Category Archives: ATP Players

Can you learn much about a player by reading his blog?

The video above shows Rafael Nadal playing a junior tournament in Barcelona ten years ago. Not much has changed, except that he lost the match. Uncle Toni was sitting courtside ten years ago just as he does today. Rafa was cute to die for then and he’s cute to die for now. He was already a good returner as you can see with that forehand stab return on a point he ended up winning, though it’s hard to tell because the wide shot is a serve to the ad court while the close up is a serve to the deuce court. The editor obviously was not a tennis player.

Rafa may not shrug his shoulders in media sessions today as much today as he did during this interview on Spanish television, but the look on his face is the same. It’s the facial expression that accompanies a shoulder shrug, a facial shrug let’s call it. Usually a shrug means “I don’t know” or “I don’t care, ” but when Rafa does it, it means, “Do you really want to know the answer to that question? It’s not that interesting.” Or, “Am I being boring?”

Thus the title of this piece: “I’m Back and Off to a Winning Start But I Hope I’m Not Boring, ” which is the title of a 2008 US Open post to Rafa’s blog on Rafa’s official website. Clearly he’s still concerned that he might be boring us.

Here’s the question: How much can you learn about a player from their blog? Or, to put it another way: Can you learn just as much watching a video of the player when he was 12 years old?

Because there’s a lot on this video. Rafa is already precocious and famous. He’s the star here even though his opponent won the match because Rafa is only 12 years old while his opponent is 15. And Rafa’s not all that worried that he lost:

Today I haven’t played as good as I have [played] before, but…well, I don’t care. From 9 o’clock until 12 at noon I am at school, and so from 4-8pm I play tennis.

I always thought Rafa showed great patience and equanimity during his three year stay at number two. It must have been exceptionally frustrating to come along at the same time as Roger Federer and find yourself literally stuck in place and stuck there for three years. I can’t think of anyone else who went through the same thing, can you? And yet he never showed frustration in media sessions and he never seemed to be discouraged.

On the other hand, maybe we never knew because he doesn’t tell us all that much in media sessions. Does he tell us any more in his blog? In our title post he teases us a bit:

[This blog is] also a good way to let my fans know, first hand, what I think and do. I don’t think this will be a very deep blog if you know what I mean.

He’s gonna let us know what he thinks but it isn’t going to be very deep. He did discuss his decision to play Toronto, Cincinnati, the Beijing Olympics, and the US Open without a break:

[My team] thought and I agreed that the best is to keep with the good swing and the results. My uncle always say that you have to take the good moments and I was feeling strong enough to do this.

Presumably this also explains why Rafa played himself into the ground at the end of the year and ended up hurting himself badly enough that he had to drop out of the Davis Cup final. If I’d been reading the blog at the time, I’d have sent along the following question: “Do you think you might have something to learn from Roger Federer when it comes to planning a judicious yet effective playing schedule?”

I’d love to hear analysis of other players’ games too but this is the tenor of the discussion about Andy Murray as an example:

Some people do not really appreciate the game that Andy has. He is really good, very good.

I think we knew that already. Along with player analysis, it would also be nice to get match analysis from the people playing the match. This is what Rafa has to say about his US Open match against Sam Querrey:

Well it has been a very difficult day with a difficult match played. I started playing pretty well and for those of you who have seen the match I ended playing not that great. I played good the first set but mid second I could not find my game, played with bad intensity and made too many mistakes.

I’d love to know more about intensity, in particular, what makes Rafa the player with the strongest mental focus – and thus intensity – in the game? Short of Dmitry Tursunov, who should have been a writer/performer/comedian or even blogger rather than a tennis player, professional tennis players are good at tennis, not writing or journalism. They can analyze a match but that doesn’t mean they can analyze themselves.

Give me the video any day. The information I want is in the player’s movement, facial expression, and their game, it’s not in their blog.

Average Rating: 5 out of 5 based on 266 user reviews.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and David Nalbandian met in the Masters Series final in Paris. The winner would go to the year end championships in Shanghai. The loser would go home.

People looked at Pete Sampras as a brilliant shotmaker and supreme big match player but a somewhat boring personality. I always thought shotmakers were emotional players, players who fed off the moment and only fully blossomed when the stakes were high. And they were, in my mind, the opposite of players such as, say, Sampras’ opponent Ivan Lendl who prepared for the moment as much as he fed off it. Lendl popped off to cardio conditioning classes when year round conditioning was a new idea for professional athletes and changed his home court surface to match the US open surface precisely.

Roger Federer threw me off too because he’s another brilliant shotmaker yet you hardly heard a peep out of him during a match, and while people called his domination boring more than they called his personality boring – he’s always been very good about doing media interviews and photo shoots, they did ask for more expressiveness on court.

