The women’s year-end championship event was barely into the semifinals in Los Angeles when the men started their round-robin tournament in Shanghai. I suppose by the time it’s nearly over we will have figured out the time difference on that side of the world. If anyone doubts the season is too long, just look at how both fields were decimated leading up to the tournaments. And today it was announced that Rafael Nadal and Andre Agassi have both pulled out due to injuries. We’re crawling across the finish line; no big bang here, just a lot of whimpering.

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“Six weeks off, a bad ankle, and no match play”

Is this the formula which might contribute to Roger Federer having a less than stellar day? David Nalbandian was probably hoping so. Time was when he used to have the edge over Roger in their matches. But that changed over the past two years, and Roger has started beating him consistently. Today proved to be no exception. It was an odd match to watch though. We are so used to seeing Roger’s flowing style that we forget the guy may actually have a bad hair day now and then. He may have to settle for winning ugly.

Roger Federer’s accomplishments are ticked off by the announcers in every match, and the list often sounds ho-hum. Until they get to that amazing stat: the guy has won five grand slams in two years. This is glorious and good, but Roger has added another weapon to his repertoire. He can prove he can win on days when he is not at his best. Don’t underestimate the value of winning ugly. Roger seems inclined to rest his body now and then, he is not afraid to take long gaps of time off from tournament play. So when he does play, given that beautiful game that relies so much on timing, he may not hit his stride early in a tournament. So winning ugly is a skill you need to have.

Brad Gilbert and Patrick McEnroe were doing the TV commentary, and Gilbert predicted that Nalbandian could pull off the upset. The courts here are extremely fast, and Federer has said he is not all that comfortable on them. His right ankle was taped from a lingering injury he sustained in practice, and everyone is looking to see how it fares here today. If Nalbandian was going to have a shot at winning, today was the day.

The ankle seemed fine. The little, subtle things were throwing Roger Federer off. The timing wasn’t all quite there, he’d miss shots. But then he would play beautifully, in patches. But then he couldn’t string the patches together in any flow for long. His long layoff since the U.S. Open really is showing the effects today.

But then he spices things up with little touches of miracle along the way. Towards the end of the first set, Roger dumps an amazing dropshot from well back in the court. It just gets over the net right by the sideline, and lands not only with backspin, but sidespin too.

“Are you kidding me?” exclaims McEnroe in disbelief.

I’m waiting to see if Federer smiles. Sometimes he gives this quaint little smile after some fantastic feat on the court, a cat who’s just swallowed the canary and is rather pleased with life. But today he doesn’t smile.

Nalbandian fights back in the second, he starts to nail his shots as Federer falters. Nalbandian wins the set, 6-2. Gilbert started talking upset again in the booth, even though he also took Nalbandian to task for being out of shape. The guy’s got a small paunch, says Brad, somewhat indelicately. But it’s true. The clothes just aren’t quite baggy enough to cover it. This is one guy I don’t want to see in a Speedo at the pool. Gilbert’s right of course, a guy who gets this far in the rankings should spend more time on his conditioning, so we actually see it. Nalbandian needs to be fitter if he wants to go farther. He’s got a solid game, he knows how to compete and gut hard matches out. His serve is rather lackluster, but maybe with better conditioning he could address that.

Federer struggles into the third set with his timing, especially on the backhands. He was missing a number of them today. Gilbert pointed out that it is tougher for a player to get his rhythm back on a faster surface than a slower one. But by the end of the set, Federer had stepped it up so that you had no doubt now that he would win.

Federer defeats Nalbandian, 6-3, 2-6, 6-4.

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Guillermo Coria and Ivan Ljubicic presented an interesting contrast in their opening match. Coria is barely 5’9″, Ljubicic is a strong-looking 6’4″. Mutt and Jeff, but there were no mutts out here today. Coria had no opportunity to get into a groove from the baseline. Ljubicic beat him to it. He simply overpowered his smaller opponent with deep strong shots from the baseline and some powerful serving.

I am torn between calling the big Croat “Lube” or else Nosferatu. He looks kind of scary, with that (nearly) bald head and that (almost) totally black outfit, along with a few stripes of white and neon yellow. For my money, this is going to be one of the best players on the tour. I see no reason why he can’t be the third man on the totem pole in men’s tennis. The first two spots are already sewed up by you know who, Mr. Roger and Mr. Rafael. But Ivan can work his way into the mix, and I expect him to continue into ’06 the strong year he has had in ’05.

His windup on the serve reminds me a lot of Greg Rusedski’s. Of course he’s a righty and not a lefty, but the power and depth are about the same and he worked it against Coria to great effectiveness. His one-handed backhand pleases me no end, it is one of the best in the men’s game. His forehand is smooth and consistent too, he reminds me here of the great Slovak player of the 80s, Miloslav Mecir.

This guy is ready for a big move up. As Brad Gilbert discussed him further in the booth, I wonder if “Lube” is ready to take on a coach like Gilbert. Assuming they were compatible of course and also if Gilbert wants to take up another pupil. But the change might be a great one for Ivan. He has all the strokes, now he needs that tweaking of his confidence to put him consistently in the running. Brad Gilbert may be able to instill that in him. Gilbert likes aggression on the court, and that is what Ivan Ljubicic’s game needs now, that ability to win points from anywhere on the court. Like maybe at the net too a bit more. His conditioning has been first rate, although he could use a bit more speed. But at 6’4″, he will inevitably suffer from the large player’s flaw, what he has in strength and power he will lose in swiftness.

But his competitiveness is excellent. This is a guy who leads all the other players in an interesting statistic: Ljubicic is humber one in the world when it comes to saving break points.

He played a decisive physical match against one of the most physical players in the game, and beat him handily.

I think 2006 is going to have yet another (nearly) bald guy in the top ten.

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