First Ball in, 5/14: No Holidays in Rome

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Thanks to Richard Pagliaro for holding down the First Ball In fort for the last two days. It’s good to see tennis again from Rome, where noisy spectators hunch close to the courts, and silent statues keep watch from above.


Wednesday Review

“That passing shot is a tough one for me to take,” Roger Federer said before he left for home today. “Because he’s not going to make that very often. But it happens and credit to him to fight his way back into the match and get it.”

Federer was referring to the most amazing match-point-down winner that anyone had hit against Federer, or anyone else, since Novak Djokovic’s Return Heard Round the World at the 2011 U.S. Open. As you can see below, at 5-6 in the third-set tiebreaker, a few seconds after double-faulting and seemingly handing the match away, Chardy dashed all the way across the court to track down a short Federer forehand, stuck out his racquet as the ball was about to bounce a second time, and slapped a flat cross-court forehand winner past Federer, who smiled in disbelief. The Frenchman went on to win, 1-6, 6-3, 7-6 (6)

Afterward, Federer said he had done “all I could do,” but that it wasn’t his day. Obviously, there had been a break in his preparation last week, and this afternoon the conditions were tough in Rome. Swirling wind, distressed clay, and an opponent who can slug the ball added up to a fairly unsurprising defeat for Federer.

If David Ferrer reaches the semifinals, he’ll pass Federer for the fourth seed at the French Open. But you still have to think goal for Federer remains Wimbledon.


Nadal Notes

As I was writing this, Rafael Nadal and Gilles Simon were tormenting each other for more than three hours in a late-night war of attrition on center court. Now that Nadal has won, 7-6 (1), 6-7 (4), 6-2, here are two observations:

(1) I think with this match we can officially say that Nadal’s opponents have more belief than they once did, even when they face him on clay. Simon is a quality player, and he did beat Rafa indoors six years ago, but he hung in longer than I expected when he fell behind today.

(2) One thing that Toni Nadal always stressed to his nephew is that when an opponent wins a set, the best chance you have to break him may come in his opening service game of the next set, when’s happy and relaxed. Nadal broke Simon to start the third set and stopped the Frenchman’s momentum cold.

We’ll see what this does for Rafa the rest of the week. He may feel it tomorrow, when he faces Mikhail Youzhny in the middle of the afternoon, but he passed a severe test against Simon.

Was Johnny Rotten Right?

In high school, I once played the great “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols for a friend. When it was over, and the singer, Johhny Rotten, was done singing “No future for you” a dozen straight times at the end, my friend took off his headphones and said he thought the song was “repetitive.” I’m not sure we ever spoke again.

Rotten’s less-than-encouraging words have come back to me while watching tennis this year. What if there really is no future? The Next Gen of men—Janowicz, Raonic, Tomic, Dimitrov—go up, come down, and never truly break through. Kei Nishikori is the latest youngish male to find himself on an upswing; sadly, my first reaction is to doubt that he can sustain it. 

This week it has felt the same way on the women’s side so far. Last year’s girls, Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, Monica Puig, and Eugenie Bouchard, are all out early, and only Bouchard has made much progress so far this season. Stephens’ 6-2, 6-2 opening-round loss to Varvara Lepchenko today dropped her record to 9-9 in 2014. Stephens' putative coach, Paul Annacone, was back in L.A. calling the matches in Rome for the Tennis Channel.

Yet there was still hope for this year’s girl, Belinda Bencic of Switzerland. The 17-year-old took a set from Flavia Pennetta and held up admirably in front of a partisan Italian crowd. For the moment, Bencic, who has worked with Martina Hingis’ mother, seems like she has the game and the mental makeup to go far. Let’s hope we’re still saying the same thing a year from now.


OOP Analysis

See Thursday’s full Order of Play here.

It will be all players on deck at the Foro Italico tomorrow—there are a lot of matches scheduled for a fairly small number of courts, and a lot of them should be good. Here’s a look ahead at a few of the highlights. It will be déjà vu all over again for more than a few players.

One-Handers' Special: Stan Wawrinka vs. Tommy Haas, first up on center court. These two have somehow avoided playing each other since 2006. That year Haas won their only match, in Doha, 7-5 in the third set.

Let’s Do It Again: Maria Sharapova vs. Ana Ivanovic. Sharapova came from a set and a break down to beat Ivanovic in the Stuttgart final two weeks ago.

Let’s Do It Again II: David Ferrer vs. Ernests Gulbis. Not much separated them in Madrid last week.

Let’s Do It Again III: Tomas Berdych vs. Grigor Dimitrov. In their match in Madrid, Berdych came from a set down to win.

Let’s Never Do That Again: Milos Raonic vs. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Most famously, Jo beat Milos 25-23 in the third set at the 2012 Olympics.

Francophiles in Rome: Li Na vs. Sam Stosur. The 2011 French champion vs. the 2010 French runner-up.

Guile Bowl: Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Francesca Schiavone. Aga has won their last five matches.

If Rafa is Ever Going to be Tired...: Nadal, who beat Gilles Simon in three hours and 18 minutes on Wednesday night, plays Mikhail Youzhny around 4:00 in the afternoon.


For Further Reading

The USTA, after getting a good deal on some land near Orlando, Fla., is building its own academy-style facility for player development. Over one hundred courts will go up on 63 acres.

In advance of Rio, the New York Times’s George Vecsey wrote a very nice remembrance of his first World Cup as a reporter, in Barcelona in 1982. It's an excerpt from his upcoming book, Eight World Cups.


On This Day

Eight years ago today in the Rome final, Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer in the second-best of their 33 matches, 6-7 (0), 7-6 (5), 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (5), in five hours and six minutes.

Afterward, Federer said, “I’m on the right track, a step closer with this guy.” He caught him at Wimbledon that year, but not before Rafa established himself as a major force for the future.

Source: On This Day in Tennis History, by Randy Walker

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