Saturday, November 18, 2006

Shanghai Semifinals: Straightforward

(1)Roger Federer d. (2)Rafael Nadal 6-4, 7-5

How will Federer approach this match? Will he stay back or come to the net and pressure Nadal?

The first game provides no clear answer since he serves three aces and holds to 15. His groundstrokes are venomous: he whacks a 103 mph forehand to win the first point on Nadal’s serve, forcing him into a double fault. Uncle Toni, sporting a lime-green get-up, is already mumbling to himself in the stands. Roger must’ve watched Blake’s match against Rafa because he’s on fire. But then again, we’ve seen this before: taking an early lead in a match against Nadal, only to fall away from full-blast in the next set. The Dubai final immediately springs to mind. Yes, I’m getting too far ahead of myself, but it’s worth noting. Nonetheless, Federer takes the first game on Nadal’s serve and casts a cutting glance over the net at his archrival. Federer leads 2 games to 0.

Serving at 0-3, Nadal finds himself down two more break points. Federer’s barrage of shots has broken Nadal out into a dripping, shirt-clinging sweat just 15 minutes into the match. Warrior Nadal fights off both break points and hits a screaming backhand passing shot up the line to get to game point. A forehand error and it’s back to deuce. Two forehand errors from Federer and Nadal gets on the board. Federer leads 3 games to 1.

The crowd is going wild: shouting, blowing horns between points, chanting “Roger!” and “Rafa!” and waving flags. A group of men wear the emblem of the Swiss flag on their painted faces, red all over with a white cross intersecting at the bridge of the nose. Mirka is subdued, befitted in black garb. Roger’s agent sits forward on the edge of his seat.

Meanwhile, Nadal is gradually finding his rhythm. Both knees wrapped once more in rubberband-like bandages and he’s scrambling about the court like a cat. His forehand has just fired its first few winners, and after an easy hold, he takes Federer to deuce. But Federer maintains, and finishes his game with an ace to forge ahead 5-2.

Nadal serves his first love service game and the ball is beginning to spray off Roger’s racquets on both wings. Haven’t we seen this before? Serving for the set, Roger misses a forehand and tossing in his second double fault. 0-30. A serve volley to the backhand and Roger misses a volley easy as it gets way beyond the baseline. He even made it look awkward. A netted forehand and Roger drops his serve. Roger leads 5-4. But just barely. Rafa yells “C’mon!!!” Usually Roger doesn’t collapse against Rafa until after he’s tucked away the first set. But not tonight.

Rafa begins to run Roger side-to-side. Roger’s shots have lost their sting. But thanks to a misguided dropshot and a backhand error from Rafa, he’s gifted two set points on Rafa’s serve. After a loooong rally (I lost count of the strokes), Rafa’s forehand clips the net, falls on his own side and Roger snatches the set 6-4. He clenches his fist, grits his teeth and sneers up to his box like I’ve never seen him sneer before.

Psychological warfare.

As always at the beginning of a set, the energy subsides and both players have to be careful not to allow any letdowns to affect play. For the first three games, they both succeded. But in the third game at 15-15, Rafa approached the net only to watch a lightning fast Federer race to his forehand side and hook a Bolo forehand up the line for a passing shot winner. Rafa erred on the next point and faced two break points. His heavy stopspin kicking up the court like a mule forced a forehand error from Roger to save the second. A backhand error gave Rafa game point and his slice serve out wide leveled the set at 2-2.

Roger faced a breakpoint of his own in the next game but a forehand that hit the corner saved it and Roger spat out a “C’mon!” of his own.

And then I dozed off. Tennis in China throws off my sleep patterns. But more than that, this match wasn’t as spectacular as I’d hoped it would be. I’ve seen better this week and certainly between these combatants.

When I awoke, Nadal was facing match point on his serve at 4-5. He saved it with a backhand error from Roger, but his own error gave Roger another. A forcing forehand approach to Roger’s backhand and a wild miss from Roger saved it. Rafa missed his first serve and Roger took control of the point. But an eager forehand beyond the baseline gave Rafa a game point. He wasted it with an eager backhand approach that was nowhere near the sideline. Deuce. Yet another Roger backhand error gave Rafa a game point. And another wild forehand error from Rafa wasted that. Deuce. Rafa missed yet another first serve and Federer gifted him the point with another forehand error into the net. Advantage, Nadal. A wild forehand from Roger and Rafa held. 5-5.

Psychological warfare.

Roger didn’t believe enough when it really mattered, as it had been in their four of their five meetings this year. Break points earned (or gifted); break points wasted. Huge skill; tremendous tension. Let Rafa hang around, you play with fire. And yet, Roger rebounded and held serve to love.

Players trade netted forehands to open the 12th game on Rafa’s serve. Rafa attempts another dropshot, but to no avail. 15-30. Missed serve. Rafa responds with a courageous forehand winner up the line. 30-30. Roger whacks a forehand into the Pacific Ocean. 40-30. A ferocious groundstroke rally ends in a Rafa forehand error, just beyond the baseline. Deuce. Missed serve. An extended rally, and a fearless and relentless Rafa prevails with a backhand winner down the line. Advantage, Nadal. And then the video on my computer screen buffers during a long rally (no, ESPN is not airing this match live in the United States, pathetic network that it remains), but the audio continues and Federer hit his first backhand winner of the match: up the line and from outside the doubles alley. Deuce. Rafa’s resolve cracks and he sends another forehand beyond the baseline. Matchpoint number three. Missed serve. Rafa breaks open a long rally and surprises Roger with a dropshot, but it wasn’t surprising enough. A determined Federer, racing like a skittish cat, reaches the ball just before it tails away, and whips a blazing forehand at a devastating angle crosscourt that whirs past a stretched-out Nadal and it’s all over. Roger shows more emotion than I’ve ever seen, crouching and pumping and pumping and crouching as though he’d just scored a touchdown. I suppose he had.

