So far there this year there have been six ATP Masters events. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have won all of them. Nadal has won three, all of on clay. Federer has won one on clay and two on hard courts. Including the improbable comeback win from two sets down to Nadal at the Nasdaq 100 in Miami.
Federer is still nursing sore feet, he is playing in the next tournament in Cincinnati, and Andy Roddick lost to Paul-Henri Mathieu in the first round. That opened up the draw for Andre Agassi who is playing Nadal in the final here in Montreal at the Rogers Cup Masters.
Agassi left the tour for eight weeks after the French Open with an inflamed nerve – sciatica to us recreational tennis players who are only too familiar with it – and returned to win the Mercedes Benz Cup tournament in Los Angeles. He was the only top 25 ranked player in that tournament but here in Montreal, there are a lot of ranked players and here he is in the final again. It’s similar to Roger Clemens who is 43 years old and he has a 1.32 earned run average for the Houston Astros. Unbelievable. It’s not unheard of in tennis. Jimmy Conners won his last grand slam at age 30 but he kicked up a storm with a string of improbable come-from-behind matches and made it to the semis at the US Open at the age of 39. In today’s game, players drop like flies due to injury or weariness at a much earlier age. Sometimes they just disappear one day (Bjorn Borg) or retire and become poker players (Yevgeny Kafelnikov).
Agassi has not been able to beat Federer. Can he beat Nadal in their first ever meeting? Better that he meet Nadal on a hardcourt than on clay but Nadal’s ball is bouncing high on these courts and that’s a problem because Agassi will need to step inside the baseline and take the ball on the rise to give the speedy Nadal less time to track down the ball.
The stadium is full again and everyone is up to give A.A. a standing ovation before the match even starts. Agassi was never a run of the mill player, he started out as a flashy long haired guy with a superficial image and grew into a legend, but I’m sure he would be happier if people just expected him to be in the final instead of applauding him for doing it.
Besides winning all of those tournaments on clay, Nadal has been improving his game. His serve is stronger and, while not overpowering, the spin and placement make it very hard to read. His ground strokes still kick up very high but now they land deeper in the court.
Agassi starts out by attacking Nadal’s backhand and running him side to side but Nadal is so quick he gets to everything. Agassi makes enough errors trying to play keep-away that he gives up a break in the fourth game.
Nadal is able to transform his transcendent clay court game to the hard court because he’s so good at turning defense into offense. He covers the court so well that even if you do run him wide, he gets to the ball soon enough to wind up and hit a sharp crosscourt shot or down the line winner. He holds onto the break to win the first set 6-3.
He plays one set with a guy he’s never played before then he gets an opportunity to sit down with his coach for an hour to review his strategy and make adjustments.
Montreal weather now gives Agassi a break and starts raining heavily. How perfect is that? He plays one set with a guy he’s never played before then he gets an opportunity to sit down with his coach for an hour to review his strategy and make adjustments. Here’s how the conversation could have gone: “O.k., Andre, your first serve is working well but you won only 30% of your second serves and you’re having trouble with high bouncing balls to your backhand. Keep doing what you’re doing but come to the net more to cut off those very annoying topspin kickers.”
And that is what he does. He continues to serve well but he attacks the net more, even sneaking in at times. Nadal feels the pressure and hits two net chords and two errors in the sixth game to give Agassi two break points. Nadal recovers to win the game but the momentum is changing. On his next service game Nadal has to hit a spectacular shot to win the game. He runs all the way to the opposite side of the court to get to a volley hit into the corner and hits a running forehand winner down the line that Agassi is guarding. Agassi has to smile about that.
With Nadal serving at 4-5, the pressure finally pays off. Nadal hits errors and Agassi wins the second set, 6-4, and evens the match.
Each player has taken a set and now they settle in for a battle. With Agassi serving at 1-1, they slam balls at each other as hard as they can for twenty strokes as Nadal runs from side to side and Agassi short hops the ball until Nadal ends it with a hard shot down the line. After an Agassi double fault and another Nadal winner at the end of an even longer rally, Agassi is broken.
Serving at 1-3, Agassi hits a crosscourt shot at such a sharp angle that Nadal has to run out of the court to run around his backhand and hit down the line. Agassi puts up a lob and Nadal manages to twist and reach back for an overhead. Agassi gets to the ball then approaches and hits a drop volley at an even sharper angle to end the point. But Agassi serves up another double fault and Nadal rattles him by taking a long time in between serves to get his breath. The Kid is smart. Agassi wins only two points in the game and goes down a second break.
Even smarter, Nadal tightens up his service game by repeatedly serving Agassi wide then hitting winners into the open court. He loses only four points on his serve in the deciding set and wins the match, 6-3, 4-6, 6-2.
Agassi threw everything but the kitchen sink at Nadal and Agassi is the one who’s sore. His back is hurting again after the match and he pulls out of the tournament in Cincinnati. Doesn’t that just piss you off? You run the other guy into the ground and you’re the one who’s hurting.
Nadal is not a serve and volleyer and he doesn’t have all of Federer’s shots, but he has more game than anyone else but Federer. Marat Safin has shown that he can beat Federer but Nadal would probably test Safin’s patience with his defense. I’m looking forward to another five set final between Federer and Nadal, this time at the US Open.