Grass Court Transition
by Steve Flink
|A tired Nadal went down early at Queen's Club. |
Answering the telephone last weekend, I heard the familiar voice of my father. "What happened to Nadal?" he asked, baffled by the Spaniard's quarterfinal defeat on grass at Queen's Club against Nicolas Mahut. "How could he lose to that guy?"
My father is not a diehard tennis fan but he follows the game more than remotely, particularly at this time of the year during the Grand Slam events. He could not understand why Nadal had been beaten by an unheralded Frenchman ranked No. 106 in the world. It made no sense to him that a man of Nadal's stature, even on a surface as challenging to him as grass, could be beaten by Mahut after performing prodigiously across the last two months on clay and capturing his third French Open title in a row.
As I tried to interpret for my old man what had happened to Nadal, it occurred to me that many fans were probably just as curious about why Nadal stumbled. The left-handed Spaniard, did, after all, reach the Wimbledon final a year ago. So here is my take on what went wrong last week not only with Nadal but other top players as well. Nadal had to be exhausted after his long clay court campaign. Across April into May, he had played four weeks out of five on the clay, winning three straight tournaments, reaching the final of the fourth. After taking a week off, he then returned to Roland Garros and played seven more matches, capping a productive fortnight by upending Roger Federer in the final for the second year in a row.
After playing that much tennis, he clearly needed time off. All champions need to hibernate the week after a major. But Wimbledon begins only 15 days after Roland Garros ends, forcing the top players to push themselves inordinately hard as they pursue another major so soon., as they attempt to make a difficult surface transition. Nadal therefore went right to Queen's, won a couple of matches, and then ran out of emotional energy by the time he faced Mahut. He was ripe for defeat. To be sure, he was probably still trying to get acclimated to the grass. But how could he make that transition so swiftly?
Now, let's turn the page and look at the other top players who shared world No. 2 Nadal's predicament in different ways this past week. World No. 1 Federer pulled out of the grass court tune up in Halle, Germany. He had won that tournament the past four years. In 2006, when Federer reached his first final at the French Open, he somehow triumphed the following week in Halle despite one precarious test after another. Only his innate grass court skills enabled a debilitated Federer to get through that week unscathed, so he wisely chose to skip the event this year as a preventative measure against an injury.
What about the surging Novak Djokovic? He, too, was beaten up physically and mentally by his journey to the penultimate round in Paris, and therefore it was not all that surprising that he was upset by the wily Frenchman Arnaud Clement at Queen's. I am sure Djokovic would rather have rested the week after Roland Garros but he did what he had to do by getting out on the grass and competing.
Andy Roddick won his fourth crown at Queen's. The ascendant Mahut was waiting for the world No. 3 in the final, and he forced Roddick to the brink of defeat. Roddick was match point down before recouping to record an arduous triumph. Mahut is a terrific grass court player with superb skills on the volley, and it was that feature of his game which was the key to his wins over Nadal and Ivan Ljubicic. In any event, Roddick—after a first round exit in Paris--- was the only competitor ranked among the top five in the world not suffering from the post-Roland Garros syndrome. He finally won his first tournament of 2007.
Be that as it may, the guess here is that both Nadal and Djokovic--- along with world No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko who lost early in Halle—shared Federer's concern about possibly injuring themselves on the grass by playing in a tournament the week after a run to the final weekend in Paris. They surely were more interested in playing some matches and gaining some good grass court preparation than necessarily winning the tournament. That is not normally how ferocious competitors like Nadal and Djokovic normally go about their business, but who could castigate them for their latest losses? Nadal, especially, is immensely prideful and hates losing to players who are not in his class. He detests losing to anyone. But he was not entirely to blame for this setback.
Who else was responsible? For too long now, authorities have talked about creating a longer time frame between the French Open and Wimbledon, but this crucial issue has not been resolved. There should be at least a three week rather than a two week grass court season leading up to Wimbledon. How can the best players be given so little time to get ready for the preeminent tournament in tennis?
It is time for the powers that be to resolve this issue once and for all. Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to TennisChannel.com. Steve Flink Archive
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