Category Archives: Rafael Nadal

Why Marat Safin has a few slams and David Nalbandian does not.

Our intrepid reader Jenny placed David Nalbandian in the same category as Marat Safin: supremely gifted but lacking in commitment. I had never really thought to compare Nalbandian and Safin but after I thought about it for a while, I realized the comparison may explain why Safin has two slams and Nalbandian has none.

When I look at Safin I think to myself: “Extreme talent but, Lord, can he ever get out of his own way?” When I look at Nalbandian I think: “Solid, solid player but he’s missing the world class monster-eating-must-win-at-any-cost gene.”

One of them has too much fire and the other doesn’t have enough. I’m not sure it’s fiery competition that gnaws at Safin. He’d have a tortured soul if we’d never heard of him and he worked at a fish market. That’s just his personality. And he’s Russian. Russian literature is crawling with tortured souls.

Tennis has had a few of its own. Boris Becker qualified. Becker railed at himself on court and put himself in difficult positions off it. He married a black woman in post-war Germany and suffered through silly misdeeds such as fathering a child from a quickie encounter in a restaurant while his pregnant wife was in the hospital.

Nalbandian is missing that fire. Nadal has it, Djokovic has it, Henin lives and breathes it. I think Mauresmo had it too though not any more. Nalbandian is a bit removed. There’s nothing cerebral about wanting to kill your opponent. It’s a very visceral feeling and there’s something about Nalbandian that isn’t visceral. He’s there but floating just a bit above himself looking down and watching instead of being down and dirty in the mud slogging it out for all he’s worth.

Some people are more comfortable being runners-up. Nalbandian may be one of them. I used to play tennis with my friend Tremell every week. He was a much better player so I started each set with a three game lead. I was very proud when I reached the day that I didn’t need a three game handicap but there was a problem. Tremell preferred starting each set down three games because he was more motivated when he was behind.

Once you’ve reached a number one ranking or won a slam and have to defend it, your job description changes. You’re no longer part of the crowd trying to knock off the top player, you’re job is fending off challengers. That requires even more confidence than it took to get to the top and that’s why players like Safin and Mauresmo win one or two slams then stop. Their talent got them there but they don’t have the personality to stay for any amount of time.

It’s getting harder to say that Nalbandian doesn’t have the personality to win a slam. He won the Madrid and Paris Masters Series events this fall and that ain’t half bad. But I’m still gonna say it. I don’t think he gets a slam.

I expect Andy Murray, one of those other tortured souls, to win one first.

Teddy Awards

Let’s continue with our Teddy Awards voting. Next up: Most Surprising Player. Please go to the right side of the page and vote.

Also, if you’d help me out I’d appreciate it. I’ve been nominated for the Ladbroke’s Sportingo Author of 2007 Award. Please go here and vote for moi (Nina Rota).

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Davis Cup hard courts will be just right from now on, not too fast and not too slow. Boring!

After the U.S. won the Davis Cup title in smashing fashion by winning the first three rubbers in the final, I asked the following question: Can the U.S. win the Davis Cup again next year? I gave it a less than 50/50 shot at it because U.S. players are terrible on clay court surfaces.

I forgot that Davis Cup organizers at the International Tennis Federation (ITF) are adding rules to regulate hard court speeds. Now it’ll be even harder for the U.S. to repeat.

This year’s final was a home court event for the U.S. so they got to choose the playing surface. You can be sure they chose the fastest hard court they could get their hands on. If an ice skating rink had been available, they’d have used that.

In the future, Davis Cup rules will prevent countries from choosing a hard court surface that is too fast or too slow.

This hurts the U.S. because they specialize in hard servers and big hitters and they’ll be forced to choose a slower court next time. No word yet on what range of speeds is acceptable but it makes a difference. Roger Federer complained about the slowness of the court in Paris after he lost to David Nalbandian there.

I notice that the ITF hasn’t mentioned regulating the speed of clay courts. The indoor clay court Belgium used against the U.S. last year looked like a bunch of kids had thrown some loose clay on a gym floor so they could wallow around in it. At this point, the ruling change appears to benefit South America and Spain which have the largest number of clay court lovers.

If Spain met Argentina at home in Davis Cup next year, I wonder if they’d choose grass courts so Nadal could beat up on Argentina since he almost beat Federer at Wimbledon? Even better, why not just use that half-grass half-clay concoction Federer and Rafael Nadal played on last year?

Remember that the ITF will not allow countries to choose hard courts that are too slow either. I’m not sure I see the point of this. If a country wants a slow court, all they have to do is choose a clay court.

I’m also not sure I like the changes. Tennis is becoming too regimented. Grass courts are slowing down. Davis Cup has unlimited challenges making linespeople secondary. How long will it be before all lines are called electronically? Round robin tennis was booted out before it even got started.

It’s no fun anymore. You can’t watch someone hit ace after ace on a fast grass court. You can’t even argue a call or cheat at Davis Cup.

I guess that’s the point.


