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March 17, 2011

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BNP Paribas Open 2011, Indian Wells, California, USA
March 17, 2011
Editorial by Vince Barr.


Vince Barr Photo
Vince Barr

Nadal Negates Karlovic's Serve To Advance At the BNP Paribas
I had hoped to cover most of Caroline Wozniacki's quarterfinal match with Victoria Azarenka but that lasted only three games as Victoria had to retire due to an injury in her left hip. Azarenka clearly wanted to play on and consulted her coach after the injury time out to see if she could safely continue to play. Her coach told her not to risk doing further injury to herself and she reluctantly agreed. I think she made the right decision; a single match, even one that occurs in a Grand Slam, is not worth exacerbating an injury that could affect a player's career. Still, you feel for the injured player and this would have been an excellent match to see how it turned out. The same misfortune fell upon Kim Clijsters a few days ago as she had to retire from her match with Marion Bartoli despite being up a set and a break. To complete the mantra that bad things seem to happen in threes, Tommy Robredo had to retire from this event, giving Juan Martin Del Potro a walk over because of a left adductor strain.
That meant that the first match of the day of any consequence was Maria Sharapova's encounter with Shuai Peng, and this was a match that went the distance. Sharapova didn't play especially well for reasons that will be discussed shortly. Lindsey Davenport noted that Maria had some problems with her second serve because of her rotator cuff shoulder surgery that she had a few years ago. Rather than tossing the ball high above her head and then hitting the serve, she was tossing the ball lower and out in front more. This was an attempt to mitigate the pain from the traditional way of serving that put too much physical stress on the repaired portion of her serving shoulder. The changed service motion had its own drawbacks, however. With the new service motion, Maria had to reach for the ball, leading to more errors. So the net effect was that her service games were going to be more erratic by nature than was previously the case prior to her rotator cuff surgery in 2008. In her match with Shuai Peng yesterday, the second set alone took about 57 minutes to play and Maria had a -12 in plus / minus (10 winners and 22 unforced errors).
Early in the 3rd set, Maria had an on-court coaching consultation with Thomas Hogstedt, her new coach (who replaced long-time coach Michael Joyce late last year). Thomas was telling Maria to keep her left arm extended and out in front more than she had been doing in the match previously. Maria responded that she could not feel the ball spin when it hit her racquet, which apparently is common in recovery of shoulder injuries involving the rotator cuff from pro tennis players. Davenport said that she never had that type of injury but retired former player Corina Morariu (who famously overcame acute promyelocytic leukemia in 2001 to return to professional tennis in San Diego the following summer) did. Morariu was one of Davenport's closest friends on tour and Lindsey said that Corina told her that after her shoulder surgery, which involved her rotator cuff, she lost her ability to feel the ball striking the racquet in her service motion. That kind of injury is fairly difficult to overcome for a tennis player since the rotator cuff is where the shoulder attaches to the arm. It enables the arm to twist and move with a full range of motion that is essential to play tennis, let alone play the sport professionally.
This match featured a number of service breaks by both players. Sharapova committed 13 double faults and 47 unforced errors in this match and she was broken eight times. Shuai lost her serve to go down 3-4 in the third which proved to be the deciding break of the match. That happened when she hit a volley off the frame of her racquet, landing well off the court. In response, Maria pumped her fist excitedly after getting that break and held on for the win, 6-2, 5-7, 6-3. She will next play Caroline Wozniacki in the semifinals.
On the men's side, Rafael Nadal played the first men's quarterfinal match of the tournament because of the walk over Del Potro had against Robredo. Nadal had won his only three previous meetings with "Dr. Ivo," Ivo Karlovic, but each time they had played, Ivo had managed to take at least one set off Rafa. Their playing history has been very sporadic; the first time they met was way back in 2004 in Milan, Italy on carpet. Then they played four years later in London at Queen's Club on grass. Their last meeting was in the 2010 Australian Open in the Round of 16. I expected this quarterfinal to be a very close encounter and I was not disappointed. Karlovic went up triple break point at 5-all late in the first set; Ivo won 9 of the last 12 points. He earned the break on Nadal's serve off a volley that Rafa hit well outside the court, deep behind the baseline. The very next game, Ivo executed a fantastic drop shot from a point well behind the baseline which Rafa could not get to that put him up 15-0, then followed that with a double fault to tie it at 15-all. Karlovic's serve reminds me of Goran Ivanisevic's serve where he leans back on the ball toss with not as much of a knee bend on his first serve. Ironically, his service motion is different on a second serve. Rafa pushed things to 30-all with an excellent volley that landed right on the baseline, then things got to deuce when Rafa pushed a volley return past Karlovic, who ventured into the net.
Robbie Koenig, a former doubles specialist from South Africa, made a remark on the Tennis Channel that he wondered how frustrated Rafa must be after losing a tough first set to Karlovic. Obviously, in a best of three-set format, you don't have a lot of opportunities to overcome the loss of a set. However, Rafa didn't get to be the best player in the world by worrying about losing a set. After holding his own serve to start the second set, Nadal went up double break point on Ivo's serve in his first service game of the set. Karlovic swatted away both break point opportunities with a volley winner and an ace, but I did not see any negative body language on the part of Nadal.
I was surprised at the quality of Nadal's vision as he challenged one of Karlovic's first serves. Hawkeye showed it to land outside of the service box by a distance of one millimeter (and that is no exaggeration). It is true that most tennis players have unbelievably great vision but Nadal being able to see a ball land barely out traveling at speeds of about 130 miles per hour is nothing short of spectacular. Rafa would have had less than one-tenth of a second to see where the ball landed and while there is no real penalty for a missed challenge (other than losing one of your challenges in a given set), to be able to see exactly where the ball landed in real time defies my ability to adequately describe it. Major league baseball players are also known to have excellent vision as they can pick up the rotation of the ball in flight once it leaves the pitchers hand (something I can do only upon watching a slow motion replay of a pitch). If he were playing baseball, Rafa's ability to see Karlovic's ball that clearly would probably enable him to see whether or not the commissioner of the sport (Bud Selig for those of you interested) had dotted the "I" in his name on the baseball as it came towards him, traveling in the mid-90s. Eventually, Nadal converted his 4th break point opportunity into a break on Ivo's serve to go up 2-0 in the second; so much for Nadal being dispirited at losing the first set. At Queen's Club, Karlovic captured the first set but went on to lose the match to Nadal anyway.
