In our first clay-based edition of The Rally in 2014, Richard Pagliaro and I review and preview the action from Monaco.
Has anything in tennis over the last decade improved as much our access to the clay season in the States? Once upon a time, all we saw of Monte Carlo was a 10-second clip on SportsCenter of the winner spraying champagne. Now we can watch virtually every match.
Sometimes you can see a little too much, in fact. This morning I had the misfortune of catching a glimpse of the pink-and-blue...creation that David Ferrer was wearing as a shirt. To get that out of my mind, let me start this Rally with my non-fashionista's review of the players' latest spring styles. There have been some bold choices.
Monfils: He's out of the event, but I liked his orange and gray when it was here. A-
Federer: The two-tone sleeves are new, but this won't go down as a Nike classic. B
Nadal: Like the blue shirt, but not with the gray shorts. B
Cilic: Nice guy, not-so-nice green-and-yellow concoction. D
Raonic: Busy red and black is helping his game, but not my eyes. D+
Djokovic: The blue and white is an improvement on his all-gray from last month. B
Dimitrov: Baby Darth all-black worked. A-
Wawrinka: Stanimal turns bumblebee. B+
Berdych: The pink stripes, believe it or not, were growing on me. A-
Ferrer: All I can think is that he must be gunning for a Prevacid sponsorship. F
Two questions for you, Richard:
(1) How's your knowledge of Italian hand gestures? Fabio Fognini, who was booed off center court here for the second straight year—is that a record?—gave the crowd a thumb-and-pinky salute on his way out. That means "hang loose" to me, but maybe it means something slightly different over there.
I'm not sold on the Berdych Footlocker salesman striped shirt, or the melted jellybean concoction smearing Ferrer's top, but I thought Tsonga looked cool and colorful in yellow.
Based on the way Fognini bailed on that final set today, the hand gesture may have been his way of hailing a cab. My Italian is shakier than my second serve, but I'm fairly certain he wasn't saying "thanks for the support, see you next year."
Watching Fognini carve up Murray on the soggy Naples clay in the Davis Cup quarters was mesmerizing—the apprentice surprising the sorcerer with his touch—but after he failed to convert those break points in that 10-minute game in the second set vs. Tsonga, the inner angry clown hijacked his mind again. Interesting how Fognini calls for the referee today, then tugs on his arm, in a “sit down, I've got a lot on my mind” gesture, like he’s trying to turn complaining into psychotherapy.
Unsurprisingly, I think Djokovic and Nadal have looked sharpest so far. Despite a wrist issue, Djokovic is spreading the court, moving forward at the right times and force-feeding bagels. Nadal looked frustrated by his start against Gabashvili, but I like the way he's hitting through his backhand more, rather than chipping it, and he's punished some forehands down the line.
Steve, who’s the biggest threat you see to stopping a Rafa-Novak final, and who has surprised you most this week?
Just when I was starting to be OK with the Berdych look, you had to put "Foot Locker salesman" into my head. I'm not sure I'll ever be able to see the Birdman as anything else. Fortunately, he's out of the tournament.
It might be worth allowing coaching on the ATP side just to see what Fognini would make out of a sideline visit. We’d definitely need a hand-gesture translation from the booth.
Nadal and Djokovic have obviously looked good, at times close to perfect, so far. But there hasn't been a lot of early-round competition in general—Federer has also cruised, and Wawrinka has lost just two games after getting a walkover today. The biggest surprise has to be Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. Watching him fist-pump during his win over Dolgopolov yesterday, I tried to remember if I had ever seen GGL do that before. Then today, after he won the first game over Berdych, he fist-pumped again. And he played a determined match. At age 30, is he realizing that he better put some money away before it’s too late? I can't predict a GGL win over Djokovic tomorrow, though; Novak has won six straight sets over him dating back to 2007.
The wild card would seem to be Wawrinka. He plays Raonic next, and then, possibly, Nadal in the semis. Stan looked good in his opener. A rematch with Rafa would be one to watch.
How about Federer-Tsonga on Friday, Richard? Jo beat him in three at Roland Garros last year, but Federer returned the favor at the Aussie Open. Tsonga needs a faster start than his norm.
Also, what do you think of Rafa and his time violations? Does he have a point about umpire discretion, or not?
When Fognini was venting with the animation of a charades competitor, I was struck by two things:
(1) He's one of the most theatrical complainers in recent years. It would be interesting to see FF and JJ—Jelena Jankovic—play mixed doubles and engage in a joint meltdown in multiple languages.
(2) It would also be cool if the TennisTV crew could hire Nicola Pietrangeli, a mainstay at Monte Carlo and Rome, as official Fognini interpreter.
