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Steve Flink: Shanghai Report Card

11/13/2007 12:36:00 PM

by Steve Flink

How many times have you seen it? A great player suffers a few unexpected losses, the inner doubts seep in, and the critics are soon out in force. They raise questions about the state of that player's game. They project more trouble ahead. They raise the bar of skepticism. And when that happens, when a champion is scrutinized by the media and reexamined by the public, he or she realizes that the only answer is to go out on the court and prove everyone wrong by playing prodigiously and winning with style and grace.

Roger Federer did just that when he captured the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai last week, securing that prestigious season-ending event for the world's eight best players for the fourth time. Federer had approached Shanghai with a considerable number of authorities saying and writing negative things about him. Since his U.S. Open triumph, he had not played with his usual high efficiency indoors. In a three week stretch leading up to Shanghai, he had been upended by a rejuvenated David Nalbandian in the final of the Masters Series event in Madrid, losing that title match despite winning the opening set 6-1. Nalbandian recouped to take the next two sets 6-3, 6-3 to prevail, never losing his serve, and surprisingly not losing his nerve as he closed out the account.

Federer went on from there to record a victory back home in Switzerland, winning the tournament in Basle. But then, against his better judgment, he played for a third week in a row at the Paris Masters Series tournament, and once more Nalbandian halted Federer, taking their round of 16 showdown 6-4, 7-6 (3). After a much needed week off, Federer opened up his Shanghai campaign with a round robin meeting against Fernando Gonzalez, the same Gonzalez who had never beaten the Swiss in ten previous career confrontations, the same "Gonzo" who bowed in straight sets when he had faced the world No. 1 in the Australian Open final back in January.

This time around, Gonzalez, despite a miserably ineffectual second half of 2007, played a fantastic match to defeat Federer at last, prevailing 3-6, 7-6 (1), 7-5. In that high quality encounter, each man was broken only once. But Gonzalez got on a roll in the second set tie-break and turned the contest around right then and there. For the first time in his four Tennis Masters Cup appearances, Federer had lost a match in the round robin. He had not played badly by any means, but the explosive Gonzalez had simply played better, cracking mind boggling forehand winners both inside-out and inside-in, serving big at the right times, pulling off some dazzling backhand passing shots and winners.

So Federer was in a bind. But he responded to that setback emphatically, ousting Nikolay Davydenko, Andy Roddick, Rafael Nadal (in the semifinals), and David Ferrer to take the crown without the loss of another set. Federer improved immeasurably as the week progressed. Against Roddick, Nadal and Ferrer, he was nearly letter perfect. He connected with 82% of his first serves in defeating Roddick 6-4, 6-2 and made good on 81% of his first deliveries in his 6-4, 6-1 win over Nadal. Then he crushed Ferrer 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 in a breathtaking display.

Federer must have heard the whispers of the pundits, and he played at the end of Shanghai perhaps his best tennis since winning the Australian Open without the loss of a set at the start of the year. He soared to the zenith of his game, and no one could come close to stopping him when he was in that frame of mind.

But Shanghai was an interesting week for other reasons beyond the supremacy and reinvigoration of Federer. Ferrer concluded the finest season of his career with a string of impressive victories. The 25-year-old Spaniard ousted Novak Djokovic, Nadal, Richard Gasquet and Roddick at the cost of only one set on his way to his final round appointment with Federer, reaching the most significant title match of his career. All week long, he advertised his extraordinary speed and court coverage, his growing match playing maturity, and an admirably fearless attitude as he confronted so many front line players.

That excellent week of work enabled Ferrer to finish 2007 stationed at No. 5 in the world, a remarkable feat for a player who was ranked No. 15 at the end of 2005 and No. 14 upon the conclusion of 2006. He clearly made serious strides this year, and his run in Shanghai was no accident. Unfortunately, he does not match up well against Federer because Ferrer does not have the weapons to hurt the game's top ranked player, and his serve is not daunting enough. Twice in each of the three sets, Ferrer was broken, and he never did break Federer. Those are not good numbers for a player who is among the leaders or even at the top in every return of serve statistical category.

To be sure, Federer was sublime and in that form he was not going to lose indoors to anyone in the world. Nevertheless, Ferrer did not compete well after battling gamely all week long. He seemed resigned to defeat early in this contest, and his reverence for Federer was absolutely evident in the post-match ceremony when he referred to the maestro at the best player in the history of the sport. No top flight player should be talking that way about Federer while they are still competing against him. That kind of talk is self defeating. I salute Ferrer for the way he acquitted himself on the way to the final but he did not do himself justice with his performance in the final.

As for his countryman Nadal, the year ended in eerily similar fashion to 2006. Once again, the second half of the year was not what it should have been for the world No. 2. In 2006, Nadal did not win a tournament after dominating the clay court circuit, winning the French Open, and then reaching his first Wimbledon final on grass. This year, he took a lot out of himself on the clay again. He won his third French Open in a row and then lost an agonizing five set skirmish with Federer in the final of Wimbledon. Nadal did record another tournament triumph on clay at Stuttgart over the summer but Ferrer upset him in the round of 16 at the U.S. Open.

Nadal was having serious knee problems by then and wisely took a month off after the Open. He then lost to Nalbandian in the quarterfinals of Madrid and the finals of the Paris Masters Series event. At Shanghai, he got back to the semifinals but this time was taken apart by an inspired Federer, losing seven games in a row after reaching 4-4 in the opening set. And so Nadal, while still irrefutably the second best player in the world, was simply not the same player over the second half of the year as he was in the first.

Some would argue that Nadal can't play the same brand of tennis on other surfaces that he does on clay. I don't believe that is true. Not only has he been to two Wimbledon finals in a row, but his hard court record is better than a lot of people believe. He won the Montreal Masters Series event on that surface in 2005, captured Madrid indoors that autumn, and won Indian Wells this spring. When he is physically right, and his body is not ailing, Nadal is a great player on any surface.

But the sad news out of Shanghai seemed to be that Nadal does not have it in him to play with the required emotional spark from the beginning of the year right up until the end. He did that to some degree in 2005, but only after losing early at Wimbledon. Some of this must be psychological. His loss to Federer this year at Wimbledon may well have been the most bruising of his career. And perhaps, in some odd way, it took some of Nadal's indefatigability away. After all, he was beaten 6-1, 6-2 by Nalbandian in Madrid, and went down 6-4, 6-0 to the Argentine indoors at Paris. In Shanghai he played a distinguished first set against Federer and then garnered only a single game in the second. The evidence is apparent: Nadal played at least one bad set with little emotional energy in his last three losses of 2007. That is simply not the essential Nadal, and he needs to examine what has gone wrong the last two years down the stretch.

Federer faced the music in Shanghai, and danced away gleefully with another big crown in his collection. But he has always known how to pace himself. Nadal must learn that every great story has a good beginning, a productive middle, and a strong ending.

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