Well, there have been a few thrills and chills since we last spoke, no? Not many today, though, as Federer and Gonzalez brought everything back to earth by looking smoothly unbeatable. Let me run down the list of Madrid’s hot topics, starting from the top.
Roger Federer: The latest question about Fed seems to be, What is motivating the guy at this point? I’ve seen some speculation about how he’s both a nice guy and a serial killer, and that he wants to crush his old nemeses. I think it’s more a case of Fed having Michael Jordan syndrome: His identity is now tied up with being No. 1—with being THE Roger Federer—and that makes it necessary to keep proving it every time he’s out there. Jordan and Tiger Woods actually became more serious about success once they had already achieved everything; Federer is doing the same thing. Pete Sampras did the same thing, too, except he defined success as winning majors and only majors—it allowed him to relax a little the rest of the year. Tiger tried this attitude but it wasn’t enough for him. It’s also not proving to be enough for Fed.
But I will say that it’s probably not a coincidence that he often crushes guys like Nalbandian and Hewitt, who once had his number. I wonder what he’ll do to Nadal if he ever officially gets the upper hand? It could turn into an ugly rivalry.
Rafael Nadal-Tomas Berdych: This was fun, even though I’m no Berdych fan—he’s always seemed testy and cold (he makes Djoko look warm and fuzzy by comparison). From watching on TV, I didn’t get the sense that the Madrid fans were particularly awful, but I can’t be sure. I wasn’t appalled by Berdych’s gesture, either—it seemed like a natural, if not exactly intelligent, reaction to the moment from a cranky, competitive guy. Granted, it wasn’t a typical “tennis” move, but it made for good drama.
As for Nadal, does he go too far by fist-pumping on opponents’ errors? I’ve never thought he did it to get into guys’ heads. More than most players, Nadal looks like he’s in his own world out there, in a sort of trance and oblivious to his opponent (not unlike Monica Seles when she was young). He plays at his own pace and, when he’s warned about it, can’t seem to understand that he’s doing anything wrong. It’s part of his mental approach to act like he owns the court and the match, opponent be damned.
Friday Nadal went into a little frenzy of self-exhortation after Berdych missed an easy overhead. Not classy, not “tennis” in the gentlemanly sense, no doubt about it. But he had also just made a great get to force Berdych to hit that overhead, which was worth getting excited about. I think it’s double-edged with Nadal. If he starts to worry about what his opponents think and comes out of that little world he’s in, he’s not going to be the competitor he is today. But he also can’t be surprised when his antics anger, and even fire up, the other guy.
Should Nadal fans worry about this disappointing defeat? I would say yes, because when I watch his game, I don’t see a guy who’s decisively better than the other guys in the Top 10. Actually, his success has always been a little surprising to me, the product of will as much as talent, which is one reason I'm a fan of his. Nadal’s backhand is not a natural shot, and his serve and return are just OK, so he’ll always play close matches where he relies on his intensity to pull him through. Which means he’ll always be in danger of the upset to a guy who serves big and can pound it into his backhand side (unlike Federer, who has a much tougher serve and return).
I am surprised that it’s Berdych who has his number. Nadal is an expert at getting guys running side-to-side with his hook forehands, and that’s obviously the key to beating the Big Berd.
Gonzalez-Federer: I can’t even tell when Federer is playing well anymore. He shanked a few balls against Nalbo, but he also hit an absurb (“Oy!”) inside-out forehand return winner into the corner to break in the first set. And what is Gonzo doing differently under Stefanki, do you think? He’s using that slice backhand to take the air of the ball before he brings the heat with his forehand. But the main thing I see is that he’s simply hitting his forehand with total confidence. Perhaps, as with Murray-Gilbert and Roddick-Connors, Gonzo just gets a jolt of positive energy seeing a proven winner in his corner, and that’s enough to help him improve.
The final? Gonzalez has played a lot of close sets with Federer before and he’s timing the ball as well as I’ve ever seen him. Which, all in all, should be good enough to . . . get him a set. 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 6-1, Federer.
Music Department: I agree that "Blonde on Blonde" is just slightly overrated. It probably could have been one (outstanding) record, though I wouldn't want to lose "Sad-Eyed Lady." I usually throw on "John Wesley Harding" when it comes to Dylan, another album with some amazing, hard-to-categorize musicianship, only this time from a couple Nashville cats, rather than Van Morrison's jazzbos.
And I do realize there has been a decent album or two since 1968. I've got one on now, the new one by the Hold Steady. Punk meets Bruce (finally!). "We started recreational/It ended kinda medical." Indeed.
What say you, J.J.?