Monthly Archives: July 26, 2021

Roger Federer followed Rafa Nadal out of Rome at the hands of Radek “the worm” Stepanek..

Yes, that was Radek Stepanek pumping his fist and waving a towel and doing the worm after taking Roger Federer out of Rome in straight sets, 7-6(4), 7-6(7). What is going on here? First Rafael Nadal leaves town and now, two days later, Roger is out of the quarterfinals. Did Roger take his foot off the break the slightest bit after Rafa no longer loomed ahead in the draw? Was he just that a bit discouraged because he lost an opportunity to meet Rafa on clay?

And now what do we think? Is Roger still struggling physically? Here’s what I think. Roger is okay physically. He’s back from his mono but that means he’s back to the person who lost consecutive matches to Guillermo Canas and David Nalbandian. It’s also the player who doesn’t raise his game as often as he used to and doesn’t play the big points quite as well as he did.

At least this year he made it to one more round in Rome that he did last year when he went out to Filippo Volandri in the third round. Look, he could win the French Open and I wouldn’t be surprised, I’m just saying that we’re in for a bumpy ride with Roger from now on.

When Roger gets to a tiebreaker, for instance, we expect him to step it up or, at least, the take charge on the big points. Sure enough, he did get up a mini-break in the first set tiebreaker but he gave it back on a net cord error and then Stepanek was the one who took control. Serving at 4-4, Roger had control of the point then Stepanek hit a ball down the line that Roger had to scramble for. Roger followed that up with a dipping passing shot but Stepanek dug the ball out and dumped it just over the net to win the point. He followed that up with a service winner and an ace to take the first set.

At the beginning of the second set, Roger lost his serve after shanking two backhands, a theme of the day. After the match, someone asked him why he shanked so many backhands and this was his response:

You’ve seen me so many times. It happens all the time. Something I’ve been trying to get rid of for ten years. Still not today.

Well maybe, but Stepanek had something to do with it.

Stepanek rushed the net on his serve and, sometimes, his return. He attacked Roger’s backhand and he mixed things up so well that Roger didn’t know what was coming. At one point in the second set, Stepanek wound up as if to hit yet another shot to Roger’s backhand. Instead, he hit a drop shot in the opposite direction and Roger couldn’t recover quick enough to get there.

He also took the net away from Roger by getting there first and hit a lot of backhands down the line to Federer’s forehand. The commentators made an interesting point about list last thing. Roger is more comfortable hitting his forehand while running around his backhand than he is running towards the ball. If you’re running around your backhand, you have to twist your body away from the ball to get in position so you’re already into your backswing motion. If you’re running towards the ball, you have to wind up your backswing after you get to the ball and that means you have to get there earlier.

In other words, Stepanek did the right thing at the right time. Roger’s rhythm was off and Stepanek made sure he never found it.

Still, Roger had his chances and didn’t take them. He got back on serve in the second set and even though he lost his serve a second time on another mishit backhand, he was able to break back and found himself up 5-2 in the second set tiebreaker. It looked for all the world like he’d figured out Stepanek’s game and was now ready to finish out the set and match then move on to a semifinal showdown with Novak Djokovic.

One more backhand error, though, and he gave up the minibreak. At 7-7, Stepanek hit a return then immediately moved forward and Federer put a passing shot into the net. Stepanek then hit a service winner and his victory celebration began.

Against all odds, it looks like Djokovic is the member of the big three who might end up picking up the most points in the clay court season. If he wins this event, which is a pretty good bet at this point, he’ll be closer to Nadal than Nadal is to Federer.

Djokovic reminds me of a race car driver lagging behind the leaders who keeps his car pointing straight and true as the cars in front of him bump into each other and spin out. He might just cruise across the finish line first while the leaders are strewn all over the infield.

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Rafael Nadal finally gave out while trying to defend his third straight clay court title in Rome. He lost to Juan Carlos Ferrero but at least he showed up.

