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March 19, 2011

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BNP Paribas Open 2011, Indian Wells, California, USA
March 19, 2011
Editorial by Vince Barr.


Vince Barr Photo
Vince Barr

Men's Semifinals
Promotional advertisements for men's professional tennis can sometimes be "a little over the top" by having more fluff than substance to them. However, the Final Four men's players left in the BNP Paribas Open semifinals that was played yesterday had won all of the last 24 majors. That such a concentration of "star power" appears together in one tournament trying to win a significant title (to say nothing of the $611,000 payday for winning the trophy) is a very rare outcome. But the numbers don't lie: of the last 24 majors going back to the 2005 Australian Open, Federer has won 12 majors, Nadal has nine, Djokovic has two and del Potro has one. The first semifinal featured Rafael Nadal vs. Juan Martin del Potro. While Nadal came into this match with a slight edge (4-3) in career head-to-head play against his Argentine counterpart, del Potro had won the previous three encounters (all played in 2009; Miami, Montreal and the U.S. Open). Pam Shriver asked Rafa prior to the match what del Potro had done especially well against him in the last three matches that they have played, resulting in his loses. Rafa noted that "Well, first thing is that he is one of the best players in the world. Secondly, when I played (against) him the last few times, I did not play my best tennis. (That was the case) even when I played him here in the quarterfinals in 2009 (and beat him)," Nadal said. He later added that if he didn't play much better today than he did the last few times, he would not be able to win.
Rather than ask him whether or not he liked playing at 11 am or how often that occurred, a better question that Shriver could have asked Nadal would have been how much did the doubles match took out of him last night and how much has he been able to recover? He probably would have told her that it wasn't an issue, but it would still be enjoyable to hear him answer that question and see his body language in response to the question. Del Potro was asked why he has been able to prevail against Rafa the last three times they have played and he told Shriver that "I guess my game is getting a little better." ESPN Tennis Analyst Chris Fowler noted that Rafa's serve was not as effective this week it had been. Darren Cahill replied that part of the reason Nadal's serve might have been off has been because of the playing styles of his opponents. "Against Karlovic, Nadal was kind of sliding his serve in and taking some pace off his first serve (to make sure that the ball went in) because he did not want to give Ivo too many second serves," Cahill noted. "Against del Potro, (Nadal) is going to have a big problem if his first serve percentage goes down because he (del Potro) will step in, use his big ground strokes and be really aggressive on any second serve he sees. So Nadal needs to keep that first serve percentage up and try to get some free points," Cahill concluded.
ABC then showed some highlights from their 2009 U.S. Open where Nadal got clocked in straight sets, 2-6, 2-6, 2-6, which was probably his worst beating on a major stage. Cahill observed that "I think he got off on the wrong foot and stood on the baseline to return del Potro's serve. On the baseline points, he got pushed a long way back, and then del Potro just (stepped up) and took over the baseline. Del Potro was not scared to come to the net. For Rafa, he should stand back a little bit (behind the baseline) to return serve, but once he gets into the point, he's got to hug that baseline as much as possible, play really aggressive tennis, try to use the desert air; it's a high-bouncing court, get that ball up, use a lot of spin and be really aggressive from the back of the court. A lot depends on belief for del Potro," Cahill concluded. Fowler made a good point by noting that del Potro's legs are not fully back and that he caught a break by not having to play his quarterfinal match due to Tommy Robredo's retirement. Franco Davin, del Potro's coach told Pam Shriver that Juan Martin needed to "smack some balls deep into the forehand corner and not allow him to dictate play from that shot where he likes to run around into his backhand side. Del Potro was just ecstatic to be back in this kind of setting (the semifinals of a big event)."
Del Potro started the match serving first and Juan Martin had a couple of unforced errors to give Rafa an early break point opportunity at 30-40, but Nadal dumped a volley into the net to get to deuce. Still, Rafa was standing further behind the baseline to return serve than he did in some of his previous matches and both players were trying to get the other player to run around the court. Del Potro closed out the first game with a pair of aces, one out wide to Nadal's backhand and one down the T to take the first game of the match. Rafa then faced a break point in his service game and was broken off an errant forehand. Both Fowler and Cahill chimed in that del Potro had a lot to lose in this match because he had 12 months of his career taken away from him (due to his wrist injury that caused him to miss last year). But oddly enough, del Potro came out feeling a little bit more relaxed in his match and wasn't pressing as much as you might have expected him to do after such a long layoff, as well as the fact that he had not beaten anyone in the Top 10 since his injury. The expectation was that he would play a little bit too aggressively, trying to pick up where he left off, and proving that he belongs among the elite players on tour.
