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Steve Flink: Reflections on Rome

5/4/2009 5:31:00 PM

by Steve Flink

This much seems certain: after Rafael Nadal’s latest 1000 ATP World Tour Masters triumph at the Italian Open in Rome, the indefatigable Spaniard is right where he wants to be as he moves inexorably toward Roland Garros and what will be an excellent opportunity to secure the world’s premier clay court title for the fifth consecutive year. The highly charged and ever purposeful Nadal has swept through his first three clay court events of the 2009 season without losing a match. He has conceded only one set in 14 matches during that span. He seems entirely composed. He knows he is unequivocally the best tennis player in the world, realizes that he needs to make the most of the next few years, and senses accurately that he is thoroughly controlling the climate in the game he plays so tenaciously for a living. These are indeed heady times for the incomparable left-hander.

But the good news for Nadal---- and the distressing reality for all of his opponents-- is that he has yet to reach the absolute peak of his game on the dirt this season, and yet he has remained unassailable on his favorite surface. As well as he is performing now, he was even more prodigious in his march through Roland Garros a year ago. To be sure, he was terrific in Rome all week. In his five match victories, Nadal did not drop a set, lost his serve only five times in ten sets, and covered the court with typical alacrity. He went through passages where he was near his zenith, dropping the opening game against Robin Soderling before collecting the next 12 games, overcoming countryman Fernando Verdasco 6-3, 6-3 in a match that was much tougher than the score would indicate, methodically crushing Fernando Gonzalez in the penultimate round, and finishing his exhilarating run in Rome with a 7-6 (2), 6-2 victory over Novak Djokovic.

Djokovic is the only player who has taken a set off Nadal on clay this year, pushing the Spaniard long and hard before falling 6-3, 2-6, 6-1 in the final of Monte Carlo. Djokovic made a strong bid to take the first set this time around in the Italian Open final, but despite a stirring comeback late in that set, the Serbian could not rattle a briefly apprehensive Nadal. In building a 5-3 lead in that set, Nadal was playing his finest tennis of the week. The blend of Nadal’s consistency and aggression from the baseline was too much for Djokovic to combat. His ball control was astonishing. His forehand was almost letter perfect.

Djokovic was up 40-15 in the opening game but Nadal opportunistically took the next four points and got the immediate break. Nadal served skillfully and backed up his delivery forcefully on his way to 5-3. In four service games, he took 16 of 20 points, set the tempo relentlessly, and picked Djokovic apart with both the severity and reliability of his forehand. He drove the ball with extraordinary depth and his customary vicious topspin off that side, but also flattened out the shot adroitly to catch his adversary off guard. It was all going Nadal’s way. This was as well as he had played during the entire clay court season.

But the combination of Djokovic stepping up the pace of his game and Nadal’s uneasiness made things complicated for the world No. 1 at the end of that compelling first set. With Djokovic serving at 3-5, Nadal reached set point. Inexplicably, he completely miss-hit a two-handed backhand on the tenth stroke of the rally and lost the exchange. Djokovic held on for 4-5.

Nadal served at 5-4, and had not yet faced a break point. But suddenly he lost faith in his forehand. At 30-15 in that tenth game, he ran around his backhand to hit a forehand back up the line, but uncharacteristically did not give himself enough margin for error. That netted forehand made it 30-30. Djokovic moved to break point, but Nadal saved it by going down the T with his first serve to catch Djokovic off guard. Nevertheless, Nadal subsequently missed consecutive inside-out forehands to lose his serve for the first time. Until then, his forehand had been unshakable. Nadal promptly broke again for 6-5 as Djokovic pressed too much, and now the Spaniard had a second chance to serve out the set.

He coasted to 30-0 but Djokovic clipped the baseline with a crosscourt backhand, and Nadal had no play. Nadal still managed to reach set point for the second time at 40-30, but he played a cautious point and Djokovic wisely went on the attack, angling a backhand volley crosscourt that Nadal could not counter. An inspired Djokovic anticipated a backhand drop shot approach from Nadal, and drove a two-hander crosscourt into the clear for a winner. Then Nadal ran around his backhand and miss-hit his forehand badly at break point down.

It was 6-6. A lesser man than Nadal would surely have been deeply perturbed by missing so many chances to seal the opening set. But he simply got on with the task at hand as if no opportunities had been squandered. Once more when the chips were on the line, the Spaniard advertised his supreme mental toughness, rolling through the tie-break 7-2 without making a single unforced error. He played the percentages masterfully and Djokovic understandably took some risks that were not rewarded. Serving at 2-5 in that critical sequence, Djokovic tried in vain to put away a high forehand from short range, misfiring by a considerable margin. At 2-6, Djokovic sent a backhand drop shot into the net. The set was over, and Nadal had survived a big onslaught from a determined rival.

In the opening game of the second set, Nadal was up 40-0 before Djokovic cracked three forehand winners in a row, followed by a scorching two-handed crosscourt backhand that not even Nadal could get back into play. It was break point for the Serbian, but his topspin backhand lob down the line landed wide. Nadal held on for 1-0. Right up until he served at 2-3, 40-15, Djokovic was playing superb tennis, looking relatively fresh, comporting himself like a man who still believed he could win.

