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Between The Lines
November 5, 2007 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Countdown to Shanghai and Madrid
by Ray Bowers

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

Arriving in November are the year-end championships--the Sony Ericsson in Madrid for the women, Masters Cup in Shanghai for the men, both held indoors. The eight leaders in the year-to-date singles races, male and female, plus the top doubles artists, will assemble for these round-robin events. The final year-end orders of rank will emerge.

A principal focus of the recent men's tournaments in Madrid and Paris was the year-to-date race, where a dozen or so stars competed for the two or three remaining places among the Shanghai Eight. But the greater story was the unexpected emergence of a player whose career had seemed mired well behind the game's elites. David Nalbandian, now age 25, by claiming the championships at both Madrid and Paris and winning five matches against the game's megastars--Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic--showed that he too belonged at the highest level.

NALBANDIAN AND THE RACE TO SHANGHAI

Just after U.S. Open in September, five players seemed likely to be among the eight elites to compete in singles at Masters Cup, November 11-18. Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic had already assured themselves places, while the fourth and fifth players in the year-to-date race, Davydenko and Roddick, were also safely inside the group. David Ferrer's capture of Japan Open in the first week of October lifted him close to qualification.

The sixteen seeded players, all of them either qualifiers or contenders for Shanghai, had first-round byes at Madrid, starting October 15. But there was plenty of interesting first-round action, including impressive performances by Andy Murray, now 20, and Argentine player Juan Martin del Potro, age 19 and height 6-5. Both youths stood out in the sureness and potency of their serving and stroking. Then in the second round, the sixteen first-round winners faced off against the seeded stars.

It was not a good time for the seeded players, of whom eleven were eliminated in that second round. Del Potro's victory over Robredo was an entertaining struggle featuring breathtaking rallies and a high level of net-attacking. Murray won comfortably over Chela. Megastars Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic all survived, while unseeded Nalbandian advanced by beating seeded Berdych in three sets.

Nalbandian next dispatched countryman del Potro impressively. in straight sets, while his next opponent, Rafael Nadal, survived two tough sets against Murray. Their Friday quarter-final meeting, Nalbandian vs. Nadal, would ignite David's stunning run to the championship. The match brought many thunderous, long rallies, but most of them seemed to end in an error by Nadal. The abrupt reversal of expected form, it seemed, might be explained by Rafa's difficult previous match or perhaps by recent wear on his troublesome knees.

But we would later realize that we had been watching Nalbandian at his best, at a level not seen before--moving easily into his groundstrokes, pounding away to the sides with velocity and depth, ripping away with severely forcing shots and angles when taking opponent's deliveries on or inside baseline, all with fewer errors than his opponent.

David's semi-final win over Djokovic and his final-round triumph over Federer were just as stunning. Against Federer, Nalbandian lost a closer-than-the score-suggested 61 first set, but he then broke serve early in both the second and third sets. Federer could never engineer the expected break-back. Most of the way, David outplayed Roger from back court, again driving the ball from side to side with better velocity, better placement close to the lines, and better avoidance of error. He was also better in his occasional net forays. Federer tried to apply his familiar pressure, but his own untimely errors and his opponent's strong replies prevented Roger from regaining and sustaining his customary dominance.

PARIS INDOORS - "TOURNAMENT-WITHIN-THE-TOURNAMENT"

The traditional indoor tournament in Paris began October 28 after a one-week interval. Ferrer was now safely within the Shanghai Eight and Gonzalez needed only one win in Paris to qualify. But uncertainty remained as to the eighth qualifier and also as to the first alternate. (The alternate would travel to Shanghai to be available in case of injury to one of the principals.) The standings were close--seven other players were within a single match-win of passing Tommy Haas, presently in eighth place. Several others, among them Nalbandian, could conceivably qualify but only by winning the tournament. What emerged in Paris would be an interesting "tournament-within-the-tournament." All the contenders had first-round byes, and all surely noted that in Madrid, in most cases a bye had meant an early exit.