When we watch a tennis match, usually we’re watching it blind. What I mean is that we may have no idea whether the player is physically hurting or not. Yes, the player is out there on the court, but what ailments is he suffering and is it a small niggling problem or a big problem that’s making it hard for him to play?

If this was baseball or football, the injury report would have made its way across the blogosphere and sports radio shows and newspapers. Commentators would be discussing it on the telecast of the game. But the tennis world isn’t like that. As we watched Juan Carlos Ferrero dismantle Rafael Nadal, it looked like Ferrero was playing the match of his life. He hit behind Rafa and he attacked his forehand whenever he got a short ball and he kept his level up throughout the entire match.

But maybe he knew something we didn’t know. He might not have known that Rafa had such pain in his foot that he could barely put his foot on the ground the morning he flew to Rome. And he probably didn’t know that Rafa thought it would be impossible to play when he woke up this morning. He might have known that Rafa went to the doctor today, as he did yesterday, and had his foot taped up and anesthetized with topical cream because things do get around the locker room.

But we didn’t know anything and the commentators didn’t know anything and this is how it looked to us. Early on, Rafa looked alright. Ferrero hit a low slice on Rafa’s serve at 2-1 in the first set and Rafa managed to run around it and hit a wicked angle on a forehand winner. Rafa’s return of serve was a bit inconsistent but he was getting to drop shots.

Rafa gave up three break points for Ferrero to get to 5-4 and that was unusual but, you know, it happens. And right about that time, the commentators noted that Ferrero is really taking the game to Rafa and pushing him further behind the baseline. Two games later, Rafa hit a crosscourt forehand wide that gave Ferrero a set point. Again, unusual, but Rafa is known for hanging in tough games. Then Rafa hit some short shots and Ferrero took the game and first set and now we’re thinking that Rafa is finally wearing down from defending his third straight clay court title.

As the second set continued and Rafa started hitting more and more errors and found himself down a break at 1-4, we said that it looks like he’d run out of gas but, still, you can never count him out. Then we saw the foot.

Most tennis players have ugly feet and Rafa’s foot looked no different as it was propped up on the bench getting treatments from the trainer. First there was the topical anesthetic, then the felt ring to keep pressure off the sore area on the ball of the foot, then the roll of tape to lessen the soreness from friction, but it didn’t help. Rafa didn’t win another game as Ferrero won the match 7-5, 6-1.

If we’d known about the foot, we’d have known that Rafa was hitting balls short because he couldn’t plant his foot without pain. We might still have marveled at Ferrero’s play because it’s not easy to go against an injured opponent and it’s very easy for your mind to start thinking about the fact that you’re about to beat someone who’s almost unbeatable on clay and we all know what happens when the mind gets too involved. But we wouldn’t have said that it’s the best match we’ve ever seen Ferrero play.

Why did Rafa play this tournament if his foot was in that condition? He played it because he wants to be the number one player in the world and he had a Masters title and all the points that come with it to defend.

Why did Rafa play out the match instead of retiring at 1-4 in the second set? He played on to give Ferrero the opportunity to be the focus of the match.

I feel a bit like an old fogy because respectful sports behavior in the form of playing out a match when you’re ailing is fast becoming a thing of the past. I might just have to get over it. Rafa is old school whereas Novak Djokovic is what’s happening now. Djokovic retired in the second set of his semifinal match with Roger Federer at Monte Carlo because he had a sore throat.

True, it turned out that Djokovic had strep throat, but your throat doesn’t get sore from being dragged across the tennis court, unlike a foot, and it’s unlikely his throat would have suffered much more if he’d played three more games. There was also a psychological message to it. Djokovic was not going to give Federer an earnest victory, he was going to walk off the court to show that Federer didn’t beat him, the sore throat did.

Ferrero deserves credit for the victory and Rafa deserves credit for showing up and playing. That’s two old school players and I like that.

