First I draw your attention to the (admittedly kinda boilerplate) post I wrote at ESPN.com yesterday. The germ for it came when I couldn’t remember whether Zurich was a Tier I event or not. The tournament website didn’t help; I had to go all the way to the WTA media guide to get confirmation of my suspicions (why else would Serena Williams and Justine Henin ever appear in a draw together?). I’m guessing most fans don’t have access to this guide, and might be left clueless as to the importance of Zurich—not that it will matter for long; the city won’t host the tournament next year.
I know the WTA’s 2009 roadmap emphasizes getting the best players to commit to the biggest tournaments. Just as crucial, though, is that the tour commit itself—and some of its future windfall of dollars from the Middle East—to marketing those events as a recognizable series, which is one thing that the ATP has had success doing.
Anyway, the Madrid Masters is what’s on TV here in the States (we’ll get Zurich over the weekend). I’ve been in and out of our conference room checking up on the matches—some great play at times, some dead silence from the crowds at others. Here’s the rundown, along with a word or two about the women.
1. David Nalbandian: Smiling for a couple seconds against Del Potro. That’s the lead story of the event so far in my mind. I hadn’t seen him play in a while; the first shot I caught today was him scrambling back to hit an overhead from the baseline. Scrambling, of course, is the wrong word. Nalbandian doesn’t scramble; it would be beneath him. I’d forgotten how easily he gets around—he seems to materialize at the ball. And there he was again, right under the overhead, no problem.
2. Novak Djokovic: I had lunch earlier this week with Pete Bodo and two regulars from Tennis World, Juan José and AmyLu. We all agreed: Now that Djokovic has established himself as the third-best player in the world, he needs to learn to assert that fact all the time—in other words, to put the hammer down against the guys not named Federer and Nadal. Djoko has improved in every other way, but he can still lose focus in the middle of a match. This isn’t an uncommon problem for young players—Andre Agassi would take whole sets off, just the way Djokovic did this year in the Estoril final against Richard Gasquet.
3. Roger Federer: Djokovic need look no further than the match after hm today to see how a hammer is put down. Federer was all focus as he shredded Guillermo Cañas in two quick sets. Rather play the waiting game during rallies, the way he often does, Federer played basic, aggressive, forward-moving tennis with no goal other than winning points efficiently. I guess there are still matches and players he can get up for.
4. Rafael Nadal: You’d have to call his performance today against Andy Murray vintage Nadal: flawed, less-than-beautiful, gutsy, amazing at just the right times. The running lob he got over Murray’s head on set point in the tiebreaker, and the way he didn’t allow himself to be broken a second time in the second set marks the guy yet again as the consummate pro, from a mental standpoint. He’s also hitting through his backhand well, always the key with him. Looking forward to seeing him play Nalbandian—aka Smiley Joe—next.
5. Juan-Martin Del Potro: He played the most tenacious tennis I’ve seen from him yesterday against Robredo, then looked unfocused, tired, and too loose today against Nalbandian. He’s not quite ready for the grind of a Masters I guess. But you have to love the way he pounces on any backhand left in the middle of the court. Few players move that well—that enthusiastically—to the backhand side. He loves seeing the ball there.
6. Tatiana Golovin: She rolled Ana Ivanovic 3 and 1 and has Bartoli and perhaps Kuznetsova coming up in Zurich—both winnable matches. A little non-parental coaching can go a long way in the WTA: She’s been working with Mats Wilander and has been playing very good tennis for the last few months. She should be a major story coming into the new year.
7. Doug Adler (Tennis Channel commentator): OK, Doug, why don’t you just state at the beginning of the tournament that every player should come to the net more and be done with it. But then what would you say the rest of the week?
8. Andy Murray: Great to have him back and playing well. His drop shot alone adds more to the sport than some players’ entire games (not naming names, cough, cough Feliciano Lopez cough, cough). But he played just well enough to lose today. Going down 7-5 in a breaker, then surrendering a 4-2 lead in the second betrayed just a slight lack of belief against a guy of Nadal’s stature. Otherwise, good show.
9. Fernando Verdasco: How do you think he feels when he gets into a close match with a top player? Is there ever a moment when he believes he won’t blow it this time? Or does he just know it’s coming? That was what was most depressing about his three-set loss to Djokovic: It was 100 percent predictable.
10. Justine Henin/Agnieska Radwanska: I don’t think the teen is a good matchup for Henin, but I would like to see this. A good test of her potential, at least.
11. Bonus track: The best song to namecheck Zurich? That would be “Zurich is Stained,” always my favorite Pavement song. Its slacker tone alone makes me want to hang out in the city. Hopefully there will be a pro tournament there in the future.
See you in a couple days. Enjoy the quarters, and someone fill me in on the women''s matches if you catch them.