First Ball In, 5/16: Roman Banquet
Was it me who was wondering the other day whether there really was no future for tennis? Judging by today’s results on the ATP side, where Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic advanced to the semifinals, I may have jumped the gun when it comes to the men. Meanwhile, on the WTA side, the surprises kept coming in Rome. And the night ended with a classic.
We know about Fedal, Rafole, and Djokerer; but did you forget about that other great Big 4 rivalry, Murdal? Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray hadn’t faced each other since October 2011; in that time, they had won five of the nine Grand Slams played. Tennis fans were more than ready for this one. Somehow, Rafa and Andy lived up to, and in the third set even exceeded, our expectations. At their best, these two play chess on wheels.
At first, though, it looked like Nadal, tentative and gloomy, had been stranded at the checkers table. Murray won the first five games, and nearly handed him an extremely rare bagel on clay. During that stretch, Murray was as good as Rafa was bad. Rather than use the trendy, drill-the-ball-into-Rafa’s-forehand strategy, Murray worked the points against him the old fashioned way: He forced the rallies to go crosscourt, from his forehand to Nadal’s backhand, rolling balls high to Rafa’s two-hander and punishing the short responses with his backhand. Murray controlled everything, ran down everything else, and held Nadal to two winners for the set.
In the way the match unfolded, this one reminded me of many of the epics that Nadal played against Novak Djokovic from 2007 to 2009. Like Djokovic in those matches, Murray used superior court position to dominate early; with nothing to lose in the first set, he played freely, and almost perfectly. Then Andy suffered the same pair of Rafa-based problems that once plagued Novak: (1) Now that he had something to lose, Murray stopped hitting quite so perfectly; and (2) Nadal got his teeth into the match and wouldn’t let go.
This time the change came, as it often does for Rafa, in the first two games of the second set. He saved a break point with an ace in the opener, and then, after manufacturing some “Vamos!”-heavy positive energy, he broke with a big inside-out forehand, one of his first pieces of aggressive tennis of the evening. I had a feeling Murray could be in trouble when he grabbed his first body part—this time his knee—in the middle of that game. Doubt had arrived in his body; how long would it take to travel to his mind? Not long. Nadal, pushing forward and turning the tables completely, hit 15 winners, went 12 for 12 at the net, and won the set 6-3. When he broke again to start the third and went up 40-15 on his serve, it looked like the tables weren’t going to turn back again.
At 1-0, 40-15, Nadal came forward and bunted a backhand passing shot low and cross-court; it fooled Murray, and appeared to have skidded past him. But it hadn't. Murray reached behind him and flicked the ball over Nadal’s head for a game-saving winner. Now it was Murray who was off to the races. A series of big forehands earned him the break, and some even bigger full-cut forehand returns earned him another break for 4-2.
Yet while he had the lead, it wasn’t just Murray who had elevated his game. Nadal had upped his as well. The two men spent the rest of the third set trading roundhouse punches and running each into the corners. But it was Nadal, with the naturally heavier ground strokes, who eventually gained the upper hand. Down 2-4, he hit an unreturnable forehand pass off a Murray overhead to break, and proceeded to fist-pump and shuffle across the clay like it was 2005.
The quality stayed high down the stretch, but now the rallies belonged to Nadal. Tomahawking his forehand and reflexing his backhand, he won 12 of the last 13 points to close it out 1-6, 6-3, 7-5 in two hours and 40 entertaining minutes.
We’ve been waiting for both of these guys to find their way this spring. They found it against each tonight and reminded us one more time, just in case we had forgotten, what Big 4 tennis is all about.
Don’t Wait Another Day
Recently, my mantra after each Ana Ivanovic win has been, “wait one more day and see how she does then.” This week, good things came to those who waited, as Ivanovic followed up her victory over Maria Sharapova yesterday with what may have been an even more impressive win today over Carla Suarez Navarro, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4. Both women were on their games, and the battle of one-handed and two-handed backhands provided an appealing mix of angles and spins. As she did yesterday, Ana gave herself a chance to choke, and then didn’t. Serving out the match at 5-4, her last toss was a little wayward, but she reached out and drilled it down the T.
Next up will be Serena Williams. I won’t say we should wait another day for that result. Whatever happens against Serena, Ivanovic has put herself back in the French Open conversation.
A Little Beastly
David Ferrer is a soft-spoken, almost overly humble guy off the court, and for the most part he’s no-nonsense competitor on it. But when the Little Beast gets mad, he has a hard time keeping himself under control. He’s hit a ball in the direction of a crying baby in Miami, shoved a line judge out of his way to get his towel in Melbourne, and has been known to utter a choice Spanish word or three when things aren’t going his way. Today against Novak Djokovic, Ferrer thought that his serve at set point in the first set had been a net-cord. When he lost the point, and chair umpire Mohamed El Jennati told him he hadn’t heard his serve touch the net, Ferrer responded, “You didn’t hear? You’re a liar.”
Ferrer’s behavior can be bad, and some of his offenses are fine-able. But he’s also a guy who needs to push his physical and mental limits to win. Today his outburst at El Jennati worked in his favor in the second set. After going down 0-40 in his first service game, Ferrer channeled his rage and played better from there.
The two-and-a-half hour match between Ferru and Djokovic was not for everyone. This was 10-, 20-, 30-ball rally stuff between two players who love to run and defend. Like any contest between counterpunchers, it lacked cause and effect. Its appeal was its rawness—the loser would be be the one who gave in psychologically. In the end, that was Ferrer. Djokovic’s 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 win may have been tough on his body, but you have to think the gritty way he went about it will only help his mind as he moves farther down the (dirt) road.
See Saturday’s Order of Play here.
Italian in Name vs. Italian in Spirit: Sara Errani vs. Jelena Jankovic. Their head to head stands at 1-1.
Little Brother Syndrome: Novak Djokovic vs. Milos Raonic. Nole won their only meeting, in straight sets, on clay in Davis Cup last year.
Big Payback: Serena Williams vs. Ana Ivanovic. Ana knocked Serena out of the Australian Open. That’s not good news for Ana. Neither is Serena’s form—she’s lost 11 games in three matches.
A Second Feast: Rafael Nadal vs. Grigor Dimitrov. Is there another banquet of tennis in store for us? Nadal is 4-0 versus Dimitrov, but the Bulgarian has always held his own against him. Will this be his chance to do more than that, or will Rafa’s win over Murray finally send him into top gear? I’m looking forward to finding out.
Enjoy the rest of Rome; we’ll talk about it on Monday.