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Between The Lines
April 30, 2007 Article

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Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and the Outlook Ahead

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Ray Bowers

Monte Carlo, the first of the year's prime clay-court events for men, is now history, along with the almost-as-prestigious tournament at Barcelona. Ahead in May are the prime clay showdowns in Italy and Germany, followed by the season's climax at Roland Garros in Paris, all for both men and women.

MONTE CARLO: NADAL d. FEDERER, 64 64

It was a warm and nearly calm Sunday afternoon, April 22, overlooking the Mediterranean. Here, and in other Riviera playgrounds not far away, had performed the giants of international tennis over more than a century of tennis history. Now, the two megastars of the men's game prepared to face off in the final of the 2007 masters-series tournament at Monte Carlo.

For both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal it was the first clay tournament of 2007. The two had battled a year ago at the same scene in a split-setter, where Nadal won the first of his three consecutive final-round triumphs over Roger (at Monte Carlo, Rome, and Garros 06). Federer had taken revenge soon afterwards, winning their Wimbledon final, also a split-setter. The two had not faced each other since, but Roger--having won the intervening U.S. and Australian Opens--was still everywhere recognized as the world's #1 player. Nadal was the leader in their head-to-head meetings over the years, however, six victories to three, having won all four matches played on clay, though Roger had held several match points before succumbing at Garros 06.

Both now moved through the early rounds at Monte Carlo without loss of a set. The more impressive was Nadal, whose brute energy in stroking, relentlessly applied, was at its most effective on the traditional red clay. Nadal's extreme overspin added to the penetration and weight of his every delivery, while the wonderful mobility and determination of the Spanish youth made every point and game a struggle for his opponents. Against unfortunate Vliegen, who had won two matches earlier in the week, Rafael won five consecutive games at love before losing two points in serving out the second set. Throughout the week Rafael lost a total of only 16 games, while Roger lost 30. Thus current form made Rafael the favorite, though Roger's propensity for producing his best tennis in the final stages of tournaments could not be forgotten.

The affair began tensely. Federer, serving, showed intent to move to net behind any ball that he could take even slightly inside baseline. Roger won that first game though it was mainly because of errors by Nadal, who seemed tight. Roger then came within a point of winning the second game behind some good returns of serve and more errors by Rafael. Rafael survived behind a magnificently disguised drop shot from deep. Next began a spell where both players continued to hold their service games. Roger seemed to lose interest in attacking, perhaps influenced by Nadal's early error-making, which still persisted to a lesser degree. In the fifth game Federer's first serve regularly misfired, but the world's #1 prevailed amid another flurry of Nadal stroking errors. Generally, both men played powerful but conservative tennis, avoiding risks, both defending extremely well. In game eight, Nadal serving, Roger led love-30 and then 30-40 behind a flash of attacking brilliance seldom shown this day. But the Swiss star lost this opportunity behind some poor serve-returning and a few errors seemingly born of a retreat to tentativeness.

The turning point came in the next game, when Roger again paid for his conservatism. Many of his strokes were well placed close to the lines and corners but Rafael handled them comfortably, as the Federer forehand lacked the extreme, penetrating energy usually displayed at climactic moments. With Nadal now primarily working Roger's backhand and Rafael's own error-making a thing of the past, the Mallorcan closed out the set, 64. During that first set Roger won nine of eleven points when at net, but he had failed to force his strengths more regularly upon his opponent.

Still, the set had been closely contested and it seemed that Federer might well have won it. Encouragingly, Roger held serve to start the second set behind net approaches in five of the eight points played. But in game three with Roger again serving, matters turned abysmal for Federer. After a double-fault and two unforced errors from backcourt by Roger, the game ended when Roger offered a weakish volley for Rafael's ravishing.

It proved the only service break of the second set--all that Rafael needed. The current world #2 continued to raise his level of play, now almost without error. (Rafael made only six unforced errors in the second set.) Roger's serve returns were often ineffective, and except for a flurry of serve-and-volley play in game seven, Roger again seemed to lose interest in attacking, increasingly accepting a defensive role well behind baseline. Meanwhile there seemed little intensity in Roger's sullen manner, too little pause between points for thought and summoning of concentration.

The meeting of the two megastars was enough to make the day a historic occasion, where the outcome should have been important to both men. But it was a less-than-exhilarating match, where Federer's scintillating attacking game was unleashed only occasionally. The verdict affirmed that Nadal is still the world's clay-court best, confirming him as favorite in the forthcoming clay events at Rome, Hamburg, and Garros. Probably Roger's best chance will be at the German event, where Roger was champion in 2005 and 2004 in Rafael's absence. (Both men missed that tournament in 2006 after their grueling final in Rome.) The courts at Hamburg are usually deemed slower than at the other events, a seeming contradiction to Roger's past successes there.