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Richard Gasquet looked like he’d rather be anywhere else but Rome, Roddick feasted on his good friend Mardy Fish, and stadiums save the day for U.S. tennis.

Here we are in Rome, the second Masters Series event on clay this year and the first of consecutive Masters events as we move on to Hamburg next week. Let’s set the scene in Rome. I can hear those crazy Italian police sirens in the background. To me they always sound like those Fisher pull toys I used to torture adults with when I was a child. I’d pull those damn things around all day an endless clatter.

Richard Gasquet’s shirt is so red that it’s bleeding on the screen and, as usual, he has his backward pointing white cap. How long do you think it’ll take Gasquet and Sebastien Grosjean and Benjamin Becker and all of those backward hat guys to grow out of the habit. Fashions change you know.

The stands in the tennis complex at the Foro Italico are all bright green and the on-court advertising is white lettering on the green background. Don’t really like the color scheme. Green looks rather loud as a background for the gorgeous red clay on the court. I do love to hear the score called out in Italian, though: trenta quindici – 30-15. Italian is one of the few languages which lovingly pronounce every letter in a word.

I haven’t seen Gasquet’s first round opponent – Luis Horna – play very much but he’s been around for a long time. Evidently his backhand is his weak side because he keeps trying to run around it and Gasquet keeps trying to attack it. Looking at Horna today, I wonder why he hasn’t done much better in his career but maybe that says more about his opponent than it does him.

Gasquet looked good at the beginning of the match and went up 3-2 without having lost a point on his serve. Horna keptpressuring Gasquet’s second serve and Gasquet finally caved in by losing his next service game with two straight double faults and it got worse from there on.

Gasquet isn’t dealing with pressure well these days. Davis Cup was a disaster for him after he decided to sit his ailing knee instead of playing Andy Roddick in the fourth and deciding rubber of the tie between the U.S. and France. Then he lost to Sam Querrey in Monte Carlo two weeks ago.

Maybe, two years from now, we’ll be looking back at all of the cruel things we said about Gasquet and marvel at his play as he turns out to be the guy who ends Roger Federer’s streak at Wimbledon. But right about now, his friend and countryman Jo-WilfriedTsonga looks like he’s just as likely to earn that distinction. You couldn’t mistake Tsonga for Gasquet on the court in any way shape or form. Hell, Tsonga looks excited just sitting in the stands watching Gasquet’s match with Horna whereas Gasquet looks like he was waiting for the next train to arrive.

Gasquet’s feet aren’t quite following his commands and he’s getting tripped up by routine plays such as a moonshot followed by a flat shot. Horna won the first set on a high looping second serve down the middle. Gasquet seems surprised by it and hit the ball into the net. Earth to Rishard.

It the second set it was worse. Gasquet lost his first service game easily then won his second service game but that was the last game he won. In his third service game, Gasquet and Horna got into a backhand crosscourt rally and Horna redirected the ball down the line with a rather weak and short slice. Gasquet got there but you could hear him frame the ball.

In the next game Gasquet framed another ball and the crowd turned on him. Wow, everyone is turning on Gasquet these days and how should he respond? If his knee is still bothering him then obviously he should go home for a rest. Even if it is a physical problem of some sort, it’s quickly turning into a psychological problem and that is turning into acting out on the court precisely by not acting at all. After the match he didn’t seem to know what the problem was:

I don’t know why I played so bad. Last week in training I felt fine and I was happy to come onto the court today. Sometimes in my career I’m really down. Today is one of those moments.

I suspect that he’s shining us on. No one could receive as much grief as he received from his fellow Davis Cup players, his Davis Cup captain, and even the head of the Davis Cup team and not be affected by it.

In the last game of the match, Gasquet served two double faults. The second one gave Horna match point. One point later the agony was over as the qualifier Horna moved on by the score of 6-4, 6-1.

What do you think Gasquet needs?

