Monthly Archives: November 2006

2006 Masters Cup: three sets = 24 minutes of activity

I feel like I should stick my tongue out and plug it into a digital socket so I can generate computer commands with brainwaves because I can’t take much more of this.

On Thursday I asked readers the following question. How long do you think a match would take if we distilled it down to one thing: points during which the ball is in play? To that end, I watched yesterday’s match between Nikolay Davydenko and Rafael Nadal and timed every point. I skipped commercials, game breaks, first serves, double faults, medical timeouts and challenges.

I was too lazy to record the match onto my laptop and use Movie Maker to edit out all of the extraneous stuff so I used a stopwatch to time the activity. In between pushing start/stop, adding the length of the point to an Excel file, using Dragon Naturally Speaking to voice record notes about the match, and hitting Reset, my eyes were spinning like pinwheels. I can truly say that technology has not made my life one bit easier. I feel like I should stick my tongue out and plug it into a digital socket so I can generate computer commands with brainwaves because I can’t take much more of this.

As you can see by the title of this piece, Nadal and Davydenko played a three set match. The match time was two hours and forty-five minutes. How long is the compressed version? Twenty-four minutes. Yes, that’s right. If I could find someone to write a software program to compress a tennis match I could have reduced my viewing time by 85%. It couldn’t be all that hard. If you hear bouncing, the ball is in play. If you don’t, it’s not. That’s a whole lot easier than trying to write a program to compress a baseball game. How do you know when the ball is in play in baseball?

If you have such software skills, contact me. I’ll invest in your product.

We should now actually look at the match because it determined who went on to the semifinals. Davydenko started out the same way he did against James Blake – on fire. He was moving Nadal all over the court. Again and again he wrong-footed Nadal and ran him silly. At 1-2 in the first set, Davydenko got his first break point. Nadal saved the first but Davydenko got another break point by running down a drop volley and hitting a beautiful passing shot. Both these little buggers are fast. Nadal managed to hold serve but I was waiting to see if Davydenko would run out of gas again. After his loss to Blake he said, “I’m not ready for Shanghai for physically,” because he has had a slight case of bronchitis. Either that or he finds it impossible to admit that he played too many tournaments this year.

With Nadal serving to stay in the set, Davydenko got a break point by stepping in and hitting balls early. And here, I suppose, is one reason Davydenko has played in more tournaments than any other top ten player. He’s not a counter puncher but he’s also not likely to overpower anyone so he has to take the ball early to hit with the power players. If he can’t outfit them, at least he can rush them into making errors. Unless you’re Andre Agassi and you’ve been taking the ball early since you were nine years old, it takes great timing and rhythm to do it consistently and Davydenko keeps his timing and rhythm by playing nonstop.

Nadal responded to set point for Davydenko by hitting a double fault. Nadal is number two in the world because he plays the big points well. Since Wimbledon, though, he’s not played well at all. After his loss to Blake, Nadal said, “The problem is not my game because I was playing very good with my forehand… But in the important moments I lost my confidence.”

I think we might have been expecting Nadal’s meteoric rise to continue. He beat Federer on hard court in Dubai and he got to the final at Wimbledon. Surely mastery of fast surfaces would certainly follow. But life isn’t like that. There are plateaus and valleys and peaks. And Nadal has been on a plateau for the past few months.

Davydenko blinked in the first game in the second set. He made some errors and gave Nadal a break of serve. No doubt that helped Nadal’s confidence. Nadal held onto the break to win the second set and even the match.

They were still on serve at 3-3 in the third set but Davydenko’s errors were mounting. In the next game, Davydenko moved Nadal from one corner to the other – Nadal could barely recover in between strokes. But Davydenko couldn’t finish the point off, he put an easy ball into the net. We were waiting for him to start flagging and here it was. Davydenko saved two break points but eventually lost the game. He isn’t exhausted and against most any other player not named Federer, he might have been alright, but Nadal is just too quick and strong.

Nadal won the match 5-7, 6-4, 6-4.

Now we get Nadal-Federer IX in the semifinals. Why are the number one and two ranked players meeting in the semis and not the finals? Nadal came in second to Blake in his round-robin group, that’s why. I don’t give Nadal much chance against Federer, he could barely beat Davydenko today.

