Roger Federer, Masters Cup winner in three of the last four years, was again
the clear favorite as this year's version opened in Shanghai, November 11.
Also present were the likes of Garros-champion Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, who had
beaten both Federer and Nadal in winning at Montreal in August. Not among the
starting Eight was David Nalbandian, who had beaten Federer in both Madrid and
Paris in capturing both of those late-year indoor events.
An unlikely threat to Roger's rule at Shanghai was Chilean hard-hitter
Fernando Gonzalez, who had found his best-ever tennis at Australian Open 07. There,
back in January, he had won six matches and attained the final round before
losing to Roger. But since that pinnacle, Fernando had faltered badly. But now,
in their Monday round-robin match in Shanghai, it would be a never-before-seen
Gonzalez against Federer.
GONZALEZ d. FEDERER 36 76 75
It was not exactly the wonderful Fernando of Australia 07. Absent were the
sliced backhands and limited-backswing forehands that had successfully tightened
up Gonzo's game at Melbourne Park. It was closer to the Fernando of old,
inclined to swing away with full backswing and close-to-full power with every
offering. Except that, on this day in Shanghai, Fernando's errors were rare.
Federer won the first set behind a single break of serve amid many ferocious
exchanges. The second set reached tiebreak game, won by Fernando behind some
of his best tennis so far seen. As the pressure-filled climax approached Roger
ratcheted up the energy in his stroking and also increased his net-attacking.
But Fernando answered well, holding off several break-point situations and
showing little or no temporizing in his hitting. In claiming the deciding break
of serve in game eleven Fernando produced a level of extreme power not
previously unleashed even on this day of sizzling rocketry. Roger, who tried
desperately toward the finish, simply could not elevate his game to the heights now
attained by Gonzo.
FERRER d. NADAL 46 64 63
Most top players have trouble against Rafael Nadal's heavy topspin, which
along with his wonderful mobility and resolve add up to a devastating game both
on clay and, to a slightly lesser extent, on non-clay courts. Early on, things
went badly for David Ferrer, but as the points and games unfolded Ferrer--age 25
and smallish at about 160 pounds--gradually began to equalize matters. His
formula exploited his own strengths in court movement and footwork, in extreme
precision in firing his short-backswing groundstrokes toward the corners, in
moving forward of baseline whenever possible. Nadal's heavy deliveries often
landed short in the court, at service-line depth, playing into Ferrer's skills in
stroking balls on the rise.
David's recovery came too late to save the first set. But after that, it was
Ferrer almost always the attacker, moving Nadal from side to side, often
pushing Rafael a meter or two behind baseline while David maneuvered close upon or
inside baseline. Rafael answered with his customary determination and some
magnificent shotmaking, and both men did some fine net-attacking. But the verdict
followed Ferrer's ability to take the offensive without making excessive
errors. There were countless long exchanges, most of them filled with ferocious
shotmaking which dazzled the highly engaged gallery. At the end David seemed
full of energy, while Nadal was visibly tiring, David's superiority manifest to
The two wonderful matches early in the week noted above showed pro tennis at
its crowd-pleasing best. Under the round-robin format, however, it was still
possible for early losers to succeed and early winners to fail in reaching the
In the Gold Group, David Ferrer continued his superb attacking play,
completing his sweep of the round-robin phase with a straight-set victory on Thursday
over Richard Gasquet. On the same day Rafael Nadal defeated Novak Djokovic to
claim second place in the Group, thus joining David for Saturday's semis.
Meanwhile in the Red Group, Andy Roddick unleashed his serving and stroking
artillery, defeating first Davydenko and then Gonzalez, who could not find the
error-free power he showed against Federer. Andy then lost to Federer on
Friday, creating a tie between the two at W-L 2-1, where both qualified for the
The round-robin phase had produced four deserving semi-finalists along with
plenty of scintillating tennis. Whereas in most tournaments including Slams the
world's top players meet one another only in the final days, here all matches
pitted the best.
SEMI-FINAL: FERRER d. RODDICK 61 63
David Ferrer's dominance on this date was every bit as complete as the score
suggests, though it was not a poor performance by Andy. Roddick's serves had
their usual velocity and weight, and in the many extended rallies he delivered
potent forehands and backhands to the corners with very good avoidance of
error. Appreciating his opponent's edge in mobility and precision in the many
baseline exchanges, Andy came to net with more than his usual level of
aggressiveness. But on this occasion his less-than-superior net skills failed him.
The Spanish player's attacking skills that had made the difference in
David's win over Nadal were largely negated by Andy's greater stroking firepower.
