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
Second tier: Robredo, Djokovic, Gonzalez, Davydenko, Berdych
Third tier: Nalbandian, Roddick,. Ferrer, Ljubicic., Murray, Ferrero, Gasquet
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
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,
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
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.
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.