04 June, 2006

Tennis: The French Open men for the Casual Observer

Woooo-Booyyy! You are in for a treat!

This is the best French Open EVER!!!

I have waited until the start of the second week, because if you don't know tennis you probably have not heard much about Roland Garros. This week, it will begin to creep into the news, and soon it will be everywhere.


Because history is going to be made.

Granted, it's just tennis history, but it's the most exciting thing to happen to tennis in a decade or more.

Either Roger Federer will beat the Sampras curse and win the French, or Rafael Nadal will extend the longest winning streak in history and become the first man to win the French both times he has ever entered it. The odds of Federer winning it all is 1.8 to 1. Nadal is 2.5 to 1. The next best odds are Nalbandian at 17 to 1, Davydenko at 41 to 1, and Ljubicic at 81 to 1.

The dream match is Federer versus Nadal, of course, and it could happen. It should happen. But both men have been touched getting as far as they have. Federer dropped a set to Nicolas Massu, and Nadal was ridden hard by Paul-Henri Mathieu 5-7, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4. They both are riding on the edge of a razor, and any mistake will allow the field to take them down.

In any professional sport, on any given day, anything can happen. In tennis, that effect is doubled, because there is no "depth" in the line-up. If Federer hurts an ankle, the gig is up. If Nadal finally succumbs to the pressure of trying to win his 57th, 58th, 59th, or 60th match in a row, he's out. There is no court of appeals; there are no second chances; there is no one out there to help you. If your mind begins to play tricks on you, and you begin to choke, there is no hope except to hit through it and figure it out.

I said the "anything can happen" effect is doubled, though.

Your opponent is out there with the full knowledge that he is playing the best in the world. On any given day, everything can go write for him. And if it does, it can snowball. I have played some people who were better than me, and beaten them. My shots start working, and he cannot elevate his game quickly enough to handle the "new" me. It happens to someone every year. (It happens to Mauresmo every year, but more about that later.)

This year Roger Federer's record against opponents who are not Rafael Nadal is 40-0. He has yet to lose a single match this year. Except that the last two tournaments he was in were on clay. He made it to the final in both of them, and was playing for all the marbles. Rafael Nadal was on the other side of the net both times, and both times Rafael cut Roger down.
Roger Federer is 1 and 5 against Nadal.

Roger is an artist. I love to watch him. He brings 3 game plans to every match, and can fluidly switch to any of them at any time if his current plan is not working.

Against James Blake, Roger was being blown off the court. Blake and Federer were both hitting laser shots to the lines, but Blake was hitting them that itty-bitty little bit better, and it was making all the difference. Roger was down in the first set 3-5 - if he lost one more game, he lost the set.

He did not lose one more game.

He just switched to the rope-a-dope. He started hitting a defensive ball, slow and heavy on all three different types of spin. He put away his laser cannon all at once, and Blake suddenly started missing.

In baseball, they talk about a change-up pitch. The pitcher has been throwing straight and fast, then he suddenly pitches a slow floater. The hitter should knock the ball out of the park, but he doesn't. His mind was conditioned to the speed, and he keeps swinging too soon.

Federer threw Blake an entire change-up set. It was magical to watch. Sitting in the comfort of my couch, I could call the moment that Federer changed, but Blake could not see it for another game or two. That was all it took. Federer suddenly had the next 4 games in his pocket, and ended up winning 7-5, 6-3, 6-0. In the second set, he went to a net game, and before it was all over he had gone back to the laser cannon. Blake was a broken man, and even when Federer was throwing him his preferred game, he could not do anything with it.

Nadal is the opposite of Federer.

Nadal never thinks. He doesn't need to. He hits the ball harder and more daringly than anyone else on tour today. He runs further and faster than anyone. He has spent more time in the gym, and he is built like a compact little bull, so he just hits and hits and hits. He saves shots that would be winners against anyone else over and over and over, and he makes winners out of nothing more than anyone else.

And that's all magnified by the clay.

Every time the ball bounces on clay, it is slowed down. On a hard court, that doesn't happen. So, a match on clay seldom features a lot of amazing dominance. Instead, on clay you see two patient boxers throwing body blows for as long as 5 hours. It takes a great deal of strength to hit a topspin forehand back against a topspin forehand. When you have to hit 50 to 100 of them to win a game, and you have to win 18 games to win a match, and you might have to play 50 games (64 is max without going into overtime) to win the 18 critical ones, you can see why a bull like Nadal is favored to win.

2 things work in Nadal's favor.
1) The man is a lefty. He's naturally ambidextrous, and his father encouraged him to go lefty because it is a natural advantage. Dad was right! (insert comment here _______) Federer will have to keep putting the ball into Nadal's strength to win.

2) Clay favors one strategy over every other. Deep, patient topspin wins on clay. Federer cannot switch between strategies on clay as easily as he can on a hard court.

In Federer's favor is the fact that Mathieu pushed Nadal using a simple strategy. Hit deeply into Nadal's lefty backhand over and over and over. It took a phenomenal amount of patience, but it worked. Eventually, Nadal would give up a short ball that Mathieu could punish.

That's the ticket. Can Federer punch it?

No question. I favor Federer.


Milly said...

You so love tennis :-}

Andreia said...

Personally, I miss Guga!

codepoke said...

Yeah. Who doesn't miss Guga. :-(

His constant, infectious smile was just a joy to watch.

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Anonymous said...

Rafael Nadal also known as King of Clay really outclassed such great player. Andre Agassi!