Here at the newly renovated Rocódromo Arena, the ball-kids for the Masters Series Madrid tournament are wearing black pirate pants – capris – but Rafael Nadal is not. He is playing in white shorts and has a strap under each knee. Football players have straps above their elbows, tennis players have straps under their elbows, and baseball players have straps on their elbows – with padding in case they are hit by a pitch. The strapping represents sports medicine’s attempt to deal with the heavy toll exacted on a professional athlete’s body. Nadal has won ten titles this year; you have to play a lot of tennis to do that. His knees have been complaining lately, he didn’t play last week so he could rest them. Not a good sign for a nineteen-year-old.
For evening matches, fashion models posing as ball-girls march onto the court in unison with their hands behind them. They are wearing lime green Boss tops and gray short skirts. If there was any doubt that sports is all about entertainment and sex, it’s long gone. The marching models and the flashing ads lining the court make the scene look like an electronic version of Vogue magazine. Before you complain about sexism, you should know that the WTA will use male models as ball-boys when the women come to Madrid next year. That should make you feel a lot better.
Most of the top players are here except Roger Federer. Last year a hip injury kept him out of the tournaments preceding the year-end championship. This year it’s a strained ligament in his ankle. The layoff didn’t hurt him last year, he won the year-end championship, and it’s unlikely to keep him from repeating as winner.
We are going to watch Robbie Ginepri play David Ferrer for a spot in the semifinals. Ginepri is having a breakout year. After reaching a ranking of 35, he sank down to number 58 then climbed back to number 20 after improving his conditioning and, as told to me by a local tennis instructor who is familiar with the situation, returning to work with his longtime coach Jerry Baskin. Francisco Montana is Ginepri’s official coach but Baskin is listed as his “local” coach.
Ferrer had trouble with nerves on important points in matches early in his career. Today, though, he’s showing nerves early on. In his first service game he makes two big errors, each one giving Ginepri a break point, and starts the match down 0-2.
Even though Ferrer is in his home country, the chair umpire gives Ginepri the benefit of the doubt. After overruling an out call that Ginepri probably could not have returned, the umpire ruled that the point was to be replayed. On the other hand, maybe that’s because the replay shows that the ball was out.
For such a big guy with long, strong limbs, Ginepri has short-range strokes. He’s got a window-washer two-handed backhand – he just lays the racket back and swipes at it – and a forehand with a relatively short, sharp follow through. Not that the short follow through is a problem. He hits a number of winners by ratcheting up the speed on his forehand, his best shot.
Ferrer is a counter puncher. He’s most comfortable reacting to an aggressive opponent not being the aggressor. Ginepri’s strategy is to keep the ball in play and force Ferrer to go for winners. This is not what Ferrer wants to do and he makes a lot of errors.
Ginepri has a good slice backhand, it acts like a screwball in baseball – it spins away from right-handers. After going up 3-0, he starts using the slice to bring Ferrer to the net, another source of discomfort for him, and produces even more errors. Add in Ginepri’s serve wide to the deuce court followed by hitting behind Ferrer as he scrambles to get back into the court, and you can understand why Ginepri is up 5-0 after only nineteen minutes.
Ginepri has a reputation as a “grip it and rip it” kind of player but he’s more than that. He’s a smart player who can carry out an effective strategy. He can be a backboard and keep the ball in play or he can be the aggressor. Late in the first set he’s up two breaks so he starts attacking by moving Ferrer around and coming into the net.
Ginepri has a reputation as a “grip it and rip it” kind of player but you can see here that he’s more than that.
So far Ginepri is doing everything right. He wins the first set 6-1 and has only four unforced errors. But he’s not perfect.
Ferrer looks better in the second set. He comes up with a fabulous play on a deep Ginepri lob. He turns and runs toward the baseline and, with his back to the net, swings his racket down the right side of his body and towards the net to put up a lob just as deep as Ginepri’s. Ginepri doesn’t expect it and hits the ball into the net.
But Ginepri is not an excitable guy, each time Ferrer comes up with a good shot, Ginepri comes up with one of his own. Serving at 2-2, Ferrer hits a drop shot and Ginepri gets to it and puts up a lob. After running halfway up the barrier at the end of the court in a failed attempt to track down the lob, Ferrer throws his arms up in frustration. Later in the game, after missing a first serve he yells something that sounds like “Ayudo!” – “Help!” That’s probably not what he said but it might as well have been. Frustration has set in and Ginepri breaks him to go up 3-2.
Here is where Ginepri is a little less than perfect. He sees Ferrer’s frustration and starts to force his game so he can end the match quickly. He goes for forehand winners too early in the point and over-hits approach shots. With Ferrer serving at 3-5, they hit twelve ground strokes back and forth then Ferrer dumps a ball into the net. When Ginepri is patient, he’s successful.
Ginepri survives another bad call on match point and fourteen unforced errors in the second set to win, 6-1, 6-4.
Ferrer could have been tired, it took him three sets to beat his previous opponent, Mariano Puerta, and he might have been feeling the effects of a sore achilles tendon. But Ginepri carried out an excellent strategy perfectly, for the most part, and that is the reason for this lopsided match. Ginepri started out well and made adjustments as he increased his lead. If he can do this and remember to be patient at the end of matches, he’ll keep climbing up the rankings.