Instead, decisive on this date were David's superior defensive abilities, which
together largely accounted for the outcome.
Probably first in importance in David's package of defensive assets was his
knack for returning Andy's many bids for aces, which greatly reduced Andy's
short-point tally. David's serve-returns were typically less blocks than slaps,
delivered with quick reaction and well-enough directed to deny Andy easy
set-ups. Second in David's defensive arsenal was his matchless footwork in going
into the backhand corner to rip back Andy's heaviest groundstroke thrusts,
typically with well-timed, short-stroke two-handers. Almost as impressive was
David's counter-punching ability, which produced passing shots that again and again
denied Andy's net-attacking, several times from the deep forehand corner.
Finally, only occasionally needed was David's scrambling ability--i.e., keeping
points alive from the court extremities. In their totality, these skills
consistently succeeded in overcoming Andy's excellent serving and stroking potency.
SEMI-FINAL: FEDERER d. NADAL 64 61
Matters were close for most of the first set. Roger had early trouble
returning Nadal's serves, and then in serving the fifth game, Roger himself fell
behind, love-30. But four consecutive aces by Roger then ended the game,
spectacularly. Trouble arose again in the seventh game, where Roger faced a break point
at 30-40 after two ripped winners by Rafael. Roger answered with his best
attacking to capture the next three points. Serving again in the ninth game,
Roger trailed 15-30, but he again recovered promptly, with his seventh ace and a
Despite these difficulties, Roger was beginning to find his back-court game,
including especially his powerful flat backhand (distinguished from his sliced
backhand). The stroke begins with a rather severe backswing, where the racket
becomes aligned parallel to the baseline or net at about the height of the
expected strike. With a firm grip the racket is brought forward circularly until
straightening in direction upon intercepting the intended path of the stroke.
Contact is often made slightly behind the forward (right) foot, which now
bears most of Roger's weight. Shoulders are kept perpendicular to net throughout
including during the follow-through. The head is still. Topspin is often
minimal unless a severe angle is being attempted.
As Roger gradually gathered the feel of matters against Rafael, the power,
depth, and consistency of the Federer backhand, severely ripped, became the
bedrock of Roger's game. The first set ended rather abruptly when Roger claimed
the set's only service-break in the tenth game. The pattern continued into the
second set, Roger now winning his service games easily and twice more breaking
Rafael's in capturing the first five games. Matters ended a few minutes later.
Probably just as decisive as his backhand play had been Roger's remarkable
serving on this day, which included eleven aces, zero double-faults, and a
first-serve in-court percentage of 83%. It was Roger's sixth career victory over
Nadal against eight wins by Rafael. On non-clay surfaces Roger now led, five wins
SUNDAY FINAL: FEDERER d. FERRER 62 63 62
David Ferrer had been the surprise of the tournament, having defeated the
world's #2 and #3 players in winning four matches without loss. David's fine
offensive and defensive weapons had been superbly blended in his victories. But
now, Ferrer's all-court style faced in Roger Federer a higher order of opponent.
David's problem was most obvious in Federer's defensive play--his wonderful
footwork, speed of movement, anticipation, and counter-stroking ability, all
of which essentially took away David's attacking weaponry. Those crisp,
precisely-directed shots that had moved David's earlier foes out of position and
often ended points were now neutralized by an opponent absolutely superior in
moving quickly into position and delivering counter-strikes. The court was simply
not large enough for Ferrer to find a place to strike with effect. Gradually
David's precision declined, replaced by errors at a frequency not seen
previously this week. In breaking Ferrer's serve twice in each set, we saw more of
Roger's undersliced backhand and less of his net-attacking than yesterday against
Nadal. Roger's thunderous attacking ability was by no means absent. But it was
overshadowed by the champion's rocklike defense.
Roger once again is year-end #1, world champion for the fourth consecutive
year. In also winning Masters Cup for the fourth time, though not consecutively,
Roger seemed never better. It was hard to explain his loss to Gonzalez early
in the week, except to note that his pattern has always been to produce his
best tennis in the late rounds of tournaments. I liked the way Roger made eye
contact with the chair umpire and held it throughout the post-match handshake.
Will 2008 bring still greater honors for Federer? Perhaps ominously, there
were more losses in 2007 than in 2006 for Roger, and the newer generation is
growing stronger, including the likes of Djokovic, Murray, Berdych, and del
Potro. Nalbandian gave notice late in the year of great improvement, and Ferrer is
clearly on the upswing. Still, if Roger stays healthy he will surely be
favored in all non-clay events. Asked about his goals for the forthcoming year, Roger
talked vaguely about the Golden Slam, to include Garros and the Olympics.