See also:
2006 Masters Cup” Calling Dr. Freud
2006 Masters Cup: Blake Gets Hot
Yanks On Fire In Shanghai

2006 Masters Cup: calling Dr. Freud

Is he doing something special by making the very best of skills that are more limited than other top ten players or is he failing to fulfill his potential …

I had to drive to the west side of Los Angeles today. Unfortunately, I didn’t start until early afternoon which meant that I returned late afternoon which meant that it took all afternoon and some of the evening to do exactly one thing: drop a data CD off eight miles from my house.

Therefore I have not had much time to watch the Andy Roddick – David Nalbandian match but I do have a few things to say about it rather quickly.

Whatever you say about Nalbandian, no grand slams, only five career titles, only one big title (last year’s Masters Cup) – he has to be the most consistent semifinalist in existence. And this is after a down year. I’d love to spend a few hours in a room with him and pick his brain. Is he doing something special by making the very best of skills that are more limited than other top ten players or is he failing to fulfill his potential and should have a few slams by now. He’s somewhere in between. He’s not as good as Federer and Nadal and maybe slams are a bit much to ask, but he should at least have two or three Masters titles and definitely more than five career titles. That’s the number that sticks out most to me: only five career titles. He seems to have some psychological barrier to passing beyond the semifinals or, when he gets to a final, on to victory.

Earlier this week, someone asked Roger Federer if he learned his calm demeanor himself or did he get help from an expert such as Dr. Freud. Unbelievably, Federer responded with this: “Don’t know him. Who is he?” When he was told who Freud was he said, “Nope, never needed him.” I was standing around at a media session once when a journalist huffed that Pete Sampras had to be told what the word jocular meant. That was a double edged criticism of Sampras, he wasn’t very smart and he wasn’t very funny. But not knowing Sigmund Freud? That means you haven’t seen any popular movies or watched television or looked at many cartoons. He’s the stand-in symbol for all things psychological.

Anyway, someone should slip Nalbandian Freud’s name and suggest he get in touch with one of Freud’s disciples so he can get over the hump more often and claim a few more titles.

Since I live in Los Angeles and sometimes have to drive forever, I’ve come across a time-saving device. Magic Sports 3 from Cyberlink is a software package that analyzes baseball games recorded on a PC with a TV tuner card. The program picks out the important parts of the game – home runs, strike outs, stolen bases etc. – and leaves out the unimportant parts – foul balls, Nomar Garciaparra strapping and unstrapping and strapping and unstrapping his batting gloves, pitching changes, etc.

The software also works for soccer games but what if there was a version for tennis? We wouldn’t have to watch Rafael Nadal pretend to pull up his socks then unwedgie his underwear and bounce the ball ten million times. We could skip Hawkeye challenges and medical timeouts and first serves and double faults. How long do you think a match would take if we distilled it down the one thing: points during which the ball is in play?

The match between Roddick and Nalbandian, for instance, took about one hour and forty minutes. Tomorrow I’ll play the Rafael Nadal – Nikolay Davydenko match looking only at points where the ball is in play and skip everything else. How long do you thing the match will take? Leave a guess in the comments section. The closest guess gets to write a column on Tennis Diary about anything you choose. As long as the subject passes the decency test, of course.

See also:
2006 Masters Cup: Blake Gets Hot
Yanks On Fire In Shanghai

2006 Masters Cup: Blake gets hot

We’ve been talking about makeovers here at Tennis Diary in honor of Andy Roddick’s transition from power baseliner to serve and volleyer. That’s a bit of an exaggeration but only a bit considering he came to net sixty times against Ivan Ljubicic. Gotta give it to Jimmy Connors, he has Roddick believing. If there’s anything Jimmy had, it was faith in himself and that was largely due to his mother’s faith in him. I expected Jimmy to turn Andy into a more aggressive player, though I never guessed it would happen so soon, but I didn’t figure out Jimmy’s greatest gift.

Without his first serve, Blake is only as good as a Davydenko but with slightly inferior footwork.

