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April 29, 2009 Article

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Rafael Nadal and the Hard-Court, Clay-Court Divide
by Ray Bowers

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

Having won three of the last four Slams, Rafael Nadal now stands atop men's tennis, ahead in both the running-12-month rankings and also in the 2009 year-to-date race. Rafa's success on both clay and nonclay surfaces seems to echo a larger phenomenon in today's men's game, where the tendency of the top males to divide into clay and nonclay specialists has greatly weakened. Largely extinct nowadays are the deep-behind-baseline, extreme-topspin artists of clay and also the incessant, net-rushing attackers once prevalent on fast courts. We see the trend numerically in our calculations comparing outcomes at different tournaments, where results at Australian and U.S. Opens correlate much more closely to those at Garros during the last four years than previously.

Still, considerable divergence in clay and nonclay outcomes remains, as players differ in their abilities to handle the differences in bounce speed and in the necessary clay-court footwork. But probably the most significant factor in the continuing divergence lies in the lesser effectiveness of the serve on clay courts. Aces are about 50% less frequent on Garros clay than on the hard courts at Australian and U.S. Opens, while service games are broken about 12% more frequently. A severe example of the dichotomy is seen among the current array of singles stars from U.S.A.--Roddick, Blake, Fish, Querrey, and Isner. As a group and also to varying degree individually, all (1) possess serves as their strongest asset, and (2) show much stronger results on hard than on clay surfaces.

HARD-COURT RESULTS, 2009

By capturing Australian Open in January and Indian Wells in mid-March, Nadal became the leader in the three months of largely hard-court tennis that began the current tennis year. The hard-court cycle ended with the event following Indian Wells--at the Sony-Ericsson championships at Miami-Key Biscayne, March 25-April 2. There, Rafa lost a quarter-final meeting with Juan Martin del Potro in a third-set tiebreaker. But despite his defeat, Nadal remained comfortably atop all rankings.

The tournament winner at Miami was Andy Murray, 21, who defeated Novak Djokovic, also 21, in the final round amid heat and humidity unusual for early spring. Earlier in the week, Andy beat the dangerous Verdasco and stopped del Potro in the semis. Of some concern was the physical distress of Djokovic in the heat, seen both mid-way in the final against Murray and also in the quarters against Tsonga. But otherwise Novak handled the gusty wind also seen in the last weekend very well, displaying his usual forceful power game. Novak was too much for Roger Federer in the semis, whose error-prone play in the third set as defeat loomed was alarming. Andy Roddick also showed well, carrying Federer to three sets at Miami and reaching the final four at Indian Wells the previous fortnight.

Here were the leaders as the early-year hard-court cycle ended. The Top Eight were also the eight quarter-finalists in Miami. Our list shown here was unofficially tallied using the ATP point scale, ranked in order of achievement in calendar year 2009 through Miami. All points shown here were earned on hard courts, as none of the Eight played in the several clay-court events in Latin America in February, the only clay tournaments of the period.

1. Nadal, 3,525
2. Murray, 2,620
3. Federer, 2,010
4. Roddick, 2,000
5. Djokovic, 1,820
6. del Potro, 1,285
7. Verdasco, 1,230
8. Tsonga, 1,175

Rafael also finished as undisputed champion of the longer hard-court Super-Season that began after Wimbledon last year and extended through Miami 09. (His late-2008 record included winning Olympics 08 and a second-place finish at U.S. Open.) Throughout the long run, Rafael showed his characteristic pummeling weight of stroke, usually accented with stretches of sublime greatness in shot-making and court coverage. But he also shifted away somewhat from his accustomed clay-court style, often reducing his topspin in exchanges, introducing sliced backhands, and working toward a more-forcing serve.

CLAY SEASON 09

Surely Nadal, and also some other members of our 2009 hard-court Big Eight, above, will also be found among the top eight clay-court achievers when that list becomes final later this year. But some will be absent--replaced by players whose early career development led to strengths and styles well suited to clay. Leading the latter group are (in rough order of clay-court achievement in 2008) David Ferrer, Nicolas Almagro, and Tom Robredo, all from Spain, along with Switzerland's Wawrinka and Russia's Davydenko. Another six or eight contenders, mainly South Americans, have clay-court credentials nearly as strong.