Meanwhile there is the matter of the special three-match series this coming week
against Pete Sampras, 36, which Roger, albeit unlikely, dare not lose.
JUSTINE AND MARIA AT MADRID
Justine Henin was the clear favorite to win the eight-player women's year-end
championship in Madrid, November 6-11. Justine had won this year's Garros and
U.S. Open, and she had been undefeated since the semis at Wimbledon,
capturing four tournaments. Win or lose at Madrid, her large lead over the others
assured her first-place honors at year's end.
Also on hand were the leaders in the year-long points race, except that Venus
Williams, winner of Wimbledon 07, had withdrawn for physical reasons. Her
troubles opened a place at Madrid for Maria Sharapova, whose troublesome shoulder
had weakened her playing ability and limited her appearances through the
There was only minor drama in the Yellow Group round-robin play. Justine won
all three of her matches without loss of a set. Serena Williams meanwhile
encountered knee trouble midway in her opening match, against Anna Chakvetadze, and her
withdrawal opened the way for Chakvetadze to claim second place in the Group by
beating Jelena Jankovic. Henin and Chakvetadze thus became the Group's representatives in the
The week's biggest surprise was the play of Maria Sharapova, who won the Red
Group competition with wins over Hantuchova, Kuznetsova, and Ivanovic. Maria's
serve had been uncertain and lacking in explosiveness for many months. But
she was now swinging freely and fully in her serving motion, launching herself
into her wonderfully high toss. Meanwhile her approach-shot game became an
equal complement, regularly producing an immediate point-ender. As always, there
was seldom much holding back by Maria, who blasted away in her serve returning
and ground-strokes, going for the lines and corners regularly, with
Almost as impressive was Ana Ivanovic, who in winning her first two matches
showed a style built on unrestrained power (like Maria's), delivered with
apparent ease reflecting the height and physical strengths of the wielder. Both
Sharapova and Ivanovic thus qualified early for the semis. In their relatively
meaningless late-week meeting, there were many breathtaking points, where most
of the important ones went to Sharapova in her comfortable two-set victory.
In the first Saturday semi-final Maria had no trouble with Chakvetadze, and
Henin too finished off Ivanovic in a match that was only slightly closer. As
often happens, Justine's court skills sapped the forcefulness from her
opponent's bigger game, enabling Justine to deploy her precision counter-attack. Thus
the Sunday final brought together the tournament's two undefeated players,
Henin and Sharapova.
HENIN d. SHARAPOVA, 57 75 63
Sharapova's stronger weaponry prevailed in the first set, where Maria played
at her best level of the week, hitting to the corners with boldness and seldom
missing. Henin kept the score close, but as the set reached climax it was
Justine's serving ability that lapsed. In game eleven with Justine serving to
reach tiebreaker, Justine delivered multiple double-faults, yielding the game on
the eighth break point. For the full set, the percentage of Maria's first
serves that were in court was 83%--an incredibly high number especially given her
extreme energy in her delivery.
Maria's boldness in her court play persisted in the second set, while her
mobility and excellent power on the defense regularly defeated Justine's efforts
to claim the initiative. Again and again, Justine lost points at midcourt
while trying to come forward. In their backcourt exchanges, Justine seemed more
rushed than Maria, pushed to the defensive by Maria's pace and direction, and
less able than Maria to turn defense into offense with a single blow.
But as the match entered its third hour, Sharapova's freshness seemed to fade
even as Justine's serve-returning strengthened. Longer rallies ensued, and
Maria began missing more often, perhaps betrayed by tiredness. For a spell,
Maria obtained good success by toning down her aggressiveness, refusing to make
errors. But Justine's own potency in serve-returning and stroking eventually
answered this tactic. Early in set three Sharapova sought assistance for a
breathing problem, and tiredness seemed unmistakable afterwards. Henin's victory
over Sharapova was a furious and memorable conclusion to the women's tennis year.
Henin's triumphs in 2007 at age 25 raise her to the brink of the all-time
great-player list. It will not be easy to sustain her present margin of
superiority, however. All three other semi-finalists at Madrid were aged just 20. As to
the coming hard-court events in early 2008, Sharapova's fine performance at
Madrid marks her a strong contender, while Ivanovic seems currently the clearly
third-best and Chakvetadze also clearly rising. For the others, including
Venus and Serena Williams, the year-end break offers chance for rehabilitation
and future renaissance.