In early action, Fernando Gonzalez, who needed a win to cement his seventh place status, lost in three sets to Mikhail Youznhy. Mikhail showed the better backhand, the quicker movement in positioning himself for next shot, and an excellent net game, but his own inconsistency in stretches kept matters close. Gonzalez, whose serve and forehand carried the greater power, gradually faded after winning the first set. Youzhny, who was in the group who needed to win the tournament for hope of qualifying for Shanghai, thus stayed alive.

Of the eight stars at the bubble of contention, two lost quickly. Carlos Moya lost to Nalbandian, and Ivan Ljubicic fell victim to Baghdatis. Three others faltered in the next round--Berdych was beaten by Ferrer in straight sets, Blake lost to fellow contender Gasquet, and Haas lost to Youzhny in a ferocious late-night three-setter. Three close contenders remained--Robredo, Murray, and Gasquet--with Youzhny, Baghdatis, and Nalbandian still faintly alive.

One by one the survivors fell away. In the Friday quarters Youzhny, who was tired from his midnight win over Haas, lost quietly to Nadal, Robredo fell victim to the surprising Baghdatis, and Murray lost his showdown with Gasquet in three sets. Then in a Saturday battle both furious and dazzling Rafael Nadal defeated Marcos Baghdatis. Amid the several momentum swings, Marcos regularly moved his opponent about the court with excellent power and angles, often claiming the close-on-baseline position. But with Rafael seemingly close to his best, the final outcome inexorably followed. The Shanghai Eight thus became finalized, with Gonzalez and Gasquet now certified for the last two positions.

Meanwhile Nalbandian continued to advance even as his chance of penetrating the Shanghai Eight disappeared amid the outcomes of matches beyond his control. In his second match he met and again defeated Roger Federer, this time in straight sets, both of them extremely close. He then defeated Shanghai qualifiers Ferrer and Gasquet, and he became the final-round opponent for Nadal, who seemed now to be playing with his old energy and intensity.

It was even more convincing than at Madrid. Even in the early going, when for eight games both Nalbandian and Nadal held service, it was David who held serve comfortably, Rafael who struggled. The score reached four games all, but after that Nalbandian swept all eight remaining games. David became absolutely superior in weight of shot, in moving his opponent from side to side, sustaining rallies while keeping at least moderate pressure on his opponent. Stepping in to meet Nadal's high-bouncing ground-strokes on the rise, leaping upward to return high-bouncing serves to his backhand, there was no turning back of the Argentine on this day. Nor was there hint of mental weakness in his closing out matters at the end.

MASTERS CUP ODDS


Masters Cup Warriors Photo Courtesy Quentin Shih

Federer won Masters Cup in three of the last four years, and during 2007 he again won Australian Open, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open. Despite his two recent losses to Nalbandian and loss during the summer to Djokovic, he remains the clear favorite. The odds offered here for winning the forthcoming Masters Cup 07 event were reached by subjective judgment.

Federer, even
Djokovic, 5-1
Nadal, 7-1
Davydenko, 12-1
Ferrer, 15-1
Roddick, 25-1
Gasquet, 50-1
Gonzalez, 70-1

Nalbandian's triumph in Paris elevated David to the first-alternate position at Shanghai, ahead of Robredo. If another player's misfortune opens up entry for David, then the above odds would change drastically. Nalbandian, it may be recalled, won Masters Cup two years ago in its first staging in Shanghai. In that final round, he defeated Federer in five sets, having lost a split-setter to Roger in the round-robin phase earlier.

If David receives entry to the eight at Shanghai prior to the outset, his odds for winning would seem only slightly longer than Roger's and surely more favorable than Djokovic's or Nadal's. But if his admission should come after an injury to another player midway in the round-robin phase, the rules allow him only small chance of advancing to the weekend semis.

