Sunday, March 18, 2012

Federer's Backhand the Key to Victory Over Nadal

Lot's of lingering thoughts regarding Roger and Rafa's 28th tilt, so I figured I'd take to the blog to express some of them.

Federer's win—his first on an outdoor hardcourt vs. Nadal since 2005—was made possible for two reasons:

1. His backhand was amazing today.


2. Nadal refused to flip the script.

Let's start with the backhand. I've long felt that the key stroke in any Nadal-Federer match is Roger's backhand. It's no secret, pretty much everybody agrees with that, even Roger and Rafa. What's usually so fascinating about their matchups is the way that each works to either hide or expose Roger's backhand, and to what degree.

But yesterday, try as he did (especially with the serve), Nadal found nothing to expose when it came to Roger's backhand. Federer used the shot eloquently, whipping it cross-court, even on Nadal's nastiest of slice serves on the ad-side, all afternoon. I think Federer's day was actually made a lot easier by the fact that Nadal kept going there. Perhaps Nadal just assumed that he'd break it down eventually, but I think he really lost the match when he didn't adapt his game to what was really happening out there.

Nadal's reluctance to deviate from the script probably made it a lot easier for Federer than it might have been. Think about it: Somebody serves to your backhand 95 percent of the time, even though you are in the zone. What could be better than that?

Am I being naive here? To me it seemed like Rafa needed to try something different in this match, yet he never did.

He even alluded to his problem after the match, commenting that his topspin/kick serve was not getting up as high on Federer due to the conditions, wind, etc...

Was this just a poor match played in tough conditions, or was it further proof that Rafa is a better active player than a reactive one? Is Rafa a problem solver? We know he's a problem creator, but based on his work against Djokovic over their last seven matches, there's some pretty compelling evidence that he's not making the highest marks when it comes to solving.

(Who could blame him for being stubborn, really, or sticking with what has worked so often?)

Federer was able to do two things that he usually isn't able to do with his backhand against Nadal yesterday: First, he hit over the cross-court ball and stretched Rafa out by creating some sick angles. Second, he used the down-the-line consistently, which kept Nadal honest, and probably more importantly, kept him from unleashing his fearhand.

This was the perfect match for Federer in terms of the backhand, and it reminded me of his 2011 World Tour Finals victory over Nadal when he also did lots of damage from that side. Also, I can't help wondering if going three sets with Thomaz Bellucci in the fourth round helped Federer get the reps that he needed on one-hander.

If it did, would it be possible for Federer to pay Bellucci more than he earns on the ATP tour to be his practice partner?

Either way, yesterday's 28th Nadal-Federer match was, like all of them have been, a fascinating encounter that highlighted tennis in all its chess-like glory. All of the elements that fascinate were present: the quest for each player to find each other's backhand, the constant battle for court positioning, the never-ending search for short balls to pulverize, the finer points of shot selection, as in where to put the ball, with what spin, and how often? and of course, the ability of each player to deal with mother nature.

Everything was in play yesterday, but somehow Nadal seemed to miss the big thrust of the match. Federer's backhand was on fire, and Nadal should have left it alone for a while in the hopes that it would have cooled off by the time he resumed his exploitation of it.

Moving forward, does it mean that Federer's backhand has turned a corner? Perhaps all these years of getting worked over by Nadal's buggy-whipped topspin drives is helping him improve?

Will he be able to use the shot in the future with more versatility, power and consistency like he did today?

Could this be yet another twist—another evolution so to speak—of the rivalry?

Hard to say, but easy to think and write about.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Ode to Vika

On the eve of a colossal WTA final between the two top players in the world, I'm going to take some time to praise Victoria Azarenka for her amazing run.

She's notched 22 consecutive wins in 2012—the longest such streak to start a WTA season since 1997—and it's clear that Azarenka is no longer the fragile, temperamental girl she was for the last few years on the tour.

Not anymore. Where there used to be a look of angst, frustration or fear in Vika's eyes, there is only a cold, steely determination now.

What happened, what flicked the switch?

Hard to say, but easy to recognize. Azarenka has played forceful tennis all year, with a rare combo of desire, flair and killer instinct that has been missing on the WTA tour for quite some time.

Remember when we all thought Petra Kvitova was going to take over the No. 1 spot in Australia? That seems like another century now that the era of Azarenka has begun. The Belarusian has swiftly begun to dominate the game, and tomorrow in the BNP Paribas final open she'll have the chance to make another strong statement against Maria Sharapova, a woman that she has defeated in three consecutive title matches.

"For me it's her mental approach now," said Mary Jo Fernandez in an ESPN conference call on Wednesday. "I mean, she plays within herself, she doesn't get down on herself, she manages her emotions so much better."

All true, and while it seems strange that she is being called the "Novak Djokovic of the WTA," the precision of her return game makes Vika seem like a Nole doppelganger if there ever was one. Case in point: she's won 29 of 49 return games in five matches at Indian Wells.

"She's the best player in the world right now, there's just no question about it," added Fernandez. "She's very solid, and she's got weapons and has done a remarkable job to start off the season."

Now the big question: Will she be the best player in the world three months from now? Is she a model of success on the tour for years to come or is she a tennis comet, destined to burn out and become yet another struggling player that we're left to wonder about?

It's hard to say. She's always struck me as a person who was a little too mental to ever become a model of consistency on tour. But now that she's finding out that her game is good enough to dominate anybody on tour—more importantly, on a regular basis—perhaps she'll never turn back. Perhaps the dominating force that we all thought the WTA would forever lack is here?

Is this the beginning of the age of Vika we're witnessing? Is she that good?


So here we go. Another edition of Federer-Nadal. No. 28, to be in fact.

They've played quite a bit of tennis, those two chaps. And I'm talking genius tennis. If you watched their 2008 Wimbledon final and 2009 Australian Open final you get my drift about the genius. I mean, I'm thinking, are these guys human?

I've always wondered if rivalry is a good term to describe what Federer-Nadal has going for it as an entity. It's obvious that they are the two top guys and they've played some great matches, some real high-drama stuff. But so have Djokovic-Nadal.

What makes Federer-Nadal stand out?

Is it purely total Grand Slams amassed? Is it just simple math like that? 26 total Slams is better than 15 Slams, therefore the Federer-Nadal rivalry is better than the Djokovic-Nadal rivalry?

We all know it doesn't work like that.

We are not creatures of numbers. We love Federer-Nadal because of artistry, because of drama. We love it because each player is unique, yet divine. We love it because it's hard to comprehend. We love it because we know it. It's like family.

We love it because Rafa and Roger play tennis as polar opposites. The contrast creates tension. It's like good vs. evil. Rock vs. jazz. Tall and lean vs. Muscular and thick. Lefty vs. righty. Gwen Stefani vs. Shakira.

Think about Wimbledon. The French. How Rafa learned the grass well enough to finally surpass even Federer on it. How Federer, in all his brilliance, was so reluctant to give that Wimbledon crown up. How rain came. How darkness began to fall.

It's almost like one could never fully exist without the other. The defiance of each in the face of the other.

Of course the "rivalry" has come down a bit in terms of intensity since 2009. Federer wins less and less now that he's older, and Rafa's still in his prime years. But never, ever, ever, ever, EVER when they meet are we not excited.

I guess it's different for everybody, but it's monumentally special for a lot of tennis fans.

It's always a great day for tennis when they play. You can embrace the nostalgia while simultaneously viewing a battle for Grand Slam supremacy that is very real.

They will not go on forever. Suns always set. Fires aren't forever.

Get them while you can.