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Steve Flink: Reflections from Indian Wells

3/24/2009 1:10:00 PM

by Steve Flink

All through a highly entertaining tournament, I watched on television with great pleasure as the best tennis players in the world performed stupendously at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California. To put it more accurately, the men provided most of the sparkle at this event as three of the top four competitors in the world--- Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray-- made it through to the penultimate round, joined deservedly by a player of renewed vigor and purposefulness named Andy Roddick. The women sorely missed Serena and Venus Williams, and suffered from the early departure of a suddenly ineffectual Jelena Jankovic.

In the end, the spirited Vera Zvonareva claimed the most important title of her career, eclipsing a resurgent Ana Ivanovic in the final. Zvonareva rallied gamely in saving three set points at 5-6 in the opening set, exploiting her superior defensive skills to prevail in a tie-break. From 0-2 in the second set, she swept six games in a row for the title, winning 26 of the last 35 points in the process. Zvonareva has reclaimed a place for herself among the top five women in the world, and not without merit.

But what a pity it was that the last day was marred so significantly for the finalists by the ferocity of the wind, which was blowing consistently in the range of 25MPH, with gusts approaching 50 MPH. Under those daunting circumstances, the players were largely compromised. They were forced to make substantial tactical and technical concessions by the humbling conditions. On the biggest day of the entire tournament, the shot making options of these gifted individuals were considerably diminished. Ivanovic fought valiantly in conditions that were much more burdensome to her big hitting game than to the less adventuresome Zvonareva, but could not quite defend her title.

And yet, the redoubtable world No. 1 Nadal simply refused to let the wind get in the way of his ambitions. Nadal was on a mission. He had never lost to Andy Murray in five head-to-head collisions prior to the U.S. Open last September. Murray upended him in the semifinals of that major, and then achieved a second straight victory over the Spaniard in the final of indoor event at Rotterdam last month. Nadal lost that one 6-3, 4-6, 6-0, playing through obvious discomfort in his knee while failing to garner a single game in that final set.

This time around, Nadal knew he could not afford another setback against a primary rival. So the 22-year-old left-hander made whatever adjustments were necessary. He shortened his backswing whenever possible, gave himself a much larger margin for error than usual, and made excellent use of the low slice backhand. That shot gave Murray serious problems on his forehand side, and Nadal approached judiciously behind the backhand slice as well. Nadal missed a few of his patented inside-out forehands early on, over-hitting a shot he normally makes routinely. Thereafter, he hardly made a mistake of any significance.

To be sure, Murray was in disarray, understandably put off by the severity of the wind, confused about how to handle it, perhaps a bit surprised by Nadal's remarkable adaptability. The key moment in the match was when Murray served at 1-2 in the opening set. He had been reasonably solid from the baseline until then. But in that long, four deuce, fourth game, Murray was ultimately broken when Nadal laced an effective backhand pass down the line, provoking an errant backhand volley from his adversary to gain a 3-1 lead.

A point or two earlier, Murray had been distracted by some debris which the wind carried down from the stands to courtside. He complained to umpire Cedric Mourier, who explained that had not called a let because he had not seen the debris while the point was in progress. In any case, Murray overreacted, and kept badgering Mourier about the incident at the next changeover. He was advertising his distress, and it was apparent that Murray's angst was not about that one judgment call; he was revealing that he was entirely uncomfortable dealing with Nadal on a day such as this. He felt fundamentally inhibited, unable to serve big at opportune times, discouraged about trying to step up the pace off the ground in an attempt to stop playing defense in the rallies.

Nadal admirably kept Murray at bay from beginning to end. After he got that cushion of a 3-1 first set lead, he never looked back. The Spaniard collected 12 of the last 18 points from there to close out the first set 6-1. In the second set, Murray led 2-1 on serve but never won another game. An unwavering Nadal gave nothing away during that stretch, sweeping five games in a row and 20 of the last 27 points to complete an improbably decisive 6-1, 6-2 victory. Nadal was so concentrated on serve and in such utter control from the back of the court that he never faced a break point on his delivery. Moreover, Murray was not once allowed to even reach deuce on his opponent's serve. Nadal won 32 of 43 points on serve in the match, including 16 of 20 in the second set.

