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November 18, 2007 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
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Shanghai and Madrid 07
by Ray Bowers

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

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.


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.

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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 all.


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 Final Four.

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 semis.

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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.


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.


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 serve-and-volley winner.

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 to two.


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.

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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 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 year.

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 Saturday semis.

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 spectacular results.

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.

--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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