The year's first Masters-1,000 event on clay, at Monte Carlo, April 12-19, offered an initial look how members of our 2009 hard-court list will stack up on clay against the clay-court warriors. Hard-courter #6, Juan Martin del Potro, lost a close first match to veteran Ljubicic, who played very well in his city of current residence. Del Potro showed occasional awkwardness in clay-surface footwork but as usual bashed unrelentingly his serves and ground strokes. Older by ten years, Ljubicic answered with his own backhand artistry plus good variety in spins and pace. The veteran played well at net (winning 22 of 23 points there) and led the tall Argentine in aces, winning in split sets.

Roger Federer lost in his second match, closely beaten by countryman Stan Wawrinka amid cool, damp conditions that slowed play. Wawrinka is an excellent clay battler with a superb backhand one-hander, so that there were many dazzling exchanges of cross-court backhands between the two Swiss stars. Roger's forehand was the more error-prone on this date, and his first serve was the less effective. Wawrinka ended the match with one of his singular backhand cross-court winners down-the-line. This was Stan's first-ever win over Federer.

The same slow conditions made trouble for Andy Murray against the patient Italian baseliner Fognini, 21. Andy fell behind early but then recovered, replying to patience with patience and moving the ball about the court very well. Andy then reached the semis by beating Nicolay Davydenko in two close sets. The Russian had been sidelined with ankle injury, and earlier in the day had played a close three-setter. But against Murray, Davydenko was generally the aggressor, finishing many points at net with brilliance. Andy's more-potent first serve brought the Scotsman a good share of short points, but otherwise Murray played mostly passively, waiting for Davydenko's errors. These came late in both sets--just in time to allow Murray to prevail, but it was not a glorious indicator of further clay-court success for Andy.

The prime Monte Carlo quarter-final pitted Djokovic and Verdasco, both members of our hard-court Eight. The play went much as if on hard courts, where neither player was much inclined to hold back the power. Djokovic took the first set behind excellent movement to the corners and firm replies to his opponent's all-out attacking. Often the product of their fierce exchanges was an unforced error by the Spanish player. But after the first set, play became fairly even, where unforced errors considerably outnumbered winners for both men. Firm serving by Djokovic late in set three explained the outcome.

Of the six members of our hard-court elite who competed at Monte Carlo, three of them succeeded in reaching the semis--Nadal, Murray, and Djokovic, joined there by Wawrinka from our clay group. Djokovic and Wawrinka met in the semis, where the Swiss star took the first set and captured an early break in set three. But the Serbian youth showed the greater power and consistency when it counted most, and although once again there were many more unforced errors than winners, Novak's close win was convincing.

The other semi-final pitted Andy Murray against Nadal, who had won the tournament the last four years. For most of this cool, damp day, Murray struggled to win even an occasional point. There seemed no pattern for his success: (1) Andy's strong serve produced few winning short points against Rafa's wonderful returning ability, (2) although Andy's avoidance of error was excellent, there was almost no chance of drawing an error from Rafa in extended rallies, and (3) Rafa's defensive skills permitted outright winners only if Andy forced play to the extreme, at high risk of error. But having lost the first set and behind by 2-5 in the second, Andy's attacking efforts began to succeed. Rafa, who may have eased up in his play, seemed unprepared against the surge of pressure and, after many long and exciting points, the two reached tiebreaker. Rafa finally prevailed, but only after several blistering winners by both men. Both parts of the match had been fascinating--first Rafa's one-sided dominance against Murray's by no means shabby patient game, and then, Murray's near-recovery upon seizing the initiative with greater resolve and extreme power.

The Sunday final tested Nadal against a determined Novak Djokovic. The Serb pretender from early on pressed the champion strongly off the ground, Rafa answering with attacking fire of his own. By the middle of set one, it was tennis of the highest order amid breathtaking, long rallies with both men hitting with full power--side-to-side, corner-to-corner, with accurate drop shots changing the pattern often. Late in the first set Novak twisted his back, and although after massage he showed no discomfort, the fear of further injury probably retarded his answer to Nadal's intensified attacking.

Rafa thus ran out the first set, but when the second set began the play took an unexpected turn. Plenty of moments of brilliance persisted--some precision lobbing and net success by Djokovic, down-the-line backhand winners by Nadal. But Rafa was now beginning to contribute occasional uncharacteristic errors, while Novak was cutting down his own risk-taking slightly--just enough for the Serb to begin winning more than half the points and eventually equalize matters at one set all.