To say that Rafa got off to a slow start would be a major understatement. Down love-15 in only his second service game of the match, Rafa had only won just seven points (total, not just on his serve) and had hit only one winner while committing nine unforced errors. Then the comeback began. Del Potro hit a volley into the net; Rafa then hit a service winner which Juan Martin also dumped into the net; Nadal hit a cross court winner deep in the deuce court and finally a forehand winner down the line to hold. Rafa hit a stunning drop shot as he came into the net during a rally that he deftly dropped into the deuce court near the net when del Potro was behind the baseline. Despite this, Juan Martin nearly managed to retrieve the drop shot at a full sprint but was unable to reach it in time. Still, Juan Martin held to go up 4-1.
Darren Cahill was the first to notice that Juan Martin was getting a bit fatigued and Chris Fowler reported that del Potro's legs were still not all the way back (in terms of tennis conditioning). That might have explained why del Potro's unforced errors crept up; he hit two of them to give Nadal a 30-love advantage in game six of the match. Cahill elaborated on his observation about del Potro's conditioning. "As this match progresses, keep your eye out on how hard del Potro has to work in all these matches. As we mentioned before, he's played a lot of players and has always come back, but no one (he has played is) at the level of what Rafa is. And the way he (Rafa) makes you work for every single point can wear you down. The match has been going on for 30 minutes now and it's been a high-intensity 30 minutes," Cahill opined. Pam Shriver observed that at one point during the 6th game, Rafa motioned to himself that his right hand had been going down on his serve sooner than the rest of his body in his service motion, so his body was not properly aligned in his service motion. Immediately after this gesture, Nadal served a 117 mph ace right up the T. This was a prime example of what I mentioned yesterday... that top players know what to adjust and when to make the adjustment down to minor details that an amateur player might miss. Nadal easily held but was still down a break at 2-4.
Darren pointed out that in his return game, "Nadal is using that backhanded slice very effectively and that has kept him in these points and given him a chance to get on top of points with the forehand. He's playing that slice backhand down the middle of the court to del Potro's backhand knowing that he's probably going to get a forehand on the next shot. He's done that effectively to get this break point (30-40 at 4-2 del Potro in the first set)," Cahill said. "The slice return and the slice backhand during the point was huge for Nadal in that last game because it drops the ball short and gets the ball in an uncomfortable position for the big man (del Potro, who is 6'6"). He (Nadal) is looking for a forehand on the next shot where he can control the point; he took a page out of Roger Federer's playbook a few years ago when he beat del Potro in Australia (6-3, 6-0, 6-0 in 2009 in the quarterfinals) and he (Federer) used that slice backhand very effectively," Cahill said. Rafa broke to get back on serve at 3-4. Rafa won the next three games to take the first set, 6-4. In the second set, Nadal started to approach the net more frequently, at one point, winning seven of eight points in which he came in. He won that set and the match by an identical margin, 6-4, 6-4. He will face Novak Djokovic for the championship.
The number two world ranking was on the line between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic as well as perhaps a changing of the guard in men's professional tennis. Roger lost in the U.S. Open semifinals to "The Joker" and again at this year's Australian Open. They also met in the finals of Dubai a few weeks ago and Novak again emerged victorious. While Roger has a comfortable lead in their head-to-head meetings (13-9 with yesterday's loss to Novak), he is starting to lose some close matches that he had usually won in the past. He turns 30 years old in mid-August this year, just prior to the start of the tournament in Cincinnati. I can't help but compare Djokovic's demeanor after his loss to Roger in the finals of the 2009 Western & Southern Financial Group Masters event in Cincy to his inspired play now that he has had some recent success against Federer. In 2009, both players met in the finals of the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters event in Cincinnati. Roger won in straight sets, 6-1, 7-5 and the outcome was never really in doubt, perhaps from the start of the match. Federer had the cool, detached air of a champion and someone who expected to win and was used to winning the vast majority of the matches he played. Djokovic was a "one-Slam wonder" at that point and happy to be playing on the final Sunday of any tournament he entered. He was still a work in progress and measured his success in certain aspects of his game against Federer. For instance, in a given match, did he make Federer earn the victory over him or did he give it away with too many errors? Was he able to break his serve at least once? In short, he drew some comfort from being able to perform well against a top player even if he lost the match.