You think this victory meant something to him?

Is Rafa finally off his back? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Neither played consistently great tennis. Federer converted only 3 of 11 break points and committed 4 double-faults. Nadal showed flashes of his warrior self, but his confidence has been non-existent on the tennis court post-Wimbledon and he couldn’t find his best stuff when it mattered most today. But even though the tennis was spotty, the drama was off the charts. Tension thick as molasses seaped into every shot, every rally.

Pyschological warfare.

Match point was the best point of the match, and the best man won it.

Roger showed once again why and how he has been able to create his own heaven on today’s tour. And he’ll be rewarded with the opportunity to take back the Tennis Masters Cup World Championship title he surrendered last year on this very court.

Match Highlights

(8)James Blake d. (7)David Nalbandian 6-4, 6-1

How would Blake handle the prospect of advancing to the Masters Cup final on his debut? Would the occasion of his first big event semifinal off US soil cause him to tigthen? How would Nalbandian play with a heavy heart? Would he be able to put aside his pain once more and focus his best effort into his work?

Feeling each other out since they’d never played before, Blake and Nalbandian began the match tentatively. In the fourth game, it appeared as though Blake had figured out what to do and was ready to make a statement by breaking David’s serve with a trademark forehand up the line. But he couldn’t consolidate and let David right back into the set. Perhaps he James didn’t really know what to do. He exhibited little patience throughout the set, going for broke when way out of position. But that’s his game. Live by the sword; die by it.

Well, at the close of the first set, he lived by it. Receiving serve at 5-4, Blake pressured Nalbandian with punishing shots and jaw-dropping speed and athleticism. To earn his first set point, he hit a forehand so hard and at such an acute angle, it seemed as though he’d struck a passing shot while David stood on the baseline and watched the ball whiz by. After an extended rally, David carved under the ball and finessed a drop shot that James reached but couldn’t control to save set point. Two Blake errors, and David had game point. But David hit a weak backhand into the net to waste it. A surprising half-volley backhand passing shot gave Blake another set point. A forehand winning return sealed the set for Blake in 43 minutes.

An extraordinary rally closed out the first game of the second set. Nalbandian hit 5 would-be winners, but Blake chased them all down and sent them back with interest. Nabandian had enough. He ran through a backhand he tried to take right off the bounce, sliced it straight into the net, and threw his racquet high into the air like a juggler. He’d have to pull some major magic out his bag of tricks, because in the next game, he was broken at 15 when Blake’s dipping crosscourt backhand passing shot hit his shoelaces. But Nalbandian tried. A game of cat and mouse at the net also went in Blake’s favor as he chased down a drop shot, then a lob, a slice forehand deep and wide, another drop shot, and then finished off the game with a drop shot of his own.

It was the straw that broke the Argentine’s back. Dejected and deflated, he changed shirts on the changeover hoping that might change his luck.
The defending champion, who’s been called a bulldog because he competes so well, could not be counted out, although it was painfully apparent he didn’t have much say in the matter.

With a 3-0 second-set lead, it seemed that Blake could only lose this match if he lost it. With more rapid-fire returns, Nalbandian found himself facing two break points to fall behind 0-4. But a good approach saved one and a Blake backhand error brought the game level at deuce. On the next point when Blake ran around a backhand and fired another forehand winner up the line that Nalbandian could only watch with resignation. A missed first serve allowed Blake to take control of the point and he forced David into a backhand error. 4-0, Blake. The bulldog was being bullied.

The fat lady cleared her throat.

But was she preparing to sing? Blake raced out to a 40-0 lead, but then watched two shots fly by, the third and fourth winners of the set for Nalbandian. Three Blake errors later and David was finally on the scoreboard.

Had Hurricane Blake blown over? Andre Agassi often said that you just had to wait until Blake fizzled and the match could be yours. But in a best-of-three encounter, it didn’t seem likely. Blake regrouped and earned three consecutive break points behind two winners and a Nalbandian error. He wasted the first with a backhand return that sailed wide, Nalbandian saved the second with a vicious backhand winner of his own, but James took the third when David’s forehand just missed. 5-1, Blake.

Could he serve out the biggest match of his career to date?

David certainly hoped not. A missed dropshot put Blake down 0-15 and he chastised himself aloud for that braincramp. But two more winners brought him to 30-15. A double-fault leveled the game, and a Nalbandian volley winner earned him a break point. Blake saved it with a surprise serve and volley smash. Two points later, Blake raised his arms in victory, looking skyward as though he could sense his father there cheering. His brother and mother and long-time coach rose to their feet and applauded jubilantly from the stands. James walked to the net to shake the hand of a shell-shocked and disconsolate opponent.

The fat lady’s siren song modulated a step higher.

A great match? Not really. In fact, it couldn’t be called a match at all quite frankly. A mismatch would be more appropriate.

“A magnificent display of free-flowing tennis from Blake who never wavered in his resolve,” beamed John Barrett. “Nalbandian played the walk-on part in a tour-de-force performance.” Tour de force indeed. Blake smacked 32 winners, 9 off the return of serve alone, in one of the finest displays of baseline power tennis in recent memory.

And now he’ll have the opportunity to take on the world’s best for the fourth time this year. No, we won’t get to see a rematch of last year’s championship match as many had predicted (hoped for) once the semifinalists were determined. Instead, this late-blooming new man on the block will show us whether or not he is finally able to win a big title and legitimize beyond the shadow of any doubt his place at the top of the game.


sasha said...

What a recap! I don't get much coverage in Alaska but I stumbled upon your blog and I enjoy the way you bring the matches to life. Keep up the good work!