Now that Marcos Baghdatis is on the shelf until he can figure out that being a professional athlete means putting in some time at the gym and doing a few forward bends now and then to avoid injury, we have the best candidate in some time that combines raw, in the moment shotmaking, with an electrical personality: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. And this week at the Masters Series event in Paris, he’s come through in spades.

I’m not wild about Jo-Willie’s thumbs pointing at shoulders celebration that says “look at me, look at what I did” in a way that out-egos even the biggest prima donna in US football or world soccer, but I’m an old fuddy duddy about that. Younger fans seem to like such things. But Jo-Willie has it all: big serve, athleticism, speed, and big shots on big points, and this week he put it all together.

He started the week ranked number 13 and made his way to the Paris final despite never having reached a quarterfinal at a Masters Series event, and if he could beat his opponent in the final, David Nalbandian, he’d be in the year end championships, something few people expected.

If Nalbandian won the match, he’d be the one flying off to Shanghai for the championships and not many people expected that a few weeks ago either. Nalbandian was the guy who looked nervous at the beginning of the match. He hit a double fault to lose his first service game. Jo-Willie was a bit shaky but, unlike his earlier matches this week, he came out and blanketed the net early and held on to the break of serve to win the first set 6-3.

Jo-Willie blanketed the net behind seven aces in that first set and that was huge for him because he struggled this week when his first serve hasn’t been there. It’s not a Sampras-like serve but he won’t be able to beat an un-fatigued Novak Djkovic or a never-fatigued Rafael Nadal without it, he’s just not steady enough from the baseline.

Lucky for him the year end championships are indoors on a very slick surface and Nadal and Federer are ailing and Djkovic isn’t playing well. He might do very well at the year end championships but that would be misleading because he skipped the slower courts this year – both clay and hard court, so we don’t know how he’ll do through an entire season.

Serving at 3-4 in the second set, Jo-Willie hit and error and followed that up with a double fault and found himself down three break points. He hit four aces to pull himself through the game and that’s the marquee of top players like Sampras and Federer: their serve gets them out of trouble. But both of those players had power and consistency and Jo-Willie has only one of those skills at the moment, and it’s not consistency.

Which cost Jo-Willie the second set. He went down three set points while serving at 4-5 to stay in the second set after hitting a few balls out of the court. He hit another ball into the net to give Nalbandian the set, 6-4. Jo-Willie is inconsistent because he insists on pounding every ball as hard as he can and when it works it’s beautiful. Nalbandian couldn’t get his first serve in and Jo-Willie pounded away successfully enough to break Nalbandian early in the third set and go up 2-1.

If Jo-Willie could hang on to that break just long enough, he’d have an all expenses paid trip to Shanghai. And he did hang on, literally. Serving for the match, he hit a popup volley then served a double fault and found himself down three break points yet again. Nalbandian gave up the first break point when he couldn’t return a second serve, Jo-Willie then got away with another popup volley and followed that up with tremendous second serve to get back to deuce. Another ace and one more punishing forehand and he’d done it, he’d won his first Masters Series shield.

There was no “look at me” celebration, though, just tears and a hug for every member of his family. He’d have hugged every spectator if he could have, and I’d have given him a hug because I’ve been waiting, like all of us, for another shotmaking machine who can rise to the occasion. First, though, Jo-Willie will need a broader ground game and that’ll not only get him through the slower court seasons, but a few finesse shots might also take some pressure off his body and let him actually get through an entire season.

Average Rating: 4.7 out of 5 based on 245 user reviews.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga passed some important tests in his second and third round matches in Paris.

Damn, the guy is a shotmaker. In the third game of the match in the Paris Masters event between Radek Stepanek and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Stepanek hit a lazy forehand to the middle of the ad court and Tsonga ran around his backhand until he was standing smack dab in the middle of the doubles alley and hit an inside out forehand at such an angle that it landed in the corner of the opposite service box.

Stepanek is a funny hybrid player. He does everything well but nothing spectacularly. He serves enough aces to be a consistent serve and volleyer, he can be magical at the net – he’s the best doubles player among the singles player but maybe only because Roger Federer hardly ever plays doubles. And he’s willing to be the villain.

Mind games have gone out of fashion in the current version of the ATP tour except for some systemic tics like Rafael Nadal’s 30 second time outs between each point (you can page through a Nadal match quick and easy by clicking on the skip forward button on your DVR remote which skips ahead exactly 30 seconds) and Novak Djokovic’s incessant ball bouncing, but Stepanek has an entire range of annoyance tactics that rival his bag of strategic skills. Tsonga was serving at 1-2 in the first set when Stepanek spun a beautiful pirouette and hit a backhand volley winner then backpedaled the entire length of the court in appreciation of his marvelousness.

