Kim Clijsters was ready to leave the game but not quite so soon. She’s only twenty-three years old but she’s so beat up she has to stretch for an hour after she wakes up just to get going. That was just too much so she abruptly announced her retirement over the weekend. Ten years on the tour and she’s worn out.

Clijsters’ former fiancé Lleyton Hewitt isn’t looking so good himself. He’s only in his ninth year and he’s had multiple injuries the past few seasons. Today he lost the third set 1-6 to qualifier Oscar Hernandez. It’s not surprising that Hewitt is breaking down. He never had enough offense to dictate matches so he wore himself out playing defense and exercising his indomitable will.

Are current players wearing out sooner? A quick look at a few recent slam winners says yes. Lindsay Davenport lasted thirteen years, Monica Seles fourteen, and Steffi Graf fifteen. On the men’s side, Jim Courier played for twelve years, John McEnroe fourteen, Ivan Lendl sixteen, and Andre Agassi twenty.

Twenty years might be too much too ask but ten years is a decided drop from the last crop of big players. There are as many reasons for this drop as there are reasons for the increasing number of injuries on tour: more travel, harder hit balls, luxilon strings, shorter off-season… Feel free to add your own. The WTA and ATP are desperately making changes to keep their top players in one piece but it’s not a trend that’s likely to change anytime soon.

Enjoy your favorite players while you still can.

See Also:
Rerun in Rome: Preview and Picks

Rerun in Rome: Preview and Picks

Will Rome be a three man race between Canas, Federer and Nadal?

I got all excited there for a moment. I saw Guillermo Canas in the qualifying draw here in Rome and thought to myself, wow, how great would it be if Canas ended up in Roger Federer’s half of the draw? All of a sudden there would be a real possibility that Federer might lose and we’d have a three man race instead of the usual two way race that passes for ATP tennis these days.

Two years ago, Rafael Nadal and Guillermo Coria played an epic five hour match in the final with Coria suffering a heartbreaking loss in the fifth set tiebreaker. Last year, Nadal and Federer played an epic five hour match in the final with Federer losing in the fifth set tiebreaker. Coria lost his confidence after a shoulder injury and hasn’t played this year, Federer was ineffective against Nadal in the Monte Carlo final two weeks ago, and Rome will no longer play best of five matches in its final.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Canas ended up on Rafael Nadal’s side of the draw and now I’ll have to wait until next week in Hamburg or two weeks after that at Roland Garros to get excited again. If you want to beat Nadal, you have to attack the net and rush him otherwise he’ll have time to run around his backhand all day long. Federer is the only clay court player who can do that. Canas has shown that he can beat Federer – he’s beaten him twice this year – but Nadal is beyond his skill set.

Enjoy back to back clay court Masters events while you can, by the way. Hamburg will probably be downgraded by 2009. The ATP is eliminating back to back Masters events and five set finals and using a fifty-six player draw. The smaller draw gives the top eight players a first round bye so they only have to play five matches to win the title. The point of all this is to make life easier for the top players and encourage them to turn up at required tournaments.

Nadal’s Half of the Draw

So far it’s working. All top ten players are present and accounted for in Rome. I had no idea that Djokovic was up to number five. Wasn’t he number ten only a few weeks ago? He beat Richard Gasquet for the title in Estoril this week and looks to be the only player standing in Nadal’s way. Djokovic and Nadal should meet in the quarterfinals.

Andy Murray has yet to show much on clay, Nikolay Davydenko hurt his wrist, and Tommy Robredo could well lose to Canas in the third round since Canas has a 3-1 record over him. If Canas doesn’t wear himself out – he had blisters in Barcelona, an abdominal strain in Estoril and a foot problem in the qualifiers here – we’re likely to see a Canas-Nadal semifinal.

Federer’s Half of the Draw

Richard Gasquet and Tomas Berdych are in Federer’s quarter but Gasquet will lose to Federer before he reaches Berdych. The only interesting match left is Berdych and Ivan Ljubicic in the third round. Berdych reached the semifinals in Monte Carlo and Munich while Ljubicic has one clay court win in Monte Carlo and that’s it. I’m picking Berdych.

The bottom part of Federer’s half is the hopeless quarter. Andy Roddick, James Blake and Dmitry Tursunov don’t threaten anyone on clay and Fernando Gonzalez is sinking fast – he lost in the first round in Monte Carlo and Estoril. It’s so bad that I chose Nicolas Massu to get to the quarterfinal where he should lose easily to David Ferrer.

It will be shocking if Nadal doesn’t win here for the third year in a row.


Quarterfinalists: Federer. Berdych, Ferrer, Massu, Canas, Agustin Calleri, Djokovic, Nadal
Semifinalists: Federer, Ferrer, Canas, Nadal
Finalists: Federer, Nadal

Rome Singles Draw

See also:
Federer-Nadal VI (last year’s Rome final)