THE SECOND AND THIRD TIERS

A host of fine players make up the second and third tiers in their prospects for the forthcoming events, all capable of climbing upward if one or both of the megastars falter. The rank order shown here is from a calculation predicting success at Garros 07 based on weighted results of the past 15 months. The prediction will be altered substantially by the forthcoming results at Rome and Hamburg. Meanwhile one other contender is here being added to this listing without regard to the calculations, his identity and credentials to be discussed later.

Second tier: Robredo, Djokovic, Gonzalez, Davydenko, Berdych
Third tier: Nalbandian, Roddick,. Ferrer, Ljubicic., Murray, Ferrero, Gasquet

THE 21-AND-UNDERS

Of special interest is the strong contingent of players currently aged 21 and under. Nadal of course is still only 20, and four others of the same tennis generation are already seen in our second and third tiers for the forthcoming clay season, listed above.

Dangerous will be Richard Gasquet, 20, of the superior one-handed backhand. The French star will pound cross-court backhands with relentless power and accuracy, typically outlasting his opponent in such exchanges. Occasionally Richard will change pattern with a down-the-line rocket of astonishing pace and control. Richard will be quick upon any shortish ball offered by his opponent, and he will show excellent ability at net.

Gasquet played impressively in the early rounds at Monte Carlo. His third-round showdown with Ljubicic produced countless breathtaking backhand exchanges by both men. Ivan's backhand is his strongest weapon off the ground, but Richard's, which carries somewhat greater overspin, showed equal power and better avoidance of error. Then against Ferrero, Gasquet led by a set and a break before faltering, apparently tired from his matches earlier in the week, which included doubles, along with a strenuous Davis Cup five-setter the weekend just before. Richard is listed at 6-1 and is physically strong, with a body type that is closer to sturdy than rangy.

Ahead of Gasquet in our calculations is Novak Djokovic, who is almost 20 at 6-2 and 177 pounds. The Belgrade-born star has shown excellent results in 2007, having reached the round of 16 at Melbourne Park (he lost to Federer), winning two matches at Dubai (losing to Federer), reaching the final at Indian Wells (losing to Nadal), and then capturing the Sony-Ericsson at Miami, where he beat Nadal along the way. His firm, attacking game is probably best suited to hard courts, but he achieved a fine clay-court run last year, winning four times at Garros before losing to Nadal and then winning nine of ten matches in July clay-court events. At Monte Carlo this year he beat Gaudio, a former Garros champion, but then lost to David Ferrer.

At age 21 is Tomas Berdych, listed at 6-5 and 200 pounds, who brings extreme and relentless power in serving and stroking. Power is generally not enough to win on clay, but at Monte Carlo Tomas added enough mobility and finesse to register three wins, including a fine split-set victory over Tommy Robredo. Berdych finished 2006 at #13 in the world ranking, somewhat ahead of both Djokovic and Gasquet, though he is probably slightly behind them on clay. Finally, there is one other youthful member of our upper tiers, listed above--i.e., Andy Murray, 19, who several months ago briefly penetrated the world's top ten. Andy's favorite surface is listed as "clay," but his 2006 record on that surface was unimpressive. He withdrew at Monte Carlo last week with injured back.

Not far outside our select group is Nicolas Almagro, aged 21 at a husky 6-0. Almagro scored a 7-3 W-L record in the Latin American clay events early this year, then won the April tournament at Valencia that began the European clay season. A relentless clay warrior from Spain, Nicolas last year won three times at Rome before losing to Federer in split sets, then lost in the second round at Garros. Meanwhile Argentine Juan-Martin Del Potro at 6-5 and 172 at age 18 is less advanced in his career, but he showed clay skills in defeating both Chela and Pavel in Europe last summer.

BARCELONA: NADAL d. CANAS 63 64

Nadal won the tournament at Barcelona one week after Monte Carlo, again without loss of a set. His semi-final-round opponent was David Ferrer, who carried Rafael to five-games-all in their opening set before bowing. In the opposite half of the draw Davydenko withdrew after two wins with wrist trouble. Robredo lost to veteran Argentine player Agustin Calleri in a three-setter. But the event's most interesting development was the strong performance of Guillermo Canas, who beat Calleri in a split-set semi and then faced Nadal in the Sunday final.

Canas, now age 29, had returned to the game in late 2006 after a suspension. In February 2007 he won the clay event in Brazil, beating Ferrero, and in March Guillermo stirred world attention by defeating Federer on hard courts at both Indian Wells and Miami. Extremely quick on court and possessing firm and reliable ground strokes, Canas at Barcelona faced Nadal in a confrontation that would make for superior tennis-watching.