Here are my previous last thoughts about the Davis Cup final.

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Which players have the most volatile games and what does it say about them?

Not volatile temper, silly, volatile game. Volatile in the sense that a volatile player will break serve often but will also lose his serve a lot.

I, for one, believe that we are much better off embracing gambling and educating ourselves than bemoaning the trend and pointing fingers. To that end, I’ve been reading gambling advice on Betfair.com’s blog and found an interesting piece about volatility.

Matthew Walton rated all of the ATP players as follows: if the player broke serve or lost his serve, his volatility ranking would increase. If he held serve or failed to break serve, his volatility ranking would go down.

As you can imagine, big servers who don’t move all that well had low volatility rankings. Andy Roddick has the huge serve but he doesn’t break his opponent’s serve that much. Sam Querrey is in there too and so is Benjamin Becker who depends on his serve far too much. That may be why he’s slipped down to number 87 in the rankings. Querrey might want to take note of that and spend a lot more time on the clay developing his sliding skills.

Clay court players, as you’d also expect, since it’s harder to hold serve on clay, are the most volatile and Filippo Volandri is the most volatile of all. He’s already pretty popular with the bettors if you look at the number of suspicious matches his names pops up in but this is one more reason he’s popular and here’s why.

Betfair is a betting exchange. Bettors offer bets to each other rather than making bets with a bookmaker. A betting exchange is also different than the usual betting operation in that you can make bets throughout a match, not just before a match starts.

As Walton points out, there are a lot more mid-match betting opportunities on a match with volatile players than non-volatile players because Roddick and Querrey are in trouble if they lose their serve so the outcome is more predictable. If Volandri loses his serve, no big deal, because he breaks serve a lot too.

Why should you care if you’re not a day trader in the tennis market? The volatility ranking tells us some interesting things. As Walton also points out, if you’re in the middle of the pack it probably means you hold your serve well and break your opponent’s serve, which is a good thing.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are in this group but so, surprisingly, is Ivo Karlovic. You’d think that being 6ft 10in would automatically put him in the “doesn’t move so well” category but apparently it doesn’t and that explains why his ranking has shot up in the latter part of this year.

Two other people in that mid-group are Paul-Henri Mathieu and Marcos Baghdatis and that means one thing: they have the potential to be top players, they just aren’t fulfilling their potential.

I don’t have time to lay down hundreds of bets but I would love to be on Betfair because they stream tennis matches from around the world. I can’t use Betfair, though, because I live in the U.S. and offshore gambling is illegal. If you have a few coins in your piggy bank and you love tennis, it could be worthwhile to set up an account just so you can see tennis matches from Beijing and Bangkok on your computer screen.

Just don’t come complaining to me if you lose your pennies. In other words, if you have any addictive tendencies, stick to the telly.

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Join us for the Tennis Masters Cup final! We’ll be blogging live this Sunday, November 18th, at 9 am (PT)/12 pm (ET).

What to do when a match fixer approaches you and how Roger Federer made it to the semis in Shanghai.

Call 1-800-FIX-MATCH

After Novak Djokovic lost his third match at the Tennis Masters Cup on Thursday, someone in the post-match media session asked him this question:

Q. Let’s say someone approaches you and asks you to lose a match. …what do you think you should do at that moment? Go and say to someone that someone approached you? Would you be afraid to do that because maybe he’s a criminal and he could do some damage to you, to your family?

Djoko was noncommittal in his answer but the question does explain why players never called up the ATP and said: “Hey, this guy just walked up to me and offered me $50, 000 to throw a match.” The players were rightfully careful about pissing off the wrong person.

The ATP rules currently require a player to call the ATP or the police but I’m guessing the ATP won’t get very many calls.

Match of Futility

Speaking of gambling, in the first match on Friday evening in Shanghai, Nikolay Davydenko and Fernando Gonzalez met to see whether Davydenko could knock Gonzo out and therefore pass Roger Federer onto the semifinals.

It was a match of futility. Gonzo injured his right knee and lower back in Paris and that explains why he kept falling down in his loss to Andy Roddick two days ago. He didn’t do much better on Friday, falling down a few more times.

Davydenko couldn’t hit the side of a barn. He had almost twenty unforced errors in the first five games. When you know your opponent is injured, sometimes it takes you out of your game. Davydenko was attacking more than usual because he knew Gonzo was having trouble pushing off on his right knee and it threw his game off.

Gonzo had trouble warming up and Davydenko broke him right away and won the first set with the break. Once Gonzo got going, though, he fought hard. He lasted until the late in the second set when he started to tire. You could tell because he was going for winners on every shot.

Davydenko broke him to go up 5-3 and served out the second set to win the match, 6-4, 6-3.

Practice Match

Since Federer was now through to the semifinals and his Friday night opponent, Andy Roddick, had already qualified for the semifinals, Roddick’s brother John called this a practice match.

Didn’t look much like a practice match. It looked pretty the same as they’re previous ten matches, all of which Federer won. Whereas the match between Davydenko and Gonzo was full of missed shots, break points and deuces, this match was as fast as a speeding bullet. It lasted about half as long.

