Rafa Moves into the Semifinals and Youzhny has a Headache

Mikhail Youzhny pulls a van Gogh, websites charge more for recorded matches, and Rafael Nadal improves his hard court game.

Mikhail Youzhny made like van Gogh in his match against Nicolas Almagro in Miami and I wanted to say one more thing about it. Youzhny was none too happy and he smashed his racket against his forehead and opened up a wound from which blood gushed then ran down his face (you can see it in Nate’s post here. Youzhny walked over to his seat and the trainer ran over to help him. Almagro was very sweet – he came over to see if Youzhny was alright. When he got there, Youzhny looked up with a sheepish smile and both of them started laughing because, really, what else could you say?

I’ve seen on court rages that were stunning mainly because I couldn’t believe a chair umpire or a tournament or a professional sports organization would put up with such abuse – do I need to mention the name John McEnroe? That was before I sufficiently understood the star system and I didn’t really get that until the tour started penalizing McEnroe on the down side of his career. I was going to say that people got tired of his act but that wasn’t it, they weren’t tired of him, he just wasn’t winning any more. He used to throw tantrums to upset his opponent when he felt the momentum change or he fell behind, but after his play declined the tantrums didn’t work any more and they became tiresome.

That was external abuse thrown at umpires, fans, opponents and, at times, permanently attached objects. Youzhny’s outburst was self abuse and you could say it worked because he went on to win the match but, I’m disturbed by it. Tennis culture has segued from outwardly directed acts of hostility and frosty relationships between top rivals to an era where everyone is friendly and open hostility or acts of frustration are discouraged.

When I saw Youzhny’s act, I couldn’t help thinking of food disorders where people act out their feelings of inadequacy by punishing themselves in the worst kind of way. Where did we learn that kind of behavior? I’m being overwrought, I know, Youzhny will survive and it was only a flesh wound, but we discourage racket smashing and that’s a mistake. These players are under immense pressure and if you penalize them for expressing frustration externally, maybe this is what you get – self abuse.

Youzhny lost his next match to Janko Tipsarevic and Tipsy is one answer to the question: Which player ranked outside the top twenty will make it to the quarterfinals in Miami (Igor Andreev is the other)? I didn’t see the Tipsarevic – Youzhny match because I’m still trying to get ATP Masters Series TV working properly on either of my two computers. For all of you who scream that ATP Masters Series TV doesn’t give you access to recorded matches – it streams live matches online from the Masters Series events – you can keep screaming: it is recording matches but it’s selling them. If you want to go back and look at the Indian Wells final, you have to pay $3 U.S. I might get into trouble for saying this because we have a partnership with their site, but if I were you, I’d just download Hypercam 2 or WM Recorder or some other stream recording software and record the match straight off your screen. Off course, you’ve got to be there to start up the recording but that could change soon because there is software that acts like a DVR, it’s just that it’s not quite ready for prime time yet. People who try to charge for every single byte of content that comes down the pipe should beware: technology giveth and technology taketh away.

I had high hopes for James Blake in his quarterfinal match against Rafael Nadal because Miami is fast relative to Indian Wells and James has looked good here in Miami. The court looked fast in the first set as each player kept holding serve, often at love. James finally started to catch up to Rafa’s serve with Nadal serving at 3-4. James finally figured out that Nadal had yet to serve to his forehand side in the deuce court and this is one of those things that continues to confuse me.

I’ve never stood across the court from a Rafa serve and I’m pretty sure it would bounce off my nose before I ever got a racket on it because it kicks up at varying heights and it curls in on you and away from you, but I still don’t understand why Nadal can be so good at holding his serve considering that he primarily hits to only three spots on the court – and only one on the deuce side, namely, down the middle. I remember one of his finals against Federer at Roland Garros which showed his serving pattern and there was one dot to Federer’s serve on the deuce side and I believe that was on a second serve.

Clue me in please. Any theory is welcome.

Anyway, Rafa was serving at 3-4 in the first set and James ran around his backhand and unleashed one of those ungodly returns of his. On break point, he came to the net and put the ball away easily to go up 5-3 and serve for the set. James always tries to end points early and today he went into hyperdrive. He won the first set in 38 minutes and there were precious few baseline rallies of any description. The whole thing went so quickly that Nadal couldn’t get into the match physically or mentally.

James had Rafa down but he let him up and that was the beginning of the end. Rafa had been spraying balls and touching his foot as if something was wrong with it and now he was down 15-30 on his serve at 2-2 in the second set. Rafa got James on the run with one of those runaround forehands that take him outside the doubles alley, and followed that up with a trip to the net where he ended the point with a deep volley after drawing James in on a drop shot. And there it was, just as James was about to get a two break points to go ahead in the set, Rafa woke up just as he realized that the match was about to get away from him. He pumped his fist and knee in celebration and now he was fully ready for battle.

Rafa’s awakening got into James’ head. He started missing first serves and, for some reason, he kept approaching to Rafa’s backhand even though Rafa was standing there waiting most of the time and his backhand passing shot is particularly nasty. James held on but Rafa got break points on his next service game and went up a break when James, yet again, approached to Nadal’s backhand. Rafa then served for the set where James gave up 0-30 start to lose the game and the second set and where he again, oh, never mind.

So much for my coaching advice, though, because James’ approached to Nadal’s forehand at the beginning of the third set and he still got passed. I’m trying to remember how Blake beat him the first three times they played because Rafa is turning the tide after beating him in Indian Wells and it’s now time to ask: Is Rafa getting much better on hard courts or is James regressing?

Rafa is much better on hard courts because he’s learned to play more aggressively and keep someone like James from taking over points by attacking first. It took him a set and half to figure it out but once he did, the break points started coming – he ended with 19 of them. James reached the quarterfinals here for the first time so he’s improving, not regressing, but he doesn’t have levels to move between and he doesn’t have the balls out over the top intensity that Rafa brings to every point.

For instance, Rafa had break point on James at 1-1 in the third set. James got to the net and hit an overhead that was so close to Rafa that he barely had to move to hit a dipping return just over the net. James couldn’t get it back. First of all, James hit the overhead at Rafa and second, he tried to hit a cute drop volley to the side of the court where Rafa was camped out. Two missed opportunities on an important point. To add insult to injury, Rafa then broke James again on a netcord. It was over. James failed to win another game and Rafa was into the semifinals with a 3-6, 6-3, 6-1 win.

In five hard court tournaments this year, Rafa has one quarterfinal, one final, and three semifinals (so far). In the Middle East – U.S coastal two-step of Indian Wells and Miami, he has the best combined results. Other players are complaining about heat stroke and such trivialities as mononucleosis but Rafa just keeps chugging along. I hope he doesn’t wear himself out and manages to survive the clay court season with something left over for Wimbledon because Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Roger Federer, and a few other players could make this year’s Wimbledon a barn burner.

Tomorrow Pat Davis is posting something about Ana Ivanovic and I’ll be back on Saturday with semifinals results. Right now I’m off to see the Los Angeles Dodgers play the San Francisco Giants (aka The Hated Ones) because baseball has arrived. See ya.