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Brilliant Li Na Ends Up Second-Best

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It wasn’t a masked ball at the Rod Laver Arena on Saturday yet the final moments led to some spontaneous unmasking. Kim Clijsters of Belgium told the fans in the stadium that they could finally call her Aussie Kim while Li Na was very cross with her own supporters claiming they were trying to coach her in Chinese what to do mid-point.

Li Na has been the story of the tournament and to her credit she has put a face to China and broadly some would say even to Asia. Her on court interviews have delighted people across the world and her tennis has won her many admirers. It was the first Grand Slam final for Li and also a first for the large continent and she rose to the occasion and came out firing in the first set. The experienced Clijsters was pushed back and she had no answers to the power and accuracy of the Chinese star.

It was something that even Clijsters acknowledged later. “She did everything better than me in that first set,” said Clijsters. “Her ground strokes were heavier, deeper, she served better and she returned better. She was playing really well, probably the best she has ever played against me.”

Clijsters was also playing well but Li was playing brilliantly and she took nine out of the first 14 games. However, that was where things started slipping away from her. Once her clear-sightedness was clouded by impatience, Li got flustered and struggled to get her composure back. She won just three out of the last 13 games as Clijsters tightened her game and saw her opponent make a host of unforced errors.

Earlier Clijsters needed some help from Li to get back into the contest and it was her experience and the relative inexperience of her opponent that turned the tide. “I tried to do things differently to break her rhythm a little bit and make her think a little bit more,” Clijsters said. “I mixed it up a little bit, put some slices in, also hit a few higher shots and it made her make some unforced errors. And then she got a little bit aggravated and I just tried to hang in there.”

This was backed up by Li’s claim: “If you haven’t got that experience, if you come across some problems, you can’t get out of them that easily. It’s not that there’s no way out, it’s because you don’t know how to find a way out.”

Afterwards, Li said: “I don’t know why after I got to the final I had so many Chinese coaches on the court. Of course they want me to win the match but they were trying to coach me how to play tennis.” Can the crowd be blamed for Li Na’s downfall? That can only be considered if the crowd can be credited with her winning the previous rounds and reaching the final. “Be a master of your petty annoyances and conserve your energies for the big, worthwhile things. It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out; it’s the grain of sand in your shoe.” The quote by poet Robert Service could well be said for Li Na.

The witty and graceful Chinese needed to keep her tunnel vision going and there was no reason for her to be paying more attention to the crowd than to her game. Clijsters had changed her approach mid-way in the second set when she started defending from the baseline and scooping some high balls for Li to hit from the back of the court. Li needed to be aware of what her opponent was trying to do and also aware of the fact that she was still in the ascendancy.

Sadly the couple of errors Clijsters drew upset Li’s rhythm and that is when she started getting bothered by the crowd. Clijsters used the occasion to get her rhythm going and squeezed out the second set. From there on it was Clijsters all the way. The final score read 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 in Clijsters favour.

Nevertheless, the experience would do a world of good for Li Na and if she finds herself in the same situation next time she may well be prepared to listen only to the rustling of the tennis ball. It would be wonderful if she treats everything else as just noise.

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Written by Deepan Joshi

January 30, 2011 at 6:46 pm

Nadal Explodes On Centre Court

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Rafael Nadal once again picked the final day of a big championship to turn in a regal performance. He was clinical in his 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 demolition of Czech Tomas Berdych.

Berdych had a great Wimbledon. He came to the final having accounted for the World No. two and three and asked if the pressure of playing in his first Grand Slam final had affected him, Berdych insisted: “Definitely not.” Nadal went into Sunday’s match as a strong favourite but he said: “If you are not nervous in the final of Wimbledon, you are not human.”

“I don’t expect anything before the match,” Nadal said. “I expect to play my best in every point and try to fight every point like the last, but I don’t think about if I’m going to have a difficult match or if I’m going to lose or win. I just try to go on court and fight every point.”

Before the final on Sunday Tomas Berdych said that he does not fear anyone after his giant-killing feats in the two previous matches. Nadal, though, said that Berdych is a dangerous player who is in-form and that it would be a very tough match.

And it was a very tough match if you were Tomas Berdych. He was up against a force that was unbending, unyielding and ferocious. It was a force that shredded the resistance of the big-serving Czech with ease. Nadal demonstrated on court what is meant by playing without fear.

