Balancing Acts

Tuesday, November 14, 2006 /by

(Ed. note: TennisWorld's Spiritual Advisor Miguel Seabra is blogging - and bringing it to the Tribe, big-time! - from Shanghai. Here is the master of the forehand drop shot's de-construction of today's action - PB)

Roger Federer vs. Andy Roddick: It was a great duel today here at the Qi Zhong Stadium, but I'll get back to it after we do a little rewinding.

I mentioned yesterday I had a rough arrival. What I didn’t mention was I had the biggest scare: Chinese custom authorities stopped me at the airport and made me open my backpack; they wanted to arrest me – and I thought I would rot in a cell in the middle of nowhere. What they saw in my backpack made them go crazy: dozens of rubber, string dampeners in the form of the classic, black- and-white symbol of the Yin and the Yang - an icon that represents and epitomizes the notion of perfect balance. I was told, “You can’t bring those Chinese symbols from Europe to China. It’s a sacrilege, a cultural sin. You’re going in.”

I saw my life pass before my eyes in a flash and screamed: “No, no – it was Nadia Petrova who put those things in there!”

Wait… Nadia Petrova? She won’t be playing in Shanghai! And since when I understand Chinese?

Then I. . . woke up. Although I only slept for a few minutes during the flight, I managed to have a strange dream. I guess it was the traumatic experience of having commentated on last week’s WTA Championships in Madrid. There, I watched Petrova start with a strong, solid performance against Amélie Mauresmo, then lapse to a horrible frame of mind in back-to-back losses to Martina Hingis and Justine Hénin-Hardenne. Nadia melted down, couldn’t think properly, and completely lost her equilibrium – despite the miniature Yin/Yang dampener in her strings.

Balance – it's the magical word. Everyone has his or her own balance, and everyone's is different. Federer has his own balance, too. In his match with Marat Safin in Rome, Federer started out making a fool of himself. He ranted and threw racquets. But he abruptly seemed to decide: “No more of that” (Safin did not watch that tape, apparently). Fed is a player who has learned how to stave off panic. Part of that learning process occurred in his losses to Nalbandian.

As he explained, “I would think ‘Oh, I don’t know what to do, I don’t have the key, maybe from the baseline I’m not good enough, my serve is not powerful enough’ and so forth. I would ask all sorts of questions. I would start serve and volleying him, chip-and-charging him, everything. Thank God I don’t need that anymore; through my mental and physical strength, I was able to overcome all these problems – now, I just hang in there and hope for the best. It’s been the best choice that I’ve ever taken in tennis”.

He elaborated on the role experience played in helping him overcome panic:

“Losing and winning a lot of matches, just playing against all sorts of different players. You always have the fast runners, the big servers, the serve-and-volleyers, the aggressive baseliners, the counter-punchers. I think at the beginning of your career all you’re trying to get is a feel for how to play each and every one of them. It’s obvious that you like one style of play. But to beat all the different styles, I think that’s the hard part. . . . You have to overcome all these different obstacles if you want to be a great player. . . it took me a long time, but eventually I got a hold of myself, and a hold of their games”.

Now there's a player in balance.

JimandyRoddick had his own balance, built on his bravado and the cannonball/smacking forehand combo he employed throughout 2003 and 2004. Buy then he lost it, because he wanted to be a better all-round player, a better athlete at all costs.

Someone – Jimmy Connors, not just anyone! – gave him back his confidence. And Andy also began to assimilate all those new things he’s been trying to do. Yesterday he showed that he knew that he could beat his nemesis, Federer, and that he knew how to use his revamped game to suffocate the champ. And he was the better player for two sets; he even chip-and-charged behind sliced, forehand down-the-line returns!

I was fortunate to watch that match just four rows back – seating in a box with João Lagos, the Estoril Open director. Right there, court-level just behind one baseline, is the best place to really appreciate Federer’s play.

The guy walks on water, and the way he distributes all sorts of spins is mind-blowing – especially those sliced backhands that actually seem to pass through the net, rather than over it, defying gravity (Rodge, forget Dr. Freud, have you ever heard of Sir Isaac Newton?).

But we could sense it was Roddick’s day. At 2-1 in the first set, João Lagos said “He’s going to do it today. . .” João Zilhão, Lagos's assistant, was up for a bet and put 50 Euros on Federer. When Andy was about to serve out the set, I turned to Max Mirnyi – one of the most thoughtful and articulate players I know – and asked him: “Max, is he going to do it today?"

The big Belarussian hesitated, then said, “Hmmmm… I don’t think so”.

