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Steve Flink: A Bad News Week

5/5/2008 7:26:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Under other circumstances, I would be writing this column about Novak Djokovic or Dinara Safina, a pair of players who recorded important triumphs in the week just gone by. Djokovic captured his second Masters Series crown of the 2008 season to go along with his triumph at the Australian Open. Safina recorded three remarkable victories to win the most significant title of her career, upending Justine Henin, Serena Williams and Elena Dementieva as she ruled in Berlin. I tip my hat to both champions for securing titles on the road to Roland Garros.

But I have reserved most of the space in this piece about all of the bad news we had last week in both the men's and women's events. At the Italian Open, the negativity started with the unfortunate second round defeat of Rafael Nadal at the hands of countryman Juan Carlos Ferrero. Nadal, appearing for the third consecutive week on the clay, had won in Monte Carlo and Barcelona and was riding high. But he fell rather tamely 7-5, 6-1 to Juan Carlos Ferrero as a severe blister on his foot badly impeded his movement and made it nearly impossible for him to step in and generate sufficient pace and depth on his ground strokes. Nadal did not merely lose to Ferrero, the former world No. 1. He was a victim of an unnecessarily crowded clay court schedule.

This year, the three clay court Masters Series events-Monte Carlo, Rome, and Hamburg--- are held in a four week period. That is asking far too much of players who are already overtaxed. And, in the case of Spaniards like Nadal and David Ferrer, the problem is compounded since Barcelona falls in between Monte Carlo and Rome. Nadal and Ferrer wanted to support that event in their home country, so that meant they had to face four straight weeks of rigorous clay court competition. In Nadal's case, the situation was even more vexing since he wins almost every clay court event he enters. In a personal sense, he was better off losing his match to Ferrero so he could give the blister a week to heal before starting his campaign in Hamburg. But the tournament suffered from losing him so soon.

Matters only deteriorated as the week wore on in Rome. Spain's Nicolas Almagro, another overplayed Spaniard, faced Djokovic in the quarterfinals. Trailing 6-1, 1-0, he retired with a wrist injury. The next day, Andy Roddick, having enjoyed one of the finest European clay court weeks of his career, had to retire at 3-0 down in the first set against Stanislas Wawrinka with back spasms. In the next semifinal, Djokovic was leading Radek Stepanek, who was coming off a stunning 7-6 (4), 7-6 (7) victory over Roger Federer. Stepanek, complaining of dizziness and weakness, retired against Djokovic with the world No. 3 ahead 6-0, 1-0. Imagine being a fan and buying a ticket to see the singles on semifinal day. The two matches combined lasted 49 minutes.

Fortunately, the Italian Open ended on a much more upbeat note as Djokovic recouped to defeat Wawrinka 4-6,6-3, 6-3 in a well contested match, displaying his match playing acumen and fierce determination in the process. The fans witnessed an appealing brand of aggressive clay court tennis from both men, and had the chance to see Djokovic reach into his bag of resources to take his third singles title of a relatively young season. But a lot of damage had been done by then. On top of the cases I have already sighted, Argentina's Juan Martin Del Potro did not complete his opening round battle with Andy Murray. So a Rome record was set with five withdrawals of one kind or another.

In the case of the women, the bad news was entirely about world No. 1 Justine Henin. Henin, hoping she can pull off a fourth French Open championship run in a row at Roland Garros, needed some serious preparation in Berlin, but she did not get it. Safina, who deserved the highest of marks for backing up her win with first rate performances against Williams and Dementieva, was able to pull away from Henin surprisingly easily in the end, winning 5-7, 6-3, 6-1 in a round of 16 clash. Henin then announced she was suffering from extreme fatigue and would not play as expected in Rome this week.

The WTA Tour fined her $20,000 for her late withdrawal. That strikes me as too harsh a penalty. Henin is a professional through and through, and if she felt she could have done herself any kind of justice, she would have gone to Rome. She only played 14 events in 2007, but picked her spots beautifully and won ten titles. Every time she came back from a layoff, she seemed to be able to raise her game relatively quickly and her selective appearances seemed to be the answer to the injuries and viruses that have been so debilitating for the Belgian across the years.

But, thus far in 2008, the sensible breaks she takes between tournaments have not worked in her favor. She has struggled inordinately. She has been crushed by inexplicably bad scores in big matches, falling 6-4, 6-0 to Maria Sharapova in the semifinals of the Australian Open, bowing 6-2, 6-0 against Serena Williams in Miami. She lost a match to Francesca Schiavone. She has simply not been herself for most of the year. When she is right, Henin is the best woman player in the world. But something is fundamentally wrong with her at the moment, and her plight may not get much better any time in the near future. I hope she can swing the pendulum back in her favor, but what is happening to her these days is very discouraging.

In any case, it was rough all around for the game last week. Too many players got hurt or sick. The tournaments suffered the consequences. The fans were given much less than they deserved. We all realize there are no easy solutions. The extreme physicality of today's game leaves every leading player vulnerable to injuries. From time to time, players, no matter how well conditioned, will wilt in the heat or simply not feel well enough to compete.

Let's hope that the men have a much better week in Hamburg and the women fare well without Henin in the draw at Rome. Better times are surely ahead. I am looking forward to writing a much more upbeat column next week.

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