But Nadal pounced. After Djokovic drove a two-hander down the line into the net tape and missed a backhand approach long, it was deuce. Djokovic then was off the mark with a forehand. At break point down, he double faulted. Nadal never looked back. He closed out the battle by sweeping four games in a row, winning 12 of the last 14 points. Djokovic had clearly wilted at the end, but who could blame him? When Nadal served in the third game of the second set, the match was already 90 minutes old. Djokovic surely knew that to beat Nadal from a set down--- a rare occurrence--- he might have to stay out there for three-and-a-half hours. That must have been a depressing prospect.

And yet, Djokovic had acquitted himself quite well against Nadal in an impressive follow up to Monte Carlo. Just as important, he had reached his third straight World Tour Masters 1000 final, and to realize that feat he had thoroughly outclassed a one dimensional Juan Martin Del Potro and then upended Roger Federer for the second time in a row. The victory over Federer was not insignificant. Federer had self destructed in startling fashion when Djokovic cut him down 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 in Miami. On that occasion, Federer had collapsed flagrantly from the middle of the second set until well into the third, losing seven games in a row at one stage, and dropping 20 of 24 points in an abysmal stretch.

Both players surely had sharp recollections of the Miami clash as they took the court for their skirmish in Rome. Djokovic was determined to prove that the triumph in Miami was not simply a matter of Federer’s self inflicted wounds leading to a loss, but also a demonstration of his own capacity to beat one of his chief rivals under difficult circumstances. The crowd in Miami was highly sympathetic to Federer, particularly after he astounded everyone by smashing his racket on the court early in the final set. Djokovic had handled that situation well by directing his shots deep down the middle and taking advantage as Federer lost all belief in his forehand.

In any case, Federer was spirited at the beginning of his Italian Open duel with Djokovic. Both men played a reasonably high quality first set. Although Federer slightly held the upper hand during that set, Djokovic competed with quiet intensity, saving two break points in the opening game of the match, and fighting off one more break point in the fifth game. The two protagonists went to 4-4, and Djokovic escaped from break point again, reaching game point with a chance to forge a 5-4 lead.
But Djokovic failed to do enough with a routine forehand volley, allowing Federer to pass him easily off the forehand. Djokovic then drifted to break point again. Just as he tossed the ball for his second serve, an obstreperous fan whistled or screamed. Djokovic stopped, and the umpire admonished the spectator for the rudeness. A distracted and agitated Djokovic drove a forehand long to lose his serve, and a confident Federer held for the set.

In that first set, Djokovic was not reading Federer’s serve well at all, and the Swiss was able to glide through five service games, conceding only seven points. He seemed on his way to a decisive triumph. His forehand was a solid and flexible as I have seen it the entire season, his backhand was holding up well, and he was locating his serve skillfully.

As a disjointed Djokovic lost his way, Federer pressed on to 2-0 in the second set, but the sky was darkening rapidly. In the third game, Federer had a break point which could have allowed him to virtually guarantee a win. But he played his second serve return off the backhand cautiously, and ended up losing that point on a miss-hit backhand. Djokovic held on for 1-2, and then the rain started. The match was delayed for the better part of an hour, but Federer resumed his command quickly.

He held for 3-1 with ease, and then had a break point for 4-1. Here Djokovic put on his thinking cap, and wore it well. He threw in a clever kicking first serve to his adversary’s backhand. It was more like a second serve, and Federer got no depth on his sliced return. Djokovic moved forward swiftly to drive a forehand into an open space for a winner. In successive service games, Djokovic had rescued himself from going two service breaks down. Now, at last, he found the range on his returns, and Federer was caught off guard.

Serving at 3-2, 30-40, Federer directed a sliced backhand crosscourt, but the shot floated wide. Djokovic was back to 3-3. The sky had brightened, and so too had the Serbian’s mindset. He held for 4-3 and went after Federer at full force again. With the world No. 2 serving at 3-4, 40-30, Djokovic put together an inspired two shot combination, sending a backhand down the line with sidespin to make Federer dig up a low ball, then releasing a sparkling backhand drop shot winner down the same sideline.

Federer lost his serve again as Djokovic unleashed a crosscourt backhand with so much mustard on it that Federer was rushed into error. Djokovic was soaring now, holding at love to take the set on an impressive run of five straight games. But Federer regained the initiative to break for a 3-1 third set lead as Djokovic played a dismal service game. And yet, despite connecting with three out of four first serves in the following game, Federer was broken at love, making two glaring mistakes before Djokovic rolled a running forehand winner crosscourt.

Serving at 2-3, 15-30, Djokovic came up with a big play when he needed it most. Federer’s backhand clipped the net cord and Djokovic had to improvise with an awkward sliced backhand approach down the middle. Federer took it off the forehand and drove it low, but Djokovic anticipated that shot beautifully and angled a forehand volley crosscourt for a winner. He could well have been down double break point; instead he stood at 30-30. Soon it was 3-3.