At the press conference announcing Jimmy and Andy’s partnership, Jimmy said he wanted to pass on what his mother gave him. I assumed he was talking about attitude and skill. But what he was talking about was faith. Andy now has faith that he can be a top-rank player and the change in his game flows from that.

James Blake has a similar figure in his life: his longtime coach Brian Barker. We tend to expect immediate results in tennis. After watching teenager John McEnroe get to the semifinals at Wimbledon and a teenager Rafael Nadal gobble up tournaments, we want more of that and as soon as possible. But after Blake played nine best-of-five matches without a victory then disappeared against Max Mirnyi at Wimbledon – after going up two sets to one, he lost the last two sets 6-1, 6-0 – I wrote Blake off. He could certainly stay in the top ten but he wouldn’t get any big titles because he can’t deal with the pressure.

Blake and Barker, however, were pleased with his progress and they were right. Blake’s match today with Nikolay Davydenko explains why.

The match started with five straight breaks before Davydenko finally held serve. Blake couldn’t get his first serve in and he was winning exactly 23% of the points on his second serve. He didn’t hold serve until three games into the second set.

Here’s what happens when a power player isn’t serving well. In the second set, Blake got into a long rally with Davydenko and tried everything he could to end the point. He moved Davydenko corner to corner, tried to wrong foot him and even hit a short shot or two. Didn’t work. On the thirty-first stroke, Blake put the ball into the net. Without his first serve, Blake is only as good as a Davydenko but with slightly inferior footwork.

And this is where we see Blake’s makeover. He was calm and patient. He’s not like Marat Safin and Tommy Haas, in fact, he’s rather gentlemanly. His flameouts are more silent, he just goes away. Today he didn’t go away despite playing terribly against a player who’d never beaten him in four tries.

Blake’s serve slowly improved and he hit a beautiful return winner to break Davydenko and get back on serve. As his serve improved, so did his ground strokes. This is a rule that should have a name: when you don’t serve well, the rest of your game goes to hell. Feel free to leave naming suggestions in the comments section. With Davydenko serving at 4-5, Blake broke him again to win the second set and even the match.

Here’s another reason why calm and patience pay off, if watching Roger Federer win three of the four slams this year wasn’t reason enough. If you hang around long enough, you might get lucky.

Davydenko started to have problems in the third set. His left leg bothered him and he was breathing hard. After the match he said, “I’m not ready for Shanghai physically.” Gee Nikolay, do you think that’s because you play every tournament in sight? He’s a tough guy, he’s not like other players who call the trainer when their shoes are untied, and he hung in there to get to 5-5 in the third set. But he wasn’t quite right.

With Davydenko serving to stay in the match at 5-6, Blake ripped one of those absurd, inside out backhand returns. Davydenko seemed a bit shell-shocked and gave Blake two match points. Blake got another match point when he lunged at a wide serve and somehow hit a winner down the line. Now Davydenko really was shell-shocked and hit an easy forehand out. Blake had a 2-6, 6-4, 7-5 win and was into the semifinals.

This reminds me of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team. They lost seven straight games in September and crawled into the playoffs only to get hot and win their first Word Series since 1982. Blake backed into the final eight and a spot in Shanghai when Fernando Gonzalez and Tommy Haas couldn’t win at Paris and now he’s the first player into the semifinals.

As far as Blake’s concerned, I’m sure he thinks he’s right on schedule.

See Also: Yanks On Fire In Shanghai

The Cream Also Rises: Boss Ladies

Well wonder of wonders, we managed to pull a pretty decent final out of the women at the year-end championships in Madrid on Sunday. Of course the semis featured better play overall, but still. The men should be so lucky. They do their thing this week in Shanghai. It will probably take me that long to figure out the time zones.

Justine Henin-Hardenne beat Amelie Mauresmo in two sets, and the score, 6-4, 6-3, does not really indicate the good stuff contained herein. Sure, we may have wanted to see three sets, but the two we got were pretty high quality. There was some good serving, along with the usual baseline bombardment.

But surprise surprise, there was a lot of, dare we whisper its name, serve and volley. Amelie started it in the very first game, which is not too surprising in her case. Then Justine did the same in her opening game. OK, I thought, great, we are going to play anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better. That promises good things when both players come out of the gate feeling their oats. Both looked confident and physically on top of their games from the get go.