Federer got 83% of his first serves in and won an incredible 88% of the points on his second serve. Roddick, on the other hand, won only 35% of his second serve points because Federer jumped all over them. This is how bad it was: Roddick didn’t win a point at the net in the first set.

Roddick must have felt like he was being served up for whatever was ailing Federer. It’s been a rough week for Federer. He lost his first match to Gonzo and beat Davydenko in his second match but looked shaky doing it. He hit 38 unforced errors..

One look at Roddick, though, and Federer’s game seems to flow off his racket. Federer’s next opponent, Rafael Nadal, has no chance if Federer plays this well but he won’t play this well because it’s the power players he eats up. Those annoying energizer bunnies make life much harder for him.

Roddick will face his own energizer bunny in David Ferrer. Ferrer is on fire and Roddick has to be a little discouraged. Federer and Ferrer final anyone?


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Andy Murray and Richard Gasquet are very close to growing up.

David Ferrer and Rafael Nadal raced into the semifinals of the Tennis Masters Cup with straight set victories in Shanghai today. Nadal was the third person in this event to beat up on Novak Djokovic winning by the score 6-4, 6-4.

Okay, Rafa didn’t beat up on Djoko but Djoko hasn’t looked the same since he had wisdom tooth removed just before the Paris Masters event. I thought he should have gotten a $20, 000 fine for not trying hard enough in Paris. Why not I reasoned? If the ATP thinks they know when someone isn’t trying hard enough, slap the fine on everyone.

I was being facetious of course and even the ATP has come to its senses and rescinded the $20, 000 they fined Nikolay Davydenko for “not trying hard enough.”

Djoko still hasn’t recovered and either something’s wrong with him or he’s just plain pooped after two slam semifinals and a final and two Masters Series titles in a breakout year. Either way, it dampened my enthusiasm for Richard Gasquet’s opening match victory over Djoko since everyone has beaten Djoko this weak. Gasquet has subsequently lost both of his matches and today’s loss was a beatdown. He lost to Rafa 6-1, 6-1.

I was over the moon for Gasquet when he got into the final eight. Either I’m very optimistic or, more likely, very demanding because once a young player makes a breakthrough, I want him to shoot for the moon and make it. One win isn’t bad I suppose but I wanted more.

Thinking about Gasquet took me back to a 2004 article about Roger Federer in Sports Illustrated written by S.L. Price. Federer was a drama queen when he was a junior player. He’d scream at himself and throw his racket across the court when things weren’t going well. His father tried to curb his behavior by yelling at him from the stands. Federer yelled back at him.

Federer cried if he lost a match. If you watch the Bjorn Borg documentary that’s in heavy rotation on the Tennis Channel, you’ll see tears in the teenager’s eyes after losing. Borg wasn’t a drama queen but you never doubted his, or Federer’s, desire.

I don’t know if I doubt Gasquet’s desire. I just don’t see it. It’s in his game. I’d have to think hard to name another player who goes for such big shots from anywhere on the court. And though screaming and yelling are not the only expressions of deep desire, you can usually see it somewhere if you look hard enough.

I don’t remember Andre Agassi screaming and yelling but he certainly acted out. It wasn’t just the bleached hair, earrings, and ‘do rag. He was clearly trying to fit his personality into his game. He was another player who had trouble making the transition from child prodigy to self-motivated professional tennis player.

Agassi finally had to take a break from the tour and hang out in a therapist’s office before he could work out his issues. Gasquet comes from a similar place: tennis coach parents, cover of a French tennis magazine when he was nine years old, the hope of French tennis.

Andy Murray I have no doubts about. He wants it. He’s still in his immature, yelling at himself phase – the phase most players grow out of when they get to the main tour – but you can hear the desire in his yellling.

One more sign of his immaturity: he can’t keep a coach. He doesn’t agree with the coach. He knows better. Today he fired Brad Gilbert, his garrulous supercoach of the past year and a half.

Maybe Murray will be like Federer. He knows the game of tennis well enough, and his own game in particular, and doesn’t need a coach. Strategically that might be true but physically he still needs to improve and how could you not benefit from the best coach in the game even if he is a motormouth?

I think Murray will be in the final eight at the end of next year but you never know what it’ll take to push someone to his full potential.

That article about Federer describes a huge turning point in his life. His juniors coach and mentor, Peter Carter, died in a car accident when Federer was 20 years old. It marked his passage from adolescence to manhood. Federer had been a highly skilled but erratic player and now he became a mentally tough player.

The next coach Murray gets, if he gets one, will be paid out of Murray’s pocket. Until Murray fired him, Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) was paying $1.5 million a year for Gilbert’s services. Maybe that’s the way Murray wants it to be. Maybe that’s a sign of maturity.

For sure it marks Murray’s passage from LTA foster child to self-supporting tennis professional and that’s a good thing.

As for Gasquet, I’ll keep looking and see what I find.


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