And so Nadal secured his second tournament victory of the year, adding the prestigious Indian Wells title to his Australian Open triumph at the start of the year. He surely heads into Miami with a good deal of optimism and self conviction. But that would not be the case if he had not survived an astonishing skirmish with David Nalbandian in the round of 16 at Indian Wells. Nadal and Nalbandian had confronted each other only twice in their careers, with the Argentine prevailing by overwhelming scores in both encounters.

Nalbandian--- a man I have long believed is the single biggest under-achiever in the game of tennis-routed Nadal 6-1, 6-2 in their first meeting indoors in the quarterfinals at Madrid in the fall of 2007. A few weeks later, Nalbandian crushed Nadal 6-4, 6-0 indoors in the final of Paris. To obliterate Nadal at the cost of merely 7 games in four sets over two matches was no mean feat, and evidence that his game matches up well against Nadal's.

But it was partially a matter of timing. Nalbandian was in the process of playing some of the most inspired tennis of his career. He won both tournaments, and ousted Roger Federer in each of those events as well. He was clearly in the zone. Moreover, Nadal was enduring a difficult period late in that particular year after losing an agonizing Wimbledon final in five sets to Federer that summer of 2007. The day before he lost to Nalbandian in Madrid, he was pushed long and hard by Murray before winning that contest. The day before he took on Nalbandian in Paris, Nadal was stretched close to his limits in a hard fought semifinal with Marcos Baghdatis.

So as Nadal approached his Indian Wells appointment with Nalbandian, I was convinced he would demonstrate to Nalbandian from the outset that times had changed significantly since they had last clashed in the autumn of 2007. I figured he would be primed for their showdown, and assumed Nadal would take his rival apart with the new level of aggressiveness he has displayed off both sides from the baseline since last spring.

That was not the case at all. The wily Nalbandian nearly dealt Nadal yet another crushing defeat. Nalbandian was up a set and 5-3, and had four match points with the Spaniard serving in the ninth game of the second set. Nadal escaped, but then Nalbandian had a fifth and final match point when he served for the match in the following game. Nadal cast that one aside as well, and went on to record an astounding 3-6, 7-6 (5), 6-0 victory, his first ever triumph over Nalbandian. This battle started so late (it was nearly 11PM Pacific Coast time when it commenced), that the match never made it as planned on the air.

Fortunately, Fox television did provide us with all five of the match points the next day, and here is what happened. On the first one, Nadal swings his lefty serve wide to Nalbandian's two hander in the advantage court, elicits a relatively short return, and steps in to roll a forehand winner crosscourt behind Nalbandian. Match point No. 2: Nadal changes the direction of his first serve, and sends it deep to the forehand. Nalbandian drives the return inches over the baseline.

Let's proceed to match point No. 3. Nadal swings his serve wide to the backhand, and Nalbandian goes crosscourt with the return. Nadal curls a forehand down the line just inside the sideline and Nalbandian is forced to net a running forehand. It is match point for the fourth time, and Nadal confounds Nalbandian again with a body serve to the forehand; Nalbandian nets the difficult return.

After Nadal holds on for 4-5, his back is to the wall again. Nalbandian has his last match point, but is serving this time. Nadal blocks back a sliced backhand return, works his way into the rally, and then drives a deep backhand crosscourt. Nalbandian answers with a respectable crosscourt forehand but Nadal takes it early and drives a backhand down the line winner into the corner.

I give Nadal full marks for his response to the crisis. Nalbandian did not really crack on those match points; Nadal earned each and every one of those points. Nalbandian obviously did not have the physical or mental resources to stay with Nadal in the final set, and Nadal was fortunate to walk away with a 3-6, 7-6 (5), 6-0 win. His comments after the match were fascinating. He conceded he did not have a clear notion of how he wanted to play Nalbandian when they stepped on court. He said that he had it in his head as he recollected his two losses to Nalbandian that he wanted to avoid the Argentine's brilliant two-handed backhand, and then got burned by going too often this time to Nalbandian's normally more vulnerable forehand.

Nadal seemed to be saying he was wary of directing his shots to Nalbandian's two-hander. To an extent, that is understandable, but surely Nadal must now realize that he must exploit one of his great strengths--- the crosscourt forehand--- against anyone he plays. The deeper and harder he hits that shot either relatively flat or with his vicious topspin, the more he forces Nalbandian to come up with backhands under extreme pressure, and the better opportunities Nadal will create to step around and blast his trademark inside-out forehand. He must have taken away something valuable from this win, and will undoubtedly assert himself much sooner the next time he faces Nalbandian.