Sharapova would have loved to start like these two did in her semi-final match against Justine. Instead she came out as flat as a pancake. I wonder why. She’s usually way down the road at this point in her matches and already looking over her shoulder at the receding opponent. Maybe it was a bad biorhythm day for her. “Maria Succumbs To Bad Vibes,” shrieks the imaginary headline I was kicking around in my head.

Maria had her chances but out she went on Saturday, and that was as it should have been. We were probably all secretly, or in my case not so secretly, lusting for a reprise of Australia. Justine and Amelie were together at the beginning of the year there, how fitting they should be dueling at the end. And for a nice fat million dollar check to the winner.

Did they deserve it? Well, does ANYONE really deserve this obscene amount of money for having fun on a tennis court? If the market bears it, we guess so. This time it was straight ahead tennis without any drama. Definitely the round robin style of tournaments is the way to go if you have gotten tired, like me, of watching the usual blowouts in women’s matches that accompany the first week of the Grand Slams. The round robin bypasses all the piffle and we leap right into the cream of the top eight who played their way here. Make a mental note of this if you will, because the top eight have not made their way to the year-end championships since 1997. Too bad they can’t get the top women together sooner at some of the other events.

I detect a new note of power on the backhand of Henin-Hardenne. She is really whacking that ball now, in a more decisive fashion since last we saw her at the Open. It appears she cocks her wrist more emphatically at the end of the swing, adding an extra fillip of power.

The new serving motion she has I am uncertain about. She made changes recently to spare her arm any undue stress, but it looks kind of strange. There is no momentum from the swing now as she approaches and hits the serve. It seems she has to generate power more from her shoulder strength. I am wondering, how is this less stressful on her arm than what she was doing before? I don’t get it quite yet, so let’s carry this thought into next year and see how she plays.

Mauresmo uses this abbreviated service motion too, but to a lesser degree. She served pretty well throughout the week using this motion, but her serve could be bigger with a bit more momentum coming into the ball. This is one area of her game that could still be improved quite a bit, particularly as she double-faulted to end the match. Ouch.

Tracy Austin had her usual criticism of Mauresmo: she loops so many of her ground strokes instead of flattening them out. But the difference on Sunday really came down to attitude. Justine wanted it more than Amelie, her determination held at the key points. It has been “the best year of my career,” said Henin-Hardenne after the match. She sounded a bit surprised her body had held up over a week of five matches in six days.

For Amelie it was perhaps an even more spectacular year, with two Grand Slams in her win column and the ghost of Amelie the choker laid to rest once and for all. “Once you’ve tasted these emotions,” she said after the match, “these big moments, you want to have more.”

We want to have more of those Boss ball boys, an idea I like very very much. Especially when I found out that the men in Shanghai get no such perk. It’s nerdy types for you, my sons, in rugby shirts no less. But where do you go as a Boss boy when you’ve had the undeniable thrill of looking up Sharapova’s skirt for a whole week? We shudder to think. It must be all downhill faster than you can mutter, “Nice gams, baby.”

Forget the auctioning off of those Wilson racquets. Let’s divvy up the leftovers on the Ball Boy Front. That’s an improvement to the sport that some of us female fans might get behind.

Yanks On Fire In Shanghai

Well I don’t know if we can call Rafael Nadal the pigeon of James Blake, but it would appear that a few pin feathers are growing in. Blake is the only man, besides Thomas Berdych, to beat Nadal three times in a row. Berdych actually lost their very first meeting, but the last three were spread out over two years. Blake did it all this year.

And he did it again Tuesday in Shanghai, in straight sets. It was rock’em-sock’em no holds barred blistering fantastic tennis, and I was so thrilled to see Blake fired up. He loves playing this guy. If you were a Yank, you were probably leaping around the room too, yelling with glee. In fact Berdych was there watching as an alternate along with Mario Ancic, both of whom had practiced this week with Blake. Roger Federer should have been watching this match too, if he wasn’t, because Blake laid it all out there: how to play and beat Nadal. Don’t you think those guys are taking this all in.