Stepanek is lucky he’s not a baseball player. If he hit a home run and pulled off that same behavior on a baseball field, the next time he came to plate he’d find a baseball lodged in his ear. I suppose Tsonga could direct a serve at Stepanek’s private parts, it has been done before though, I believe, not intentionally. Tsonga had his chance. He can be just as magical at the net but he let Stepanek take control of the net and found himself down set point in the first set after having lost his serve. Stepanek served and volleyed and did a showman’s leap when he hit a short hop volley off Tsonga’s return. If I were Tsonga, I’d have rocketed the ball right at Stepanek’s head being the hothead I am. Tsonga, not as hotheaded but maybe a slight bit annoyed at Stepanek’s show, overhit his approach shot and that was that, Stepanek had the first set 6-3.

Tsonga has never played Stepanek before and it was an important growing up moment for him. You can’t blast a trickster off the court because they’ll avoid getting into a groundstroke battle with you by taking away the net just as Stepanek did in this match. Any top player should be able to overpower Stepanek, but it takes skill and it was interesting to watch Tsonga try to figure it out.

Tsonga beat that other trickster, Fabrice Santoro, on a fast surface in Lyon last week but it took him three sets to do it and by the look of this match today, I’m guessing Stepanek could have beaten him on a slower outdoor court. As for Stepanek, let’s see how Tsonga figured him out.

Serving at 2-3 in the second set, Stepanek took another one of his little showman hops as he hit another cute shot at the net, but this time Tsonga hit a beautiful cross court approach shot for a winner and followed that up with a passing shot down the line to get his first break point. Not only did that get Tsonga’s home crowd going but it got Stepanek in trouble. On break point, Stepanek hit a fault then smashed the ball in anger to the consternation of Tsonga’s people. He followed that up with a double fault to lose his serve. You live by annoyance, you die by annoyance.

But Tsonga still hadn’t figured it out. Serving at 4-2 he saved two break points by outsteadying Stepanek – rule number one against the trickster: keep the ball in play – and taking over the net, but he still ended up giving the break back because he couldn’t handle Stepanek’s elegant junk. It looked like he’d finally figured it out when he gobbled up Stepanek’s slices and misdirections and pulled even by winning the second set 6-4, but he lost his serve again early in the third set because he didn’t get to the net and when he did, he wasn’t putting the ball away. He couldn’t quite decide when to smash the ball or not.

Tsonga is a rhythm player and an emotion player. Those passing shots gave him his rhythm and then, with Stepanek serving to stay in the match at 4-5, he found his emotion. He hit a shot down the line he thought was in because he couldn’t hear the out call over the roar of the crowd and by then it was too late to challenge. That got him mad and now he started going for his shots instead of fooling around and he came up with three great shots in a row to close out the match: a beautiful running passing shot, a high looping topspin lob that landed just inside the line, and a return that curled round the doubles alley and back into the court. He had the break on Stepanek and he had the match, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4.

Tsonga’s third round opponent, Novak Djokovic, is a different matter altogether. He WILL slug it out with you from the baseline and he has a better backhand than Tsonga. But he’s not as cute at the net and that is Tsonga’s advantage. Would Tsonga figure out how to use it?

Pretty much, yeah. Djokovic was serving at 2-2 in the first set when Tsonga hit a drop shot. He followed that up with a push volley that should have been a putaway volley, but he managed to win the point by picking off a lob volley and hitting in right at Djokovic to get a break point. Djokovic hit an error on an easy forehand to lose his serve and then it was time to ask: Can Djokovic get through an entire season and stay in top form? Or, more to the point, will Andy Murray overtake Djokovic before Djokovic can overtake Roger Federer?

Djokovic is in the top four and the other three players are trucking along and he’s not. Rafael Nadal, Federer, and Murray are still alive in Paris and each of them reached the semifinals in Madrid, while Djokovic lost to Tsonga in the Bangkok final then lost early in Madrid. You could say Djokovic did better last fall when he won the title in Vienna and reached the semifinals in Madrid.

Djokovic has three sterling titles this year: the Australian Open, and the Masters Series events in Rome and Indian Wells, but Murray has a slam final, two Masters Series events, and five titles altogether – the same number Djokovic had last year. So it’s not looking good for Djokovic if Murray can stay injury free.

Tsonga held onto his break to take the first set though it wasn’t easy, and he showed his Pete Sampras jump overhead early in the second set. Athleticism is all good and well but consistency is better as Tsonga lost his serve a few points later then completely fell apart in the second set. His thigh was bothering him – he took a medical time out at the end of the second set which he lost 6-1 – but he had only to look across the net to find someone who plays well despite injury, real or imagined.