As set three began both men again were still playing with full energy and power, aggressively and accurately. The set began with three extended games, intensely contested, Rafa winning two of them. But rather abruptly Djokovic's physical and mental reserves became empty from the long struggle, and the end came soon. What the world learned on this day was that at his best Djokovic was Nadal's near-equal on clay. But Rafa's unquenchable tenacity--the complement to his physically punishing play--once again made the difference.

On the next day, April 20, began the 500-Series tournament at Barcelona--one of eleven similarly labeled events on the 2009 calendar, rated one level below the Masters-1,000's. On hand were only two members of our hard-court Eight, Nadal and Verdasco, along with nearly all the other stars from the leading clay-court nations. Predictably, Rafa reached the final without loss of a set, where his opponent was David Ferrer, who had survived a fascinating semi-final meeting with Fernando Gonzalez by winning the last two points after the score reached 5-each in the third-set tiebreaker. A strong wind from the north affected all shots in velocity and depth, where the short-backswing game of Ferrer seemed better suited than the long-backswing stroking of Fernando. But in the next day's final, April 26, although Ferrer and Nadal provided countless superb moments of tennis, Rafa's superiority in all departments left little doubt as to the outcome. It was Rafa's 25th-consecutive win on clay.

Listed here are the year-to-date leaders in 2009 clay-court play, unofficially compiled here. Included are results in the European circuit through the final at Barcelona, at Houston on red clay earlier (won by Hewitt), and in the February Latin American clay circuit, which featured some of the Spanish stars. Except at the top, our early clay-court standings looks very different from our list of hard-court leaders:

1. Nadal, 1,500
2. Robredo, 680
3. Djokovic, 600
4. Almagro, 590
5. Acasuso, 445
6. Gonzalez, 430
7. Wawrinka, 405
8. Ferrer, 390

The next four weeks will bring important clay-court events in Europe, including Masters-1,000 tournaments in Rome and Madrid (with 1000 points to the winners of each). All the hard-court leaders except for newly married Roddick are competing this week in Rome. In the coming events we can expect Djokovic to hold his position and Murray to penetrate our clay-court eight. Federer too will probably threaten the erstwhile clay courters, while Ferrer and Gonzalez from their strong showings in Barcelona seem also likely to rise.

The climactic clay event--the year's last clay tournament that will draw the hard-court elites--will start at Garros May 24. It is hard to imagine that Rafa, playing on clay in best-of-five-set competition, will fail to collect the champion's 2,000 points.

WOMEN'S TENNIS 2009

The formlessness that characterized women's pro tennis throughout 2008 largely persisted in the first three months of 2009. Serena Williams captured Australian Open 09, which, following her triumph at U.S. Open 08, raised thoughts of a possible late-career run that might lift Serena to among the top all-time greats. But after Australia Serena was unable to continue her success, and she ended the hard-court cycle losing in the final round in Miami, a heavily taped leg unable to support the mobility and power needed for her big game. Serena's future remained as cloudy as ever.

Meanwhile the 2008 year's champion, Jelena Jankovic, lost early in Melbourne and showed even poorer results thereafter, losing her opening matches at the Premier Mandatory tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami. Serbian countrywoman Ana Ivanovic was runner-up at Indian Wells but otherwise was equally disappointing. Partly taking up the slack was tall American Venus Williams along with the usual complement of Russian stars. Safina was runner-up to Serena in Australia, where Dementieva and Zvonareva also reached the semis. Zvonareva won Indian Wells. Sharapova's inactivity because of shoulder trouble continued.

But most intriguing in the new year has been the fast rise of two teen-aged Europeans, both moving upward from second-eight finishes in 2008. Victoria Azarenka, age 19 and height 5-10, was born in Minsk and now trains in Arizona. Against Serena in Melbourne, she captured the first set but was forced to retire in the second set with illness. In other outings, the Belarus teenager captured her first three pro crowns--the Brisbane tune-up in January, the indoor event in Memphis in February, and the Miami Premier Mandatory in March. Enroute to her Miami triumph over the wounded Serena, Victoria defeated Kuznetsova in three sets of power slugging. Azarenka is a pure baseliner, able to stroke consistently deep and with power, with a serve capable enough to produce a nice complement of short points won.

Also among the leaders in 2009 hard-court play was Danish player Caroline Wozniacki, 18. Caroline was runner-up to Azarenka in Memphis and then reached the quarters at both Indian Wells and Miami.