I had a lot of fun watching Roddick and Mardy Fish – two fast court players – slog it out on clay. Fish made very few accommodations for the clay. He hit the ball as hard and flat as he does every other surface. Roddick could hardly have hoped for a better opening match. This has to be one of the few times he has ever planned on winning a match by looping the ball back to his opponent and waiting for mistakes which is exactly what he did as he jumped out to a 2-0 lead.

If you think about it, Roddick is also lucky that the tour is going in its current direction. There’s one less clay court Masters event each year – if the ATP can settle it’s suit against Hamburg. On top of that, the new Masters event in Shanghai is on a hard court. Money talks because clearly tennis is more popular in Europe than it is in the U.S. – at least in terms of broadcast income – and here Europe losing a Masters events while the U.S. gets to keep all four of its hard court Masters events even though it’s breaching smaller tournaments left and right. The ATP just bought out the event in Las Vegas and sold it to South Africa. South Africa! Did I miss something, is tennis more popular in South Africa than the U.S.?

Indian Wells and Miami bring in a good three or four hundred thousand spectators a year and the broadcast problem is partially a case of overcrowding. In Europe, tennis is second to soccer in gambling income but in the U.S., tennis is far down the scale. Yes, gambling is a bonafide economic indicator.

Broadcast income is more important than ticket income but the U.S. has another advantage – tons of stadiums, both indoor and out, in which to stage a tennis tournament. France, for instance, has a few stadiums that work for such events but the U.S. has tons of them thanks to the popularity of basketball and college sports. Every big Division I school has a basketball arena that would qualify. And though it may be hard to fathom and says way too much about the U.S. subversion of education to the commercial world of sports, the University of Michigan football stadium – known appropriately as the Big House – can seat over 100, 0000 screaming football fans.

So the tennis world is staying in the big stadiums in the U.S., leaving behind the smaller facilities in Monte Carlo – which is no longer a required event – and Hamburg, and branching out to the huge new stadiums in Asia. It’s all about the stadiums, don’t you know? If Roddick can hang around long enough, and it looks like he can, this turn of events should help him stay in the top five or six players in the world.

Roddick won the first set 6-2 in 22 minutes. Just over an hour later, Roddick had won his first match, 6-1, 6-4.

Just a quick note on the Federer watch. He says that he’s now 100% healthy and there were two signs in his match with Guillermo Canas that seem to bear him out. (1) The rhythm on his forehand has returned and the reason for that is (2) his movement is back. At one point in his relatively easy victory over Canas, he ran well into the ad court to get around his backhand and hit a curling shot down the line that skipped off the sideline and out of Canas’ reach. That takes some serious movement.

We even had a “did he really do that?” sighting. Canas hit a running forehand down the line and just as Federer was about to overrun the ball, he flicked a backhand dropshot from behind the baseline that dropped over the net oh so softly.

A a few points later, Federer hit a drop shot and Canas hit a pretty good lob to Federer’s backhand side. Federer swung at it and missed it then calmly glided back to the baseline and hit a forehand looper that landed on Canas’ baseline. Canas must have been a bit annoyed by now. He’d had two break points in the game and hit a good lob and here he was frantically running backwards to pick up a ball off the baseline tape. It was all too much and he hit the ball long to end the game.

Federer held serve then broke Canas to win the match, 6-3, 6-3.

On the fantasy tennis watch things are particularly grim. We can’t pick all the top players because we need them for later tournaments and, so far, Gasquet has joined two other second level players by crashing out in the first round. Paul-Henri Mathieu and Filippo Volandri are gone too. I’ll get into that more tomorrow.

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We’re on week two of the Rafa watch. Can Rafael Nadal win four clay court tournaments in four weeks including three Masters Series events and then, two weeks later, win another Roland Garros? So far so good. In the Barcelona final he did lose his first set on clay this year but it didn’t stop him from beating David Ferrer 6-1, 4-6, 6-1.