I thought Stan might suffer a lapse after 6-1 in the third-set losses to Kevin Anderson in Indian Wells and Alexandr Dolgopolov in Miami. He looked a little tired in Miami and is defending final points in Madrid and quarterfinals at Roland Garros, but he blasted Cilic, got a walkover, and should be rested for Raonic.
On the time violations, I believe if you're going to have a rule, you need to enforce it for all equally. On the other hand, when the crowd is amped up after a long point, or there is a delay in ball kids getting the balls from one end other, the chair umpire should use discretion. I think some of the gripes can be alleviated with the soft warning on a changeover first—some chair umpires even address it during the coin toss—and consistently calling it.
I favor Federer over Tsonga tomorrow, despite the Roland Garros loss last year. Federer has been more precise so far, he's defending better off the backhand side, and if he has the slider serve working, I think it will open the court up for him.
Djokovic is third on the ATP (behind Karlovic and Berdych) in service games held this year. Do you see any technical differences in his game during this winning streak? Or do you think it's more regaining the confidence that comes from stringing wins together?
It's interesting that you would bring up Djokovic's strong serving record so far this year, because I was just thinking about how good he has been recently in his service games. Basically, Nadal said that shot was the key to their Miami final; if Djokovic is serving and returning well, Rafa said it's difficult for him to catch up in the rallies. I haven't noticed anything technically different about Djokovic's game, but he has seemed to be clicking on the T serve in the deuce court, and thus has been going after it more.
Which makes me wonder: Could we be in for a big shift in the Becker-Djoker narrative, with Boris transformed from idiot to savant? Soon we may be hearing that he's the reason Novak is playing more assertively in his service games, and that he was the perfect choice after all. That would be an amusing turn of events.
Looking ahead, how important do you think this tournament is, Richard? It has always been a key to Nadal's psyche, a firewall of sorts against any early-season doubts or problems. Yet when he finally lost here last year, he went on to have what may have been the best run of his career, which lasted all the way to the U.S. Open. Looking back, I think the win put more pressure on Djokovic through the clay season, and took some off of Rafa. Either way, this event has had repercussions, and probably will again.
It's funny, because the conventional wisdom is that Becker should be able to help Djokovic with his transition game, something Novak has worked on in recent years, though in the latter years of Becker's career I often felt like he was too stubborn in staying back too much, a bit like how Tsonga, in my view, is too reticent about making the move forward. But Djokovic has worked court positioning to his advantage throughout this winning streak.
The other asset Djokovic has been bringing to his service games is making the first strike after the serve more meaningful. I think he's been effective stretching the space he creates off the serve with his first shot, which is obviously even more significant against Nadal, who conceded that he felt beaten by the Djokovic serve and return in Miami.
After beating Stepanek, Federer said the adjustment to clay from hard court is not as extreme as it once was because of similar surface speeds, though he pointed out, "On clay, when you have the upper hand from the baseline, it's kind of hard to get out of it." Djokovic has done a good job expanding the gap in hard-court rallies against Nadal, but Rafa remains the best in transitioning from defense to offense on clay, where Novak doesn't change direction quite as sharply.
I look at any Masters tournament as an important one, though since this the first clay-court Masters of the year, perhaps you can say it's not as vital as Madrid or Rome. But it’s certainly every bit as scenic. It's got to be one of the most beautiful center courts in tennis.
Monte Carlo also has rivalry significance if the Nadal-Djokovic final comes off. As an eight-time champion, Rafa has always been comfortable on this court. Novak, living there part time, looks enthusiastic and wants to keep his Masters winning streak going. If we view their rivalry as an ongoing rally, it's interesting to see what adjustments each will make should they meet in the final for the fourth time.
You're right, and I had forgotten, that Becker at a certain point decided that he wanted to prove he could win from the baseline as well as at the net. It would be a bit like Nadal deciding to turn himself into a serve-and-volleyer, just to show us he could. Boris was a true all-courter—there haven't been all that many that I've seen—and it's a little surprising that he didn't have more success on clay.
Federer said it's not as tough as it once was to make the transition from hard to clay, though he must be reaching pretty far back to recall a time when that wasn't true; I can remember the players comparing Miami's hard courts to clay in 2006. It's interesting that Djokovic began his rise right around that time. More so than Federer or Nadal, his game transitions smoothly from one surface to the other. But you're right, Rafa's movement is the most natural on dirt, and the surface gives him enough time to go from retrieving to attacking in one quick forehand strike.
There may be some question about who's going to win the tournament, but, as you say, Richard, there can't be any question about Monte Carlo as a location. One day one of us will get there, but even now the tournament marks the beginning of my favorite viewing season. For the next two months, and then on into the grass swing, those of us on the east coast of the U.S. get to wake up virtually every day with tennis on our televisions. That's not a bad view, either.