The Djokovic I see now is a different person, even when he plays Federer. I think his mindset has changed from being content to make Federer play and earn a victory to actually beating him on a regular basis, even on the game's biggest stages. In short, he believes that he can and should win against Federer and I did not see that level of self-confidence in him before. In 2009 (after his loss to Federer in Cincy) he tried to make light of the fact that he felt he had no realistic chance of beating Roger that day by joking with the media that he was born at the wrong time. In short, the match was out of his control, probably even from the start. The difference between hoping for a good performance (or at worst, at least not embarrassing yourself on the court) to expecting to win against the best players is huge. It is said that winning creates confidence but I feel that is actually backwards and it seems that many players tend to forget this whenever they play other pros in the Top 10 or Top 5. Everyone has talent at this level of competition; everyone can and does make adjustments in their games as the match progresses. But not everyone believes that they can win against the game's best players and I think Novak has arrived in this area.
He has never beaten Nadal and this match could go either way. I would not be totally surprised if Novak takes the title but I would also not be surprised if Rafa wins in straight sets, either. In other words, I have absolutely no idea of who is going to win the championships of the BNP Paribas. Nadal wants to redeem himself after a less-than-satisfactory performance at the Australian Open. Despite the problems he has had serving this week, I think he has an excellent chance of beating Novak. I do believe that Federer's days of dominating the game are over and that the "next generation" has arrived in Djokovic and Nadal. That's not to say that Roger is done winning majors, but I think we've seen the best that he can play and it is not enough to dominate the game when other players believe that they can beat him and have demonstrated that ability. One consequence of Novak's win over Federer is that he now occupies the No. 2 ranking. This means that Federer might start showing up on the same side of the draw as Nadal and that their future matches might not be in the finals anymore. The tennis universe has shifted on its axis and it is going to be absolutely fascinating to see how it all plays out.


[1] Rafael Nadal (ESP) d Juan Martin del Potro (ARG) {white headband} 64 64
Rafael Nadal 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Juan Martin del Potro 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Rafael Nadal 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Juan Martin del Potro 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Rafael Nadal 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Juan Martin del Potro 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Rafael Nadal 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Juan Martin del Potro 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Rafael Nadal 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Juan Martin del Potro 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Rafael Nadal 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Juan Martin del Potro 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Rafael Nadal 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Juan Martin del Potro 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Rafael Nadal 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis

[3] Novak Djokovic (SRB) d [2] Roger Federer (SUI) {yellow shirt} 63 36 62
Roger Federer 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Novak Djokovic 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Novak Djokovic 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Roger Federer 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Novak Djokovic 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Roger Federer 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Novak Djokovic 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Roger Federer 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Novak Djokovic 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Roger Federer 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Novak Djokovic 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Roger Federer 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis
Novak Djokovic 2011 BNP Paribas Open Tennis

Earlier Columns from this Event:
March 18, 2011 BNP Paribas Open: Maria's Meltdown - Federer, Wawrinka, Bartoli, Wickmayer
March 17, 2011 BNP Paribas Open: Quarterfinals: Sharapova, Peng, Nadal, Karlovic
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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