This morning I could have sworn that I saw a quote from Roger Federer where he referred to early-round losers at the Grand Slams as “the left side of the draw.” I can’t find the line now in the interview he did with Swiss journalist Rene Stauffer, and he probably never said it, but I like the euphemism nonetheless. You know, some players just happen to end up on the right side of the draw, and some happen to get stuck over there on the left. It's certainly nicer than calling them “journeymen” or “cannon fodder” or “the 99 percent."
Federer and his fellow members of the Top 4 helped get the tour's left-wingers a raise recently. At their urging, the French Open and Wimbledon upped their share of the prize money this year. It was overdue. Currently tennis players get 13 percent of the sport’s total revenue; compare that to the NBA, where the players’ union has recently come unglued because they had to settle for 50 percent of their league’s money. Over the last six years or so, income inequality on the ATP had been growing, so a correction was in order. Who would have thought the All England Club would ever be called . . . progressive?
But the real reason many fans and all tournament directors like the left side of the draw is that it gives us more chances to see the stars play. Today in Barcelona we had three of those stars—No. 2 Rafael Nadal, No. 4 Andy Murray, and No. 6 David Ferrer—lined up against three card-carrying left-wingers, Robert Farah (ranked 246), Santiago Giraldo (ranked 54), and Albert Montanes (ranked 69). What did those contests show us about how Nadal, Murray, and Ferrer handle early-round matches, and how they change their games for the later rounds?
If you’ve ever seen a practice session by one of the pros, you know that they pull off shots that they never even try during matches. On the one hand, it’s depressing to see how supernaturally skilled they are; on the other, you also realize that they get tight in matches just like we do. For instance, Andy Murray can often be seen ripping forehands without hesitation when he’s working out, and then playing them much more safely later the same day when he’s out there for real. I was curious to see today whether Murray would try, if he got ahead, to bridge that gap and work on being more aggressive during live points.
The answer was: It depended on the moment. Late in the first set, up 4-1 and cruising, Murray magically found the perfect, elusive balance between height, pace, spin, and location on an inside-out forehand that he hit for a winner. This was the shot that we’ve been looking for. Then, early in the second set, at 2-1, 15-15, with the set still close, Murray had an open court for a forehand up the line. This time he tightened up and smothered the ball into the net. Two points later, he went to the other extreme, overcooking a forehand wide. He screamed at his box and was broken soon after.
The forehand is there, it exists, but even against a relative journeyman, Murray was unable to find it when the score was close. He was better with his backhand, which he used to yank Giraldo crosscourt and then down the line with ease, and without anxiety. The thing about Murray seems to be that his game is based so much on consistency, defense, and speed that he it's hard for him raise it when he needs to in later rounds and still stay in his comfort zone. How do raise your defensive abilities?
Rafa was up next, against Farah, an utterly unheralded Colombian. The match was never in doubt, and, despite some spirited second-set play from Farah, it was downright dull at times. Nadal played at a slow pace, he missed forehands he normally doesn’t miss, and the crowd seemed stultified by it all.
All of which, in its way, shows why Nadal is better in the big matches than Murray is: He can up his game in the later rounds. In the Monte Carlo final against Djokovic, Rafa went after all of his shots—serve, forehand, backhand, return—with more conviction and aggression than he did today. Is this a bad sign for the rest of the clay season? No, it’s just shows that every player reverts to doing what's comfortable whenever he can. Even when he was a teenager, Nadal was always able to get himself to play a more aggressive and disciplined game when he faced Roger Federer. He knew that he had to, or Federer was going to take the rallies from him. Until Monte Carlo, I hadn’t seen Rafa make that same leap against Djokovic.
Finally, it was time for Ferrer to take the court against Montanes. From the start, Ferrer was relaxed and hitting his backhand smoothly. This is a shot that, because of the unorthodox gap he has between his hands, can betray him. Ferrer is also prone to jitters late in sets and in tiebreakers. Neither backhand nor nerves were an issue today. He kept striking that shot well and felt confident enough to follow it in and end points with his underrated volley. And he took care of the close-set nerves the easiest way he could: By not letting the sets get close. Ferrer won 6-0, 6-2.
Ferru controlled the action to the point where he didn’t even need to be his usual tenacious self. Where he differs from Rafa and Murray, though, is that he doesn’t have an extra gear of talent that he can use against a better player. What you see with him is pretty much what you get, whether he’s facing Montanes or Nadal. Ferru’s record bears it out: He’s very good against the left side of the draw, and not so hot against the right. He has nine combined wins over Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer; Murray has 18.
Unfortunately for Murray, that’s why he’ll always be judged on a tougher grading scale than Ferrer. He’s the one who can do more late in the Grand Slams, but he hasn't yet figured out how to make it all the way to the right.