At the start both men showed strong preference for back court, where both relied on outstanding mobility, consistent power, and variety in direction. Rafael again struggled slightly in the first game but managed to hold serve after facing two break points. By the third or fourth game, with Rafael now playing close to his best, it was evident that Rafael's stroking was the heavier, carrying greater topspin from both sides and producing greater penetration off the bounce on the slow laterite. Guillermo was also ripping away extremely well albeit at seemingly greater effort, but Guillermo sometimes found himself well behind baseline, especially after running down a Nadal rocket to a corner. There were many thunderous rallies from backcourt, both men defending court magnificently, with Nadal the better at turning defense into immediate attack. The caution shown by Rafael in his first set against Federer was not seen this day. Rafael broke serve in game six, and then held serve twice to capture the set, score 63.

Canas's play remained at high level in the second set, and he early showed a new interest in coming into forecourt. The tactic produced occasional success but the overall momentum remained the same. Guillermo's stamina gradually weakened amid many rallies that were brutally long, and there was a tell-tale doubling-over for breath mid-way in game seven--the game that ended in the set's only service break. After that, Rafael held serve at love in game eight and reached 40-love in game ten. The end came a few points later, score 64.

In defeat, Canas again showed the superb speed and stroking seen in recent weeks, again showed excellent competitiveness of spirit. As a deserving runner-up at Barcelona, he must be deemed highly likely to do well in the weeks just ahead. We are thus constrained to find a place for him in our rank order predicting clay success, above, even though his place in our calculations is not high, as he missed the spring and mid-summer events of 2006. In my opinion, Canas should be judged co-equal at #2 position with Roger Federer, whose recent performance against Nadal he more than equaled at Barcelona. Canas will be wonderful to watch at Rome and Hamburg.

WOMEN'S CLAY SEASON

Matters are cloudier at the top of women's tennis. Nearly all the leading players have been sidelined for varying periods, and the women's 2007 clay season is not as far along as the men's. The two prime contenders for the weeks ahead appear to be Justine Henin and Serena Williams.

Justine won Roland Garros last year without loss of a set, having won the event in 2003 and 2005. She finished 2006 as the world's #1 player, then won the mid-winter tournaments in Dubai and Doha 07 and was runner-up at Miami 07. She missed Australia and other 2007 events for personal problems and later because of injuries. She has entered the Warsaw tournament in the first week in April and expects to play in Berlin later in the month, then skipping Rome. Justine's mobility and her variety in shot-making complement her power hitting very well on clay. Her W-L record against Serena on clay is 3-1, all played in 2003 or earlier. Serena has won all five of their meetings on nonclay surfaces.

Serena was devastating in her final-round victory over Sharapova at Australian Open 07 and was almost as impressive in beating Justine in the final at Miami after losing the first set at love. Since then Serena's pattern of missing events has persisted, including withdrawals from the clay tournament in Charleston in April and from the second-day play in Fed Cup, the U.S. having already assured team victory. Serena won Garros in 2002 but missed that event the last two years.

Another Henin-Serena clay-court meeting where both superstars are at their best would vastly uplift the 2007 women's season. The match-up would supremely test Justine's clay skills against Serena's superior athleticism and power, pitting two champions of iron will. If the confrontation comes in the final round at Paris it would be of highest historic importance, only slightly less so if at Berlin. Predicting an outcome is almost pure guesswork, but in my view Serena's potent game, honed by a run of success in the early rounds preceding the meeting, would probably prevail over the wonderfully talented Belgian's.

A superstar capable of overturning the above scenario is Amelie Mauresmo, who has been recovering from appendicitis and hopes to return to action at Berlin. Close are the likes of veterans Kuznetsova, who is still just 21, Jankovic at 22, Petrova, Hingis, Sharapova still haunted by recent serving troubles, Venus Williams, and Hantuchova, listed in order of rank as current clay-court threats. Conceivably one of the relative newcomers will rise abruptly--Vaidisova perhaps, who at age 18 defeated Mauresmo and Venus at Garros 06. This new generation seems especially rich, also including Golovin, Ivanovic, Peer, Safina, Chakvetadze, and Safarova in that order.

I hope watchers in America will enjoy the telecasts from Italy and Germany on The Tennis Channel, whose broadcasts made possible the analyses offered here of Monte Carlo and the final at Barcelona.

--Ray Bowers
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.

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This column is copyrighted by Ray Bowers, all rights reserved.

Following interesting military and civilian careers, Ray became a regular competitor in the senior divisions, reaching official rank of #1 in the 75 singles in the Mid-Atlantic Section for 2002. He was boys' tennis coach for four years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Virginia, where the team three times reached the state Final Four. He was named Washington Post All-Metropolitan Coach of the Year in 2003. He is now researching a history of the early pro tennis wars, working mainly at U.S. Library of Congress. A tentative chapter, which appeared on Tennis Server, won a second-place award from U.S. Tennis Writers Association.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ray by using this form.


 

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