Andy Roddick played at the same level in his match against Roger Federer today. It took them three sets and even though Roddick went down in defeat, it was the best match he’s played this year.

The difference was that Blake managed to close the deal in the second set tie break, Roddick let it slip away. But anyone who thinks American men’s tennis is on life support should get a glimpse of these two matches on tape. They are the best samples of kick ass American men’s tennis on display this year.

Still, there are elements to be critical of. Andy Roddick played fearlessly and well to get into the doorway, but once there he got a little tight. Usually what happens is the first serve goes off. If it’s a bad case, then the stiffening spreads into a brain cramp, and he does something improbable on court, or ends up being out of position.

Meantime, on the other side of the net, Federer is battening down the hatches and tightening everything up in his game. He must have been sweating a lot in this match, and they say Roger doesn’t ever sweat. But what’s that fine sheen on your forehead, guy? Did he have a little deja vu back to that moment when he was serving for the Rome final against Nadal? It was a match point I believe. And he let down that little bit. Nadal needed no more and went on to win.

That’s where Andy Roddick found himself today, up several mini-breaks and serving for it all in the second set tie-break. Andy blinked, and Roger wiggled. He probably hoped that Roddick would start to go away quickly in the third, like so many of his opponents. But Roddick did not pull a Nalbandian and pack his bags after winning the first set, then losing the second, and just vanishing in the third. Even after Federer got the one break in the third game Roddick still tried to hang in. And then it was over at 6-4. Still, there is a certain air of gloom over the proceedings whenever Federer is tied with you and now it’s the third set.

We can count on one hand the times a player has pushed Rafael Nadal around on a court this year. Blake laid out a textbook case of how you can beat Rafa, and he followed it with absolute relentlessness. Serve well, follow it up by taking away the net, or if not the net then get in to pick off the floaters, blast the Spaniard well behind the baseline with your huge forehands and keep him there, and if he wants to play backhand games with you, why, simply nail that great, flat screaming backhand up the line. Nadal’s worst nightmare this season was the number of Blake backhands that flew past him. The other thing you need to beat him is to return return return.

The first set saw break chances for both players. In Game 3 of the first set Blake fended off three break points on his serve. In Game 7 Blake got down again, and this time Nadal broke him for 4-3. Blake came roaring back, putting Nadal under attack again at love-40. Nadal fought him off for deuce, then James uncorked one of his stellar backhands up the line. This was the bread and butter shot of the day. Blake breaks back in the next game, and the score is 4-all. He holds his serve routinely for 5-4, then starts pressuring Nadal again, going up 30-40 on Nadal’s serve and charging the net. Nadal dumps a shot in the net and Blake has the first set, 6-4.

But does he have the match? My stomach churns at this point usually for our lad, because here is where the mental letdowns creep in. Suddenly in the second set, Nadal is up 4-0. I was watching Blake very carefully in these games, to see if I could decipher why the air is running out of his sails. You could almost measure a certain drop in his intensity. For Nadal, that’s as good as blood in the water.

No no no, I’m praying silently, as the errors start to flow off James’ racquet. Seven of them during this opening second set stretch. Quickly the games flit by, and we have 4-0. This is a moment we recognize too, where Nadal gets his teeth into a match, takes the middle set, and crushes you in the third. Like Federer. But lo and behold, Blake puts the plug in, he gathers himself together, and he comes back. Time for another great backhand screamer up the line.

The tie break saw no diminution in Blake’s aggressive play. Unlike Roddick, Blake tromped on the gas pedal. He started with an ace, then hit a nifty inside-out forehand winner off Nadal’s serve for 2-0. He works over Nadal’s backhand for 3-0. On his serve Blake got a weak return from Nadal for 4-0. Then Blake decided to be daring and he served a second serve into Nadal’s forehand, and it came back right up the middle. Blake angled it into a corner and moved forward, putting away the volley for 5-0. Nadal didn’t help his cause by double-faulting, and now it was match point. Blake finished Nadal with a great hard forehand up the line.

Whew, it’s exhausting just writing about it. We wonder what the lads will serve up next. I heard a rumor some other guys were playing here too, but ESPN2 kindly keeps out the riffraff for us.