WOMEN'S CLAY SEASON

The discontinuity separating clay-court and hard-court results is traditionally clearer in men's pro tennis than in women's. In only one of the eight years starting in 2001, for example, did the men's Garros champion win one of the nonclay Slams in the same year. (Nadal won both Garros and Wimbledon in 2008.) But in four of the same eight years, the women's Garros champion also won a nonclay Slam, and only in 2004 when the Garros champion was Anastasia Myskina did the female winner in Paris fail to claim at least one other Slam crown or runner-up finish in the same year. The trend was similar in decade 1991-2000.

We should therefore expect the emerging women's clay standings to mirror the early-year hard-court standings better than among the men. First-week clay-court results only partly supported this, as successful hard-courter Caroline Wozniacki triumphed at Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. But meanwhile Serena faded away in her first clay match at Marbella, Spain. That event was then won by Jankovic, breaking her 2009 run of misfortunes, all on nonclay.

The first of the clay season's Premier tournaments took place April 13-19 at Charleston, featuring four of the prime hard-courters. Of these, Venus Williams and Zvonareva failed to reach the semis, while Dementieva and Wozniacki faced each other in that round. The teenager prevailed in three tense sets, matching the veteran in baseline firepower with superior topspin from both sides. Then in the Sunday afternoon final, April 19, Wozniacki faced yet another rising teenager--Sabine Lisicki, 19, from Germany. Lisicki, who had beaten Venus and Bartoli earlier in the week, showed superbly heavy serving and stroking, striking away boldly throughout in claiming a straight-set win. The drama at Charleston strongly suggested that all three teens--Lisicki, Wozniacki, and Azarenka--are destined for further rise, perhaps imminently. All three are listed at height 5-10 though Lisicki seemed the tallest, strongest, and most likely to go higher. (Lisicki would contribute a singles and a doubles victory without loss the following week in Fed Cup action on clay.)

There have been too few women's clay events to date in 2009 to allow a meaningful clay-season ranking for us to compare with a hard-court list. Serena currently leads in the year-to-date race on all surfaces, Safina in the running-12-month standings. Of our teenagers, Azarenka and Wozniacki are in the top six for 2009 to date, Lisicki is at #17. Just ahead are four weeks of women's clay-court events, including the history-laden Italian Open, starting May 3, and a new Premier Mandatory tournament in Madrid the following week. Garros follows, where the likely winner is anyone's guess.

Will the top male hard-courters rise on our list of clay-court achievers? Will our three teen-aged female stars continue their penetration into the amorphous order of recent times? Both questions can be answered in the affirmative. But if the question is whether anyone can gain on Rafa, the answer is: forget it.

Best wishes to all for a happy season of clay-court watching.

--Ray Bowers
Arlington, Virginia, USA

APPENDIX: ON THE OFFICIAL RANKINGS

In hopes of reducing confusion, ATP itself is no longer publishing standings in the men's year-to-date race. The running 12-month standings are being continued as the only representation of each player's rank. A simpler method for determining points has been introduced, thereby allowing easy extraction of year-to-date accumulations, as was done for this essay. For the most part, an upper-level male player's year-end official point total, which will determine his ranking for the year, will consist of his points in:

  • the four Slams,
  • his best eight in the nine Masters-1,000 tournaments,
  • his best four in the eleven 500-Series tournaments,
  • his best two in the 30-odd 250-series tournaments, and
  • Masters Cup.

The nine Masters-1,000 tournaments of 2009 are the former Masters Series events, except that a new clay event in Madrid in May and a new hard-court event in Shanghai in October are being added. (There are still nine events, as the former Hamburg Masters, now moved to July, will become a 500-Series event, and the former indoor Madrid Masters in October has been replaced by the Madrid-1,000 clay tournament in May.) Masters Cup in November moves to London, indoors as before.

Unlike ATP in men's tennis, the WTA is continuing to publish both year-to-date and running-12-month standings. The nine Tier One women's tournaments are no longer so designated, most of them among the some twenty designated Premier tournaments including four Premium Mandatory events. The Sony Ericsson year-end championship event for 2009 will be in Doha. There will be an additional year-end event, the Tournament of Champions in Bali, where entry will be based on success in events below the Premier level.

Organized pro tennis must adapt to changing times, though in my opinion some of its changes every few years have contributed excessively to the public's confusion. But to the credit of today's custodians, the historic eminence of the Slams along with the existence of Davis and Fed Cups have been preserved.

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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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