There was nothing Ferrer could do about Rafa’s play in the first set and the score reflected that, but Ferrer got back into the match by going into attack mode in the second set and he broke Rafa right away. Ferrer was aiming for the lines to get Rafa out of position then trying to finish off the points at the net.

There’s a limit to this approach and our reader Pepe directed me to an excellent article by Cheryl Murray which discusses this very subject. The article is titled “What Monte Carlo’s final means” and it describes what happened to Roger Federer after he went up 4-0 in the second set of that final.

As Murray sees it, Roger caught Rafa off guard with his aggressiveness and, in fact, caught us all off guard. We’ve been asking him to attack for so long and here, finally, was our reward. Roger was dominating in the second set and was up 4-0 when Rafa started cashing in on his passing shots and it became clear that attacking the net would not work by itself. As Murray said:

As it turns out, the “winning strategy” did not supply what it promised – the win. Federer obviously sensed that a highly aggressive game against the Spaniard would not work for long, which is most likely why he had not tried it before Sunday.

In my post on Friday, I mentioned an ESPN column by Joel Drucker who suggested that Roger’s coach, Jose Higueras, would encourage Roger to hit a low lying slice off Rafa’s high ball to his backhand. I couldn’t remember seeing that slice in the Monte Carlo final and Pepe verified that Roger didn’t do it.

The slice makes sense, though. A slice makes it hard for Rafa to hit with pace and it could bring him to the net against his will – in other words draw him forward without the benefit of a good approach shot. Nadal is no slouch at the net but he certainly can’t control the match from there as well as he can from the baseline.

If an attacking game isn’t enough, then, how about a combo with the attacker, the angler, and the slice? Roger was hitting a sharply angled backhand cross court that was successfully pulling Nadal out of the court in Monte Carlo.

There are some difficulties with the combination. The more things Roger tries to do, the more errors he’ll make, and it’ll start to affect the rest of his game. For instance, maybe his serve will be less sharp because the more complex the game plan is, the harder it is to execute it. Roger would be trying to throw off Rafa’s game without throwing off his own game. Not easy.

Back to match at hand. Ferrer kept up his level of play and was serving at 4-3 in the second set when the tide looked like it would turn. Ferrer was up 40-0 and attacking like crazy but Rafa was getting everything back. Rafa finally managed to break Ferrer and get back on serve. Ferrer then broke Rafa one more time and served out to take the second set but that was it: Ferrer lost the first five games of the third set and only won one more game.

At the end of Murray’s article, she suggest that we owe Rafa an apology for thinking that all he has to do is hit a lot of big forehands and run down every ball to win a match, thus implying that he doesn’t think well enough to strategize his way through a match.

Rafa can decode his opponent’s game and make adjustments because clearly he had an answer for everything Roger threw at him in Monte Carlo. But I would say that his mental and physical strength are more important that his strategical skills. His focus and consistency are unparalleled and David Ferrer is the fifth ranked player in the world and a Spanish clay court player to boot and he could not keep up with Rafa. After expending all that energy to win the second set, he tired out.

The only way to beat Rafa is to shorten the points and Roger has the best chance of doing that. Either that or exhaust him before he gets to you and that’s just about what could happen by the time the last leg of this Rafa watch comes around, either in Hamburg or, possibly, at Roland Garros.

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It’s time for the ATP Fantasy Tennis Season so check out our Fantasy Tennis Guide. You’ll find Fast Facts, Strategies, and Statistics to help you play the game.

Sign up and join our subleague! It’s called tennisdiary.com. We send weekly email updates to all subleague members before the submission deadline.

This week’s submission deadline is Monday morning, May 5, 4am (EST) in the U.S./10am (CET) in Europe.

Juan Carlos Ferrero pulled out after I posted my picks last week so remember to take a quick look at the draw before the submission deadline to see if one of your players has dropped out. Phillipp Kohlschreiber also pulled out – he had the flu – and I was not happy about that. If a player drops out before his first match, it does not count as one of your five uses of that player.

