Slippin’ and Slidin’ on Grass

How did Rafael Nadal fare against Ivo Karlovic on the slick grass surface at Queen’s?z

It’s been cold and damp in London this week and that means everyone has been slippin’ and slidin’ on the grass at Queen’s Club. Andy Murray fell four times and somehow managed to land on his thumb during one of those falls. Of course, Murray is always falling down then getting up and playing magnificently so we can’t go by that. But it happened to Rafael Nadal too and it cost him a point as he slid into the net.

It coulda been worse. Fernando Gonzalez was playing Ivo Karlovic and he got just a tad frustrated. First he smashed a ball – ball abuse, warning. Then he smashed a racket – racket abuse, loss of point. Then he sent another ball flying – ball abuse, loss of game. And that was match over because he was down 5-6 in the second set and he’d already lost the first set. Maybe he got confused and thought John McEnroe was on the other side of the net meaning that such behavior was allowed.

Since the court is slippery enough to let balls skid across the surface instead of grab and spin, I wondered how the match between clay court master/topspin killer Rafael Nadal and super-tall serving machine/totally frustrating Karlovic would play out.

Here’s one answer: At 2-2 in the first set, Karlovic hit a second serve ace, a service winner – the ball careened off the frame of Nadal’s racket, and an almost ace – Nadal started to walk to the other side of the court and Karlovic challenged the call but it was just wide. The game ended on another ace and the longest point had two strokes (who says grass it too slow these days?).

The points on Nadal’s serve were a bit longer but not much. And since Karlovic is 6ft 10in (208cm), his movement isn’t as nimble as most other players so Nadal was able to hit behind Karlovic and generally make his life miserable if he didn’t get his first serve in. Nadal is number one in three of the four return of serve statistical categories in the ATP statistics, while Karlovic is ranked 56th in three of the four return of serve categories.

It’s tempting to say that this was a match of opposites given those statistical rankings – the return of serve expert versus the guy who can’t return but does have the most aces on tour and holds his serve more often than anyone not named Andy Roddick, and it did work out that way as Nadal got only two break points – neither of which he converted – and Karlovic got no break points while serving up 35 aces.

But there was one more statistic that contributed to this match and it’s a surprising stat: Karlovic’s career record in tiebreakers is 129-127. I don’t know Roddick’s career tiebreak record but I do know he once won 18 tiebreaks in a row and it’s surprising that Karlovic is barely even in tiebreaks with that serve of his. That may also explain his mediocre record at Wimbledon. He’s lost in the first round the last three years and during that time he lost five out of seven tiebreakers.

As you should have guessed by now, there were no breaks and we were treated to three straight tiebreakers (who says grass is too slow these days?). Did those tiebreakers give us any clues to Karlovic’s tiebreak problems?

Karlovic won the first tiebreaker by one point – a double fault by Nadal – and served up two aces. Karlovic lost the second one by one point – an excellent return on a tough first serve by Nadal followed up by a passing shot – but Karlovic hit zero aces. In the third one, Karlovic again had two aces but the difference was another beautiful return by Nadal who won the tiebreaker and the match, 6-7(5), 7-6(5), 7-6(4).

Today the defensive skills beat the offensive skills despite those incredible 35 aces. The difference was a few points and the best players win those points – that’s why they’re the best players. Sorry Ivo, the only thing I can tell you is this: “Play the critical points with more focus and you too can make your way into the top ten. You’re only 12 rankings places away after all.”

This match tells me more about Nadal than Karlovic in any case. I was talking to a tennis buddy this morning about Bjorn Borg’s back to back Roland Garros/Wimbledon titles and how much harder they must have been in an era where the grass was faster and Borg faced many more serve and volleyers, a few of them legendary. No doubt Queen’s is still slower than the Wimbledon of old, but you gotta give it to Rafa, this was an impressive performance and tomorrow he gets to do it again.

Roddick got a walkover today because Murray pulled out with that offending thumb, so Roddick will meet up with Nadal tomorrow in the semifinals. There are lots of parallels between the match today and tomorrow but there are also a few important differences. Roddick can do tiebreakers and he can also move better than Karlovic. He can’t cover the net as well but with the way the grass is playing, if he can’t get past Nadal, that’s a problem. Roddick could meet Nadal as early as the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and that will play a lot slower. If he can’t beat Nadal here, it’s not likely to happen at Wimbledon.

Who’re you taking, Roddick or Rafa?