Nadal swept through the last three rounds after his very fortunate escape against Nalbandian, moving past Juan Martin Del Potro, an inspired Roddick, and Murray without the loss of another set. He has elevated his hard court game to a newfound level. The tournament may have not have ended the way Murray would have wanted, but he still managed to topple Federer for the fourth time in a row, and the sixth time in eight career meetings. Since an apprehensive Murray had lost in straight sets to a top of the line Federer in the U.S. Open final last September, he had come from a set down to stop the Swiss indoors in Paris and Shanghai and then repeated that pattern outdoors at the start of this season in Doha.

This time, Murray served his way out of a tough situation at 1-2, 0-40 in the opening set, broke in the following game, and moved out in front. Federer played his finest sustained tennis to capture the second set. With Federer serving at 1-2 in the final set, the contest turned dramatically back to Murray. On the first point of that fourth game, Murray made a desperate yet brilliant backhand half volley winner from no man's land off a Federer smash, but then took a dangerous spill on the next point as Federer wrong-footed him.

Murray screamed in anguish after that fall, but got up swiftly and was all right. Then Federer lost the next three points. He was forced into a backhand error by an aggressive Murray return to make it 15-30, but then made an unforced topspin backhand error followed by a feeble backhand slice into the bottom of the net. Murray was up 3-1, then held commandingly at 15. But then Federer---- still only one break down--- then played one of his worst games of the match to lose serve again and trail 5-1, miss-hitting a low forehand into the net off a low Murray slice backhand to surrender that game.

Murray advanced 6-3, 4-6, 6-1. He now goes out on court fully believing in himself against Federer, much the way Nadal does. Although his game plainly differs from that of Nadal, the similarity of their victories against Federer is striking: both men cover the court magnificently, and thwart Federer with their speed, anticipation, and outstanding ball control. Both men have an affinity for making Federer play them on their own terms. It has become increasingly clear that Federer now has a pair of rivals who have the tools and the temerity to knock him right off his stride.

Another commonality between Nadal and Murray with respect to Federer is this: they send a cavalcade of balls to the backhand side of the Swiss, and break down that side almost systematically. But they know how to open up the court and get to Roger's forehand as well, making him hit that shot uncomfortably on the run. Federer has been amazing across the years with his ability to make startling winners--- one after another--- despite a relatively slim margin for error, but against the current world No. 1 and the swiftly rising world No. 3, Federer is surrounded by two men who can cause him to miss much more than he does against anyone else.

How about Fernando Verdasco? At Indian Wells, he made his first tournament appearance since his inspiring run to the semifinals of the Australian Open. He made it to the quarters in California, cutting down Richard Gasquet persuasively along the way. Many close followers of the game--- and I include myself in this category--- were looking for a hard fought and exceedingly close contest between Federer and Verdasco in the Indian Wells quarters.

Verdasco, however, was incredibly tight for the first set and well into the second. Gone was the swagger he displayed in Melbourne, replaced by a man who seemed to have the weight of the world on his shoulders. Federer, meanwhile, was in superb form, building a 6-3, 4-1 lead, stepping inside the court confidently whenever possible to release dazzling forehand winners, serving remarkably well, keeping Verdasco off guard. But then Verdasco finally found his range off the ground. He surged back to 4-4, held on for 5-5, broke Federer a second time for 6-5, and had two sets points on serve in the twelfth game. But it all caught up with the Spaniard, who kept serving far too conservatively. His first serve was more like a second serve. He seldom exploded with big deliveries on crucial points as he had done in Australia.

Federer calmly saved two set points and hung on for a 6-3, 7-6 (5) win. Verdasco still has some work to do to prove he can become an elite player. He should have at least won the second set against Federer, and given himself a chance to start hitting more freely in a final set. But he will surely learn from that match, and will remain a formidable presence among the world's top ten this year. I would like to see him push hard for a place in the top five.

In any event, despite the untimely winds at the end, regardless of the one-sided men's final, Indian Wells was the kind of tournament I prefer. The favorites kept winning to set up the matches we want the most down the stretch. The tennis was usually first class and compelling. Let's hope the next stop in Miami will be as intriguing as Indian Wells irrefutably was.

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