Also to be missed in the field at Shanghai will be the likes of Murray, del Potro, Berdych, Baghdatis, Youzhny, and Robredo, all of whom performed with brilliance in Paris. The thought arises that, this year, a 12-player or 16-player entry field would have been wonderful.

Federer will be end-of-year leader in the points race regardless of results at Shanghai. It is his fourth consecutive year as world #1.

WOMEN'S RACE TO MADRID, NOVEMBER 6-11

The late season was quieter among the women. Safely assured of places at Madrid after U.S. Open were the highest five--#1-ranked Henin along with two players from Russia (Kuznetsova and Chakvetadze) and two from Serbia (Jankovic and Ivanovic). Meanwhile Sharapova and the Williams sisters completed the top eight, with Venus in the eighth position vulnerable to a surge by any lower player. By winning the tournament at Seoul in late September, Venus moved ahead of Sharapova, thus leaving Maria in the position of vulnerability at #8.

Two Tier One tournaments headlined the women's fall calendar. At Kremlin Cup in early October, the winner was Elena Dementieva. Although Elena's serving was as usual her weakest area, her second serve was strong enough to avoid consistent attack by her opponents (at a price in an undesirable number of double-faults). But Elena's wonderful stroking power and excellent court mobility more than overcame her serving weakness. Against Serena Williams in the final, it was Elena who showed the superior strokes--more potent and less error-prone. Most of the time it was Serena who was forced onto the defensive and eventually into error.

Elena's standing in the race had been previously retarded by injury problems, so that despite winning at Moscow she remained outside the First Eight. Then in yet another example of the glowworm syndrome, Dementieva failed to survive her first match at the next week's Tier One, in Zurich. Eventually hoisting the champion's trophy there was Justine Henin, winner enroute over rising stars Vaidisova and Golovin.

The victory of Hantuchova at Linz in late October moved the Slovak star into an exact tie for eighth place with Sharapova. Both qualified for Madrid, however, as Venus Williams withdrew from the year-end event while awaiting tests for dizziness. Meanwhile Sharapova's shoulder problems created the possibility of her withdrawal. That eventuality would open a place for the first alternate, Marion Bartoli, and would move Dementieva to first-alternate status.

Only three of last year's cast return for Madrid 07, including Henin, who finished last year's event with straight-set wins over Sharapova and Mauresmo. Also returning are Sharapova and Kuznetsova. Former superstars who will be absent this year are Hingis and Mauresmo, set back in 2007 by injuries and illness, respectively, and Clijsters, now retired.

Of this year's Madrid Eight, only Henin performed at superstar level during the fall. The recent results heavily influence the odds offered here for triumphing at Madrid.

Henin, even
S. Williams, 4-1
Kuznetsova, 10-1
Jankovic, 15-1
Ivanovic, 18-1
Sharapova, 25-1
Hantuchova, 30-1
Chakvetadze, 50-1

Win or lose at Madrid, Justine's place atop the 2007 year-end rankings is assured. She also finished as end-of-year #1 in 2003 and 2006. With six Slam triumphs already in her collection at age 25, her resolve for further triumphs seems undiminished.

LATE NOVEMBER

November 22-25 will bring three exhibition matches from Asia pitting Federer against Sampras. Although I dislike match-ups outside the organized pro sport and would prefer Pete accepting wild-cards into tournaments, the appeal of this scheme is of course irresistible. Sampras would seem likely to be outgunned, outmoved, and outsteadied, but nothing is certain in sports.

Soon to follow, November 30-December 2, will be Davis Cup final-round action from Portland, Oregon, United States against Russia. The customary American team of Roddick, Blake, and the Bryans should be slightly favored on an indoor hard court over a potent Russian squad probably featuring Davydenko and Youzhny.

Both the Federer-Sampras exhibitions and the Cup matches will be broadcast by The Tennis Channel. Here's wishing year-end excitement for all.

--Ray Bowers
Arlington, Virginia

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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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