Momentum in a match on the pro tour is a funny thing to watch since players just get on a roll and assert their dominance. Consider Rafa's streak after losing the first set. In the second, he broke "Dr. Ivo" twice and held serve to go up 4-0, virtually ensuring that the match was going to three sets. At one point, Rafa won 18 of 23 points before the fifth game of the second set started and he was not close to being done. So, perhaps winning the first set against Rafa might not be a good strategy after all as losing a close set basically awakened the tiger within and made Rafa increase his concentration. He held serve again easily to go up 5-0 and Karlovic adopted the on-court demeanor of just wanting to get to the third set and take his chances there. Rafa won the second frame easily, 6-1 to set up the deciding set. Koenig speculated that whoever served first had an advantage in a given set and I don't necessarily agree with that assertion, either. My view is that the player with the most talent will usually win because they have a greater degree of mental fortitude to come back from losing a series of close points in any given set. There are always upsets but tonight's Nadal / Karlovic match was not going to be one of them. Rafa lost only one point on his serve in the second set. That is absolutely amazing.
There were a couple of statistics that illustrated how differently this match was between the first and second sets. Keep in mind that even in the first set, it was not like Rafa was getting blown out. Rather, he lost the first set on one break of serve, 5-7. However, with Dr. Ivo being known for his serve, it stands to reason that if you can return his serves, you can gain an edge on him as volleying is not one of his strengths. The guy is like a tree out on court, standing six feet, 10 inches tall and he moves like one as well, which is to say, mobility is not one of his strengths. I mean, for a big guy, he moves reasonably well, but on-court movement will never fall into one of his biggest strengths as compared with other tennis professionals on tour.
Looking at the statistics from the first and second sets, Rafa lost the return advantage to Ivo in the first set by being able to return only 40% of Ivo's service points in play. However, in the second set, this figure rose to 72%. Looking at first serve points won between both sets, Rafa won "only" 61% of his first serve points in the first (as compared with Ivo's 86%). In the second set, there was a dramatic turn of events as Rafa won 90% of all his first serve points in play whereas Ivo managed to win only 36% of his first serves. That begs the question: why was there such a difference between the first and second set?
It might have something to do with Nadal's return position on Ivo's serve. He started standing closer to the baseline in the second set than he was in the first, which at first glance, makes absolutely no sense. Why? Because that would cut down on his reaction time to return one of Ivo's blistering first serves (average speed about 132 mph). But coming in would also mean that Rafa could hit the ball at a lower point off the bounce than he could if he stood back. This is a classic strategy of taking the ball on the rise. But to execute this tactic successfully, especially against a good server who serves with a lot of pace, as does Karlovic, you have to be lightning-fast in your reflexes, which of course, Nadal is. Every player makes in-match adjustments in terms of their positioning on the court as well as their shot selection. What separates the best players from merely good ones on tour is knowing what to change and when to change it.
Through his first four service games in the third set, Rafa only lost two points on his serve as each player held serve with relative ease. Nadal took the first point in the final set tiebreaker off a brilliant cross court volley that Karlovic hesitated to hit, thinking it was going to go out. It didn't. The very next point (on Rafa's serve), Ivo swatted at Rafa's serve to fall behind 0-2, but he would recover the mini-break back on the next point to take things back on serve in the breaker. Ivo dropped the second of his two serves off a volley as he approached the net to give Rafa a min-break at 3-2 with two serves in hand. Nadal won both of those, the last one coming off a full stretch at net court to hit a cross court volley that Ivo didn't even try to get because he was so far out of position. Karlovic wasn't ready to surrender as he took things back to 5-all off a fantastic backhand volley at net.
Nadal finally took the match and he was tremendously excited afterwards, jumping into the air, pumping his fists and showing a full range of emotion, probably relief as well as excitement at winning such a tough, closely-contested affair that required him to come from behind. Nadal next faces Juan Martin Del Potro on Saturday in the semifinals. Prior to that however, he has an on-court date with Roger Federer in a doubles match that Tennis Channel is going to cover (as will I).
Other men's quarterfinal matches to be played Friday include Novak Djokovic against Richard Gasquet. Djokovic leads that series 3-1 and I don't expect Richard to do much against Novak who is playing very well at the moment. That will be followed by Yanina Wickmayer against Marion Bartoli for the first women's singles semifinal of the tournament. Bartoli has won their only two previous matches, both of which occurred last year in Key Biscayne as well as Tokyo and in both cases, it was a straight sets win for Bartoli. That match will be followed by the last men's quarterfinal featuring a Swiss civil war if you will, as Stanislas Wawrinka squares off against Roger Federer. Whatever the outcome of that match, the loser will have to get over their loss pretty quickly as they both pair up to play a doubles match with the tandem of Nadal and Marc Lopez. You have to like Roger's chances in the quarterfinal as he has only lost once to Wawrinka in eight previous contests. Federer's lone loss came on clay nearly three years ago in Monte-Carlo in the Round of 16. After the doubles match, the last ladies singles semifinal will be played between Caroline Wozniacki and Maria Sharapova. Maria has a 2-1 edge in career head to head encounters but Caroline won their last encounter at last year's U.S. Open in the Round of 16 in straight sets (6-3, 6-4), so I think that Caroline will win this one as well given Maria's problems in her service game.


