Wednesday, March 28, 2007

On Guillermo Cañas & Roger Federer

by Craig Hickman

I think Roger was match sharp enough to win this. He just really played a bad match, period. He displayed a clinic in the second set, and almost ran away with it in the early 3rd set, then just suddenly tuned out. No excuses. He played bad from game 4 onwards in the 3rd.

Cañas is a regular guy on the draw he faces week-in, week-out. Nothing special. The guy's only redeeming feature is he ran down everything Fed threw at him. In Indian Wells, he played a great match against Roger and then almost meekly submitted to Carlos Moya (6-3, 6-4).

The tour's motto these days is - even if I don't win anything this year at least I can say that, of Roger's only 3-4 losses this year I gave him one. (In his case, 2.)

Posted by edma1022, ESPN message board

edma, it's been a mighty long time. Good to see you.

Why did Roger "tune out" and "play bad" from game 4 onwards in the 3rd? Precisely because Cañas "ran down everything Federer threw at him" and sent much of it back with interest. Which wasn't all Cañas did, by the way. He served well when he needed to (including on match point), and went for his shots when the stakes were raised. Fending off those break points to fall behind two breaks in the third was crucial. I would argue that was Federer's penultimate undoing.

Add to that, Federer got tired. Having to change his game and attack the net in the second set and hit the ball harder than he did in the first tired him out. (Federer was actually bashing the ball in the second set which took time away from Cañas, disallowing him from running everything down.) Which is why Roger only comes forward when he has to or when he doesn't fear his opponent's passing shots. He rarely attacks the net on his own terms against Lleyton Hewitt because Hewitt is, in Federer's own words, "a passing shot artist." I've also noticed that against players such as Robin Soderling, who whack the ball at will, Federer plays first-strike tennis as well, hitting bigger returns and groundstrokes than usual.

But back to Cañas.

Cañas showed some artistry of his own in the passing shot department. Those well-struck topspin lobs that Federer couldn't handle were executed to perfection. That defensive lob Federer flubbed at 4-5 in the breaker which gave Cañas two match points had everything to do with Cañas, whom Federer could clearly see out of the corner of his eye, running for his life into the open court. That's why Roger didn't let the ball bounce, that's why Roger tried to angle the shot too short in the court, that's why the ball found the net.

Cañas is mentally tough. His head is his biggest weapon, to go along with his fight, his sneaky fast serve, his deceptive forehand, and his wheels. Twice, in two events, in less than two weeks, Cañas won the mental battle against the best player in the world. It certainly helped that Cañas believed he had the game to defeat Roger before each match that he played, even though he lost to him badly the last time they played, even though he's just returned to competitive play on the ATP after a controversial and rather unfair (as far as I'm concerned) suspension.

Cañas is, indeed, something special. So special, in fact, that he's on a very short list of players that have been able to dismiss Roger Federer in back-to-back events since he turned pro and only one of two who have done it since Roger ascended to No. 1.

I think it's a discredit to the sport, to Cañas, and to Roger himself to suggest that Roger lost simply because he "played bad" without giving credit to a player who had a whole lot to say about making Roger play that way.

But Roger hit a whopping 58 winners against 51 unforced (he dictated play, and you can't hit 58 winners against any opponent if you're not playing well) and won more total points than Canas. I say Roger played very well.

But Canas, who also played well, just played the biggest points better.

You insist Federer played worse "than usual." I say he played only slightly worse than he's usually allowed to play. No more; no less.

And this time, like last, he faced the (same) opponent who didn't let him get away with it.

Which is exactly why he stated before his round-of-16 opponent was decided that he would prefer to play Richard Gasquet.

Nuff said.


Dan Scarlett said...

Craig, your analysis is superbly lucid. I also aggree with you on the Canas suspension. As for those of you who insist that Roger is "always a gentleman", I think it was way below the belt to offer the opinion, after his IW loss, that "Every player who takes drugs always said he didnt do it"....clearly implying that if he DID do it, then maybe he only beat me because he is still taking them. Crummy Sportsman of the Year Award.

topspin me said...

great analysis. there really must be something special about canas' recent games. hewitt and roddick can try to chase down as many balls but couldn't win against federer.

dan, i dunno about Roger's crummy remark, but maybe you're overanalyzing his statement. anyway, I still admire Roger...I've read some interviews and he clearly isn't making any excuses about his loss to canas; i know other top players would. he does come across as boastful sometimes, though.

Craig Hickman said...

Thank you, gentlemen.

Given Serena's beatdowns and Roddick's retirement, I've now watched most of this encounter at least three times, and it wasn't until after the last time I watched it that I put together this response.

By the third viewing, I'm pretty certain this will go down as one of the best matches of the year. Both players played exquisite tennis and when that happened simultaneously, Canas played a bit better.

Quite frankly, if not for Canas physical lull in the second set, this match might not have even gone to a third. But in typical claycourt fashion, once he fell behind, Canas saved his energy for the decisive set.

Whether or not Canas advances beyond the quarterfinals is beside the point. Clearly, right now anyway, Roger brings out Willy's best tennis and it just happens to be better than Roger's.

Savannah said...

"But in typical claycourt fashion, once he fell behind, Canas saved his energy for the decisive set."

This is it in a nutshell. Strategy. Mental fitness. And yes, stamina.

I can't add anything to what you and Edma have said Craig. Nice to see Edma is still around BTW. There are already posts flying around that a Canas win would be an ATP nightmare.
Could you review the exact circumstances of Willy's suspension since some want us to think he came on the court looking like an NFL linebacker, foaming at the mouth and pawing at the ground. That was not the case.
Of course my interest in this event has waned after last night but in true tennishead style I will be watching.

edma1022 said...

This is what I posted on ESPN today:

Craig, mighty long time. Great to read you again in this space.

I agree with all your points. I am not taking away anything from Canas. Indeed, his gritty play, delivery of important points at the clutches was the key to the match. What I'm saying is Roger played bad. I saw the match and I know what I saw. He played a clinic most of Set 2, then sprayed horribly Set 3 from 4th to 10th game. It is not wrong to say Canas played great and Roger played bad on the same sentence. The score tells the story. We cannot say all those 80+ opponents Roger played for most of the 2004-2006 season did not play as good as Canas today (or Rafa last year). Roger does not need an off day to lose but it's certainly a window of opportunity for most of the ATP men.

Craig Hickman said...

Nice to see you here, too, Ed.

I don't think Federer played badly at all. Quite the contrary. I saw what I saw as well and his stats tell part of the story about just how well he actually played.

So on that, we will agree to disagree.

Let's put it another way: Federer has won Slams (the 2005 Oz Open springs immediately to mind) with a level of play below what he exhibited against Canas. But in Melbourne that year, Haas, Davydenko and Baghdatis, all of whom had their chances, didn't have the guts to take them.

Savannah, Canas was suspended for ingesting a banned diuretic/masking agent which was given to him by an ATP trainer. His two-year suspension was reduced to 15 months and he was treated like a leper, disallowed from even entering a USTA facility to watch his girlfriend at the time play a match at the US Open.

Greg Rusedski had a similar problem and was treated much more favorably.

That's all I have to say about that.