In that crucial seventh game, Federer reached 30-15 but missed his first serve. Djokovic ripped his return inside out and Federer was coaxed into a netted slice backhand. Federer then had a wide open court for a backhand volley down the line, only to punch it long. He saved one break point but Djokovic reached break point again with a penetrating backhand down the line eliciting a short ball. Djokovic jumped on that, sending a forehand inside out for a winner. He gained the break for 4-3 by pounding his ground strokes authoritatively until a passive Federer sliced a backhand into the net.

For Federer, it was all unraveling faster than he could have imagined. Djokovic held at 15 for 5-3. Serving to save the match in the ninth game, Federer was broken for a third consecutive time. He drifted to 15-40, saved a match point, but then missed one last backhand down the line. Djokovic had collected five games in a row to take the set, replicating what he had done in the second set.

How to assess it all? Federer’s game--- at least for the time being---- remains in disrepair. His form, however, was decidedly better than it had been in losing to Stanislas Wawrinka in Monte Carlo, and he made Djokovic work much harder for this triumph than he had when they clashed in Miami. In fact, this was an impressive effort from Djokovic, who outperformed Federer thoroughly from the back of the court over the last two sets. Djokovic displayed much character and competitiveness in recouping from those 3-1 deficits in the second and third sets. He took full advantage of the reprieve the rain delay gave him.

As for Federer, it was apparent again that these days he seems capable of summoning some of his old standards for portions of matches, but then reverts to his recent pattern of instability. He was unlucky that he had to leave the court when he was up a set and a break against Djokovic in Rome, but that does not explain everything. Why was he unable to turn up the ignition of his game after getting back on top at 3-1 in that third set? How could he lose his serve five times in the last two sets, and three times in a row at the end?

Only he can answer those questions, but this much we know: he has lost to Djokovic twice in a row for the first time. Andy Murray has beaten Federer four times in a row. Nadal has eclipsed Federer five straight times. His confidence seems to evaporate during the crucial moments against his primary rivals. For such a long time—from 2004 until early in the 2007 season--- he seemed oblivious to pressure, and whenever he was confronted with a crisis in a match he always seemed to respond automatically with shot making of the highest order. His only authentic rival in those days was Nadal; now he is surrounded by a trio of players who are not afraid of him.

For the longest time, I marveled at Federer’s propensity for going for the lines off his forehand and hitting his mark over and over again. No matter how precarious the situation, he seemed to live in a private world where no opponent save Nadal on clay could make him the least bit apprehensive. These days that supreme self belief has been sorely eroded, and while his forehand remains sporadically brilliant, he frequently runs into bad patches off that side. He still hits his share of lines, but the percentages have been working more and more against him.

Meanwhile, Andy Murray suffered his first early round loss of the year, falling to Juan Monaco in the second round after a first round bye. What a strange match that was. Murray took the opening set 6-1 before hitting a snag in the second set. He was uncomfortable with his rackets, having trouble feeling the ball, losing control of the points. Monaco got back to one set all and surged to 4-2 in the final set. Murray made his move and looked likely to pull the match out. He won three games in a row to go ahead 5-4 on serve, taking 12 of 15 points in the process.

But Monaco amply demonstrated why he had pushed Murray hard not long ago in Miami. Serving to stay in the match at 4-5 in the final set, he played an outstanding game, reaching 15-0 with an inside-out forehand winner and then holding at love. At 5-5, an aggravated Murray was foot faulted on his first serve and then double faulted for 0-15. Monaco exploited the situation to the hilt, breaking at love, serving out the match with essential ease. He had taken 12 of the last 14 points for a well deserved 1-6, 6-3, 7-5 victory.

Monaco is a player who could make some noise at Roland Garros. He possesses an admirable combination of power and finesse. His forehand is first rate, and he really caught Murray by surprise at the end with his excellent use of the drop shot. Monaco moved on to the quarters in Rome before losing a hard fought, three set encounter to Fernando Gonzalez. In early 2008, Monaco hit a career high mark of No. 14 in the world. The view here is that he could revisit that territory again later this season.

In any case, Murray was entitled to a surprise loss after being so consistent ever since the summer of 2008. I fully expect him to bounce back strongly in his next tournament on clay at Madrid. He has reached the stage with his game where he can play top of the line tennis on any surface at any time. This defeat against Monaco won’t hold him back.

Essentially the same thing can be said about Djokovic. He can’t be that discouraged about losing another high quality contest to Nadal. Djokovic knows he is clearly on the right path again after an uneven start to the season. Aside from Nadal, no one has been better on clay this year. But the big question remains: can anyone stop Nadal on the dirt?

I believe there is an outside chance that Nadal--- a man who has won 25 clay court tournaments across his sterling career, a player who has lost only four of his last 151 clay court matches, a competitor who has won 30 consecutive clay court matches--- could lose in Madrid simply because he has already played so much clay court tennis this season. A week off could be long enough for Nadal to rekindle the inner fire once more, but perhaps not. Still, no matter what happens in Madrid--- and if he is indeed fresh and eager he won’t be stopped--- the feeling grows that he is absolutely on course for another banner year at Roland Garros.

Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to tennischannel.com

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