[16] Maria Sharapova (RUS) d Shuai Peng (CHN) {white visor} 62 57 63
Shuai Peng 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Maria Sharapova 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Shuai Peng 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Maria Sharapova 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Shuai Peng 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Maria Sharapova 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Maria Sharapova 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Shuai Peng 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Maria Sharapova 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Shuai Peng 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Maria Sharapova 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Shuai Peng 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Maria Sharapova 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Maria Sharapova 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Shuai Peng 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Maria Sharapova 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis

[1] Rafael Nadal (ESP) {orange shirt} d Ivo Karlovic (CRO) 57 61 76(7)
Rafael Nadal 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Ivo Karlovic 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Rafael Nadal 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Ivo Karlovic 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Rafael Nadal 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Rafael Nadal 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Ivo Karlovic 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Rafael Nadal 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Ivo Karlovic 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Rafael Nadal 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Ivo Karlovic 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Rafael Nadal 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis

Earlier Columns from this Event:
March 16, 2011 BNP Paribas Open: Men's Round of 16 - del Potro, Kohlschreiber, Wawrinka, Berdych, Djokovic, Troicki
March 15, 2011 BNP Paribas Open: 4th Round - Federer, Chela, Djokovic, Gulbis, Clijsters, Bartoli, Roddick, Isner
March 14, 2011 BNP Paribas Open: 3rd Round - Nadal, Soderling, Sweeting, Kohlschreiber, Querrey, Verdasco
March 13, 2011 BNP Paribas Open: Raonic Rising, Roddick Rolling, Federer Florishing - Roddick, Blake, Djokovic, Golubev, Federer, Andreev
March 12, 2011 BNP Paribas Open: Women's Preview & Second Round Results - Nadal, de Voest, del Potro, Ljubicic, Wozniacki, Stephens
March 11, 2011 BNP Paribas Open: Men's Preview with Photo Coverage of Blake, Guccione, Ivanovic, Date-Krumm

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