This week we have the clay court Masters Series event in Rome. The first prize is a whopping $553, 846. We need two players from each quarter to make up our eight player team so let’s go.

Rome draw

The U.S. players have arrived on the clay court Masters Series circuit in the person of James Blake and Andy Roddick this week and they’re messing things up a bit because it’s unlikely they’ll get far. Roddick is not a terrible clay court player – he got to the quarterfinals here in 2006 and the semifinals in 2002 – but he hasn’t done much on clay in a while so I’m saving him for Wimbledon, Toronto, Cincinnati, the U.S. Open, and Paris. Jo-Wilfired Tsonga is back from a knee injury but as far as I can tell, he’s never won a main draw clay court match. Simone Bolelli is in the semifinals at Munich but I’d still pick Gilles Simon over him, so Simon is my guy.

I don’t know what happened to randomness in this draw because the section below Roddick is packed. Tommy Robredo, Mario Ancic, and Nikolay Davydenko should all play each other within the first three rounds. First of all, can Ancic beat Davydenko here? Ancic is pretty good on clay but he hasn’t been past the third round in a clay event this year whereas Davydenko has a semifinal and a final. Davydenko has a 4-1 record over Robredo and beat him here last year so I’m going with Davydenko.

Blake’s section is tough to pick for the same reason Roddick’s was: there aren’t a lot of good players in it. We probably should choose between Carlos Moya, Filippo Volandri, and Fernando Verdasco, and they’re all having terrible years. Moya has lost in the first round here the last three years while Volandri got to the semifinals last year, so Volandri it is.

Obviously Rafael Nadal is the choice in his section and the European Masters events pay a whole lot more than the Masters events in the U.S., so pick him here.

Should I pick Roger Federer or not? It’s a tough decision because he looks like he can get to the final here but he’s much more likely to beat Nadal in Hamburg. He won the Hamburg title the past three years and that’s where he has his only victory over Nadal. For sure I’m using him at Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open, but what about either Toronto or Cincinnati and Paris? I’d be taking a chance if I save him for Paris because he could be injured or skip it, but he’s likely to win either Toronto or Cincinnati so I’m saving him till next week in Hamburg.

Instead of Federer I’ll settle for Paul-Henri Mathieu and hope he gets to the third round.

That’s the theme this week, by the way: patience. Don’t use all your top players up and jump out to a good standing in the fantasy game only to run out of players in the fall. Also, don’t use a player who could reach the quarterfinals in a Masters event now but win a Masters event later on. Remember, you can only use a player five times and that’s it.

David Ferrer should reach the quarterfinals. His record over Richard Gasquet is 3-0 and he beat Radek Stepanek twice last year. But I used him in Barcelona because he’ll get more money for his final in Barcelona than he will for a quarterfinal here and, besides, his record in Hamburg is much better than here. Instead, I’ll see how far Gasquet can go.

Novak Djokovic should be able to get to the quarterfinals but he’ll have to go through Fernando Gonzalez and David Nalbandian and possibly Nicolas Almagro to get to the semifinals. So I’m saving Djokovic for the remaining three slams and a Masters event or two on a faster court. Instead, I’ll see how far Juan Monaco can go.

If Fernandez and Nalbandian meet in the third round, that’s a tossup. Gonzalez is 10-0 on clay this year but his highest ranking opponent was number 21 and that match ended up being a walkover, so take the streak with a grain of salt. Nalbandian is 15-3 but his only big win was a victory over Tommy Robredo and he lost to Stanislaw Wawrinka this week. Almagro could beat either of them but he’s too inconsistent in big events for me to pick him. Nalbandian reached the final last year so I’m going with him.

My picks: Mathieu, Gasquet, Monaco, Nalbandian, Simon, Davydenko, Volandri, Nadal.

Happy fantasies!

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