The tournaments running up to the year-end ATP championships in Shanghai are critically important. If you miss them or don’t perform well, you will lose computer points and be passed by someone else for one of the coveted eight spots in the Shanghai tournament. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick, and Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin are already in. Ivan Ljubicic is making a very late, very strong run to get there. He won the last two tournaments, in Metz and Vienna, and is playing Rafael Nadal in the finals of the Master Series Madrid.
I’m not sure Nadal would have played in this tournament if it had not been held in his home country. He has tendonitis in his knees. He has played in twenty-one tournaments this year and won ten of them. How many more wins does he need? Instead of playing in front of his fellow Spaniards, he should think of his future and rest his knees until Shanghai. He can play the Master Series Madrid for many years to come.
Nadal had a phone conversation this week with Federer, who is recuperating from a strained ankle ligament and is still on crutches. That doesn’t sound good; maybe Federer is not going to be ready to play in Shanghai. All the more reason that Nadal could afford a rest.
We already complained about bad line calls benefiting Spanish players in the match between Robbie Ginepri and David Ferrer. A Ginepri ace on match point was incorrectly called out. In the first game of the match, Ljubicic hits a forehand winner that lands on the sideline but the lineperson calls it out. The call gives Nadal a break point and Ljubicic ends up losing the game.
Hawkeye, an electronic line calling system, has finally been certified for use in the grand slam tournaments. Unless local tournament officials find a way to rig Hawkeye, bad calls like this should be a thing of the past. The machine may be accurate 97% of the time but it is impartial always.
We think of Nadal as an emotionally expressive player who hits a lot of winners but his strength is consistency. It’s a bad idea to get into long rallies with him. Ljubicic avoids this by hitting a lot of aces, two in his second service game and three in his third. On Nadal’s serve, he goes for winners early in the point. He has to take chances on his serve and ground strokes to keep Nadal out of the game and keep the crowd quiet.
You can’t kill Nadal. He goes for everything and most of the time he gets the ball back and sometimes he gets it back for a winner.
Nadal forgets that Ljubicic’s backhand is his strong side, he keeps hitting to it. In the fourth game, Ljubicic threads a backhand passing shot past Nadal and breaks him to get back on serve. Another problem for Nadal is his short second serve. It spins into Ljubicic’s backhand and costs Nadal a lot of points. Ljubicic breaks Nadal again to go up 5-3 and takes the first set with his eight ace.
The crowd is very quiet. They’re waiting for something to get excited about. It must be hard to be a tennis player from Croatia. How many times do you have a home crowd cheering for you except Davis Cup and the Croatian Open?
I watched Ljubicic take Roddick apart tactically in the first round of Davis Cup in March; he shows similar tactical intelligence today. He hits high looping shots to the deuce court so that Nadal will run around his backhand then hits a winner down the line to the ad court. Ljubicic hits a very good dropshot at 1-1 in the third set to get double break point. Nadal then hits an error and Ljubicic is up a break again. By keeping the points short, Ljubicic is not allowing Nadal to get into a rhythm causing Nadal to make more errors than usual.
Ljubicic continues to take chances. He goes for aces on second serves and, up 4-2, he hits a drop shot from behind the baseline for a winner. That’s pushing it. Ljubicic breaks Nadal again and wins the set with his eleventh and twelfth ace to freeze the crowd.
Forget what I said about home calls. In the second game in the third set, Nadal gets a bad call and all hell breaks loose. The crowd is pissed and Nadal, the sleeping lion, has woken. The crowd starts to make noise during Ljubicic’s serve and applaud his faults. It unsettles him. He serves a double fault and, unaccountably, hits an approach shot right at Nadal. Nadal breaks Ljubicic’s serve in the fourth game to go up 3-1. The crowd could not be happier.
Serving for the set at 5-3, Nadal gets another horrible line call on a serve that is clearly inside the service box. This is not partiality, it’s total incompetence. The ball landed near the chair umpire, he should have overruled it. Nadal wins the set and the crowd is ecstatic.
With Ljubicic serving in the second game of the fourth set, Nadal plays brilliantly. Ljubicic hits a very good approach shot that pulls Nadal way out of the court. Nadal somehow gets to it and curls a passing shot around Ljubicic that lands just inside the baseline. You can’t kill Nadal. He goes for everything and most of the time he gets the ball back and sometimes he gets it back for a winner. Time for a boisterous Nadal celebration and rhythmic clapping from the crowd. Ljubicic can’t play much better but it’s not enough, Nadal breaks to go up 2-1 and holds on to the break to even the match at two sets all. There is joy in Madrid.
Ljubicic and Nadal trade breaks and Ljubicic does a little celebrating himself. He yells and punches his fist after guessing right on a Nadal passing shot and lunges for a winning volley. Both players hold serve the rest of the way and, fittingly, the match will be decided in a fifth set tiebreaker.
Nadal is not only an energizer bunny but he plays the important points very well. He wins the first three points of the tiebreaker and comes back from two sets down to get one of the more improbable victories in what has been a monster year for the nineteen-year-old. Nadal wins, 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (7-3).
If I’m Ljubicic and I ask myself, “What could I have done differently,” the best answer is, “move the tournament to Croatia.” Nadal agrees. At the post-match press conference, Nadal said, “Elsewhere in the world, it would have been impossible to defeat Ljubicic.”
That’s what you call home court advantage.