Well, Max was right on the money. Actually, I think Roddick went for too much with his serve at crunch time. He served bullets, but failed to put the first delivery in when he needed the most. After not being able to get his first serve in yet again, this time on a critical set point, João Lagos remarked: “He’s got the Federer Complex”.

Dr. Freud, are you out there?

Then, losing 9-8 in the tense breaker, Andy tried to be too fancy. He mimicked Sampras’s trademark slam-dunk overhead. He stunk at that. He blew the point and the match turned.

Later, we met John ‘Saturday Night’ Feaver (Perhaps thanks to his 15 minutes of Internet fame via TennisWorld, he managed to get a seat in the first row, right next to ATP CEO Etienne de Villiers!). We chatted about Fed’s mix of spins, and how they looked from court level. Feaver pronounced his variety "scary."

I also was curious to know how Andy's brother, John, and, of course, his coach, Jimmy Connors, assessed the match. I waited until the very end of the presser to congratulate Andy on a great effort, then I asked him how the post-match meeting between the three went.

"You know, they had their opinions, but there’s a reason why we have those conversations in a closed-off locker room…”

Ok, fair enough. Connors told you to lose the hat, right?

Now seriously, Andy tried to go for too much and showed some vanity in that jumping smash flash, but now he knows exactly how to beat Rodge, and he’s polishing the tools to do it in the near future. The Mack truck almost ran over the Ferrari. . .and the Mack Truck is refurbished with seats in Tuscany leather, and it's been tuned to produce maximum horsepower.

In recent history, there was one great champion who made a serious effort to get better and thereby turned into a more complete player at the highest level – Mats Wilander, who served and volleyed to beat Ivan Lendl in the US Open final (his third Slam of that year, 1988). But in most cases, the will to get a more complete and balanced game creates some sort of imbalance. Ivan Lendl wanted to become a serve-and-volleyer in order to win Wimbledon, and lost his winning touch. Jim Courier wanted to add a more delicate dimension to his Cro-Magnon style; he was never the same again.

Jamesrafa Well, Rafael Nadal is on a mission to become better, too. He and his entourage feel – rightly – that he needs to be more aggressive and finish the points quicker in order to save energy and become less vulnerable to players like Tomas Berdych or James Blake, who like to get inside the court to punish the Spaniard’s loopy but mostly short forehands.

So, Rafa has been trying to make adjustments. In an effort to serve more aggressively, he altered his motion slightly; the result was a torn stomach muscle (the injury that prevented him from playing Paris-Bercy). He altered his forehand grip slightly, hoping to hit the ball with more pace and depth, and a little less exaggerated spin. You can actually see that sometimes he hits it consistently deeper.

He’s even been working on his stance and leg support while hitting from the baseline, in order to put more of his weight into the ball, and keep from adding to his list of foot injuries. (he had a pretty nasty one at the Estoril Open in 2004; he now needs specific shoes and insoles).

But Rafa has lost a bit of his balance in the process.

As I see it, the changes messed a bit with the mechanical "conscience" that rings out whenever he is not doing things the optimal way, without self-consciousness. He's been somewhat troubled by this awareness of what he's doing, and lost several close matches, whereupon he lost a bit of confidence. Against Blake, he didn’t convert his opportunities – a feature of his game that used to set him apart. It was the same problem he experienced against Berdych in Madrid. Nadal is now making some errors of judgment on crucial points - bad decisions here and there. And now he has to beat his friend Tommy Robredo to stay alive here in Shanghai.

"I played very good, I am happy with my game”, the Mallorcan said after the Blake match. “The problem is not my game, I felt comfortable on the court. But in the important moments I lost my confidence. If you don’t convert the opportunities and if you’re not confident when you have to close out the games, you are going to lose. . .So you need to think about that – why is it happening. The problem is a little bit the confidence. But winning one of these close matches can change everything, no?

It could. But personally I think that right now Nadal is prone to go Hewitt’s way. Nadal – like Seles or the Williams sisters, even Sharapova – plays, or used to play, in some sort of trance. That state is energy sapping. Plus, Rafa is becoming more and more aware of, and thus more vulnerable to, the trappings that surround him: the fame, the media, the money. . .everything. Also, it’s only natural that as he matures, he tones things down. There are fewer cries of "Vamos!" now (Hewitt has almost entirely abandoned his trademark war cry of “C’mon”) and he seems to have doubts now – it’s only human.

Descartes once declared: “I doubt, therefore I exist”. Rafa’s high-voltage intensity once seemed unreal: he was Superboy, a competitor out of this world. Now he’s starting to think too much. . .and maybe he’s losing his balance.

Roddick may be getting it back, while Nadal may be losing it – what do you think?

- Miguel Seabra, from Shanghai

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