And you could say Tsonga learned that lesson too. In Djokovic’s first service game in the third set, Tsonga lunged to return a wide serve then ran down a low shot to the other corner and batted the ball past Djokovic at the net for a break point. Then he outdid that on the next point by flicking a deep Djokovic volley crosscourt for the break.

In both of Tsonga’s matches he played a few magical points in very important situations to get the win. Before we get carried away, we should remember that while Djokovic has trouble staying strong the entire year, Tsonga barely plays half the year due to his multiple injuries. But we did see some important progress this past few days and I’m thrilled about that because I’m still looking forward to seeing that magic in many more slams to come.

Average Rating: 5 out of 5 based on 203 user reviews.

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, April 28, 4am (EST) in the U.S. and 10am (CET) in Europe.

I made a mistake last week. Well, I made a few, but one in particular stood out. I picked Carlos Moya for my team without noticing that he’d gone out in the first round the past three years. Pay attention to such information even if I forget. Of course, who’d a thunk that Sam Querrey would beat Moya and I find it interesting that James Blake took a wild card to Barcelona this week. Querrey reached the quarterfinals, for heaven’s sake, and that should embarrass both Blake and Andy Roddick enough to get their butts over to Europe immediately.

Keep slogging along here with your complete season strategy because, remember, there are seven Masters Series events and three slams in the season. For instance, you should probably use Rafael Nadal for the three clay Masters events, Roland Garros, and Wimbledon because you can only use him five times.

There are two tournaments this week. Barcelona is on clay and pays $209, 692 for a first prize. Munich is also on clay and pays $90, 923 to its winner. Given the disparity in the first prize money, let’s pick five of our eight players from Barcelona and three from Munich.

I keep waiting for Nicolas Almagro to step up at required events and it hasn’t happened yet except for a quarterfinal here and there, so pick him for Barcelona because it’s one of the highest paying optional events. Almagro won’t get past Nadal but he’s a good candidate for the semifinals over Andy Murray who has an 8-13 career record on clay.

I suppose it’s time to start thinking about how to use David Nalbandian and David Ferrer this year. Nalbandian is up and down at Roland Garros and the U.S. Open and hasn’t done well at Hamburg. He’s golden at Madrid – in last four years he’s never done worse than semis – but his win in Paris last year was an anomaly. And forget about the summer hard court Masters events. That means I have to try and get three tournaments out of him in the clay court season and since I didn’t pick him last week – one of those mistakes – I have to use him this week. I just hope Stanislaw Wawrinka doesn’t take him out.

Ferrer is having a good year and he got to the semifinals at the U.S. Open last year so I’d save him for that. The question is whether to save him for the remaining Masters events or not. He hasn’t done well and Rome or Madrid the past few years and he’s never done well in Canada but he has a legitimate shot at the remaining three Masters events. However, I think he’ll make the final in Barcelona because he’s 4-0 over Nalbandian on clay and Barcelona pays more than a quarterfinal in Cincinnati (the dollar ain’t worth much today) so I’m picking him this week and then saving him for Hamburg and Paris.

I’m going with Juan-Carlos Ferrero over Carlos Moya even though Moya is 3-0 over Ferrero in their last three clay matches because, for some reason, Moya cannot seem to play well in Barcelona. Guillermo Canas has been sinking so I’m taking Tommy Robredo over him in their quarter.

Barcelona draw

Let’s go from the Spanish tournament with all those Spanish clay court players to the German tournament with all those German not-so-good-at-clay court players. I’m hesitant to pick Igor Andreev because he lost to Steve Darcis, who is in his quarter, last year and he’s in Fernando Gonzalez’ quarter. And Fernando is 6-0 on clay this year, but Andreev is on a roll and he beat Fernando the last two times they played on clay.

From the top half I’m going with two players. Paul-Henri Mathieu lost early in Monte Carlo but he’s never gone past the first round in Monte Carlo and he had a big clay court season last year in optional events. Philipp Kohlschreiber is my second pick here because he has good results here and his quarter is weak.

Munich draw

My Pick
Almagro, Ferrer, Nalbandian, Ferrero, Robredo, Andreev, Mathieu, Kohlschreiber

Happy fantasies!

Average Rating: 4.8 out of 5 based on 270 user reviews.

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For everyone out there who thinks I don’t appreciate Novak Djokovic‘s game, check out my brand new Stickit Wear Djoker t-shirt featuring Nolo’s signature backhand. Stickit Wear screwed up my order and they sent me a few extra t-shirts in penance. If you’d like an identical t-shirt in size men’s small, all you have to do is email me a picture of yourself in your favorite sports t-shirt and I’ll send it on to you. My email is nrota@pobox.com. First come, first served, so to speak.

I will, of course, post the image on our website.

Average Rating: 4.7 out of 5 based on 173 user reviews.