Berdych had played some marvellous tennis to get to the finals but on the big day he just couldn’t find a way. “I think the biggest difference between us was that when he got a chance he took it, you know,” Berdych said. “That just shows how strong he is. I think it was really just about the small differences.”

The Spaniard, break point down on no fewer than four occasions, remained unbroken, but capitalised on four of the six break points he earned on the Berdych serve.

This is what Oliver Holt of the Mirror had to say after Nadal’s semi-final win against the home favourite Andy Murray: “The bloke that Andy Murray played on Centre Court yesterday wasn’t any ordinary tennis player.
It was Conan the Tennis Player. It was a barbarian who bludgeoned Murray into submission with brute force and murderous strength. It was a man whose displays of raw power made the genteel crowd titter nervously in their seats.

Sometimes it felt more like a fight than a tennis match. Murray knows boxing. He must have felt like Trevor Berbick on the wrong end of a Mike Tyson left hook.

He lost in straight sets but he did not play badly. It was just that he didn’t play well enough. He came close. Just not close enough. This was not an abject defeat. It was not a loss of nerve or an abrogation of responsibility. It was not listlessness or lack of effort that did for Murray. This was not England v Germany in Bloemfontein. It was not the kind of loss that shamed the loser.

It was just a bow to a better man, an illustration that Nadal has the heart of a champion and Murray still harbours the doubts of a challenger.”

Berdych had swept aside the challenge of Federer and Djokovic with ease but against Nadal he could not strike. He stayed with Nadal in the beginning of all three sets but towards their business end it was always Berdych who faltered and Nadal who raised his level. The inevitability of the result was as clear as it was when Berdych was demolishing his adversaries in the two matches prior to reaching the final.

The first set was 3-3 and it seemed that a keen contest was at hand before Nadal broke Berdych twice to win three straight games and take the set 6-3. Nadal may have been forced to raise his level had Berdych caused more damage with that fizzing, slapped forehand of his but the Spaniard didn’t give him many opportunities to unleash that marvelous stroke that caused the downfall of Federer and Djokovic.

In the opening set Berdych’s first serve percentage was a low 48 percent while Nadal got 60 percent of his first serves in. Nadal, though, won 92 percent of the points when he got them in compared to 67 percent for Berdych. Berdych had no break point opportunity in the first set while Nadal had four and he converted two.

The best chance for Berdych came in the opening game of the second set where Nadal made two double faults and Berdych had a small opening. The chance went begging and Nadal held his serve. Berdych got his first serve percentage up to 64 percent in the second set and had seven aces compared to one for Nadal.

Three break point opportunities came Berdych’s way but he could not convert any while Nadal got just one chance and he nailed it to take the set 7-5. In the final set Nadal and Berdych had one opportunity each and Nadal took his.

Yes, it was just about small differences like Berdych said, but they were small differences that came in really big moments. And Nadal showed that he was the one who had the heart to seize the big moments.

Written by Deepan Joshi

July 6, 2010 at 11:29 am

Roger Federer: A Magician Lost

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Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was this magician from Switzerland who came down to London and used his racquet as a wand every summer from the first Monday to the last Sunday of the Wimbledon fortnight.

Roger Federer was immune from whatever surprises the tennis world generated and made it a habit to be present on those two days from his first title in 2003 to 2009. In seven years he won six championships and his only loss in 2008 was hailed as the greatest tennis match of all time.

Over these years Federer produced some breathtaking tennis and orchestrated escapes that would have made a Houdini proud. This year, though, Federer looked like any mortal tennis player. There was no magic about him. He managed to escape the ignominy of losing in the first round when he came back from two sets down against unheralded Columbian Alejandro Falla.

The magic of Federer has been fading for a while now but his fourth round defeat at Centre Court to Czech Tomas Berdych signifies a new low for him. Berdych played an almost perfect match and had Federer on the defence for the better part of the match. Federer had his chances but he wasn’t allowed to take them. On more than an occasion he took the game from being 0-40 down on the Berdych serve to deuce but could not break.

Then there was an opening that Berdych provided by making two double faults in one game but Federer did not have what over the years has been known as his other gear and Berdych held on.

In the Australian Open in 2009 Federer had come back from being two sets down to Berdych in the fourth round. Federer had won eight in a row against Berdych before the match in Melbourne and Berdych had a solitary win going back to the Athens Olympics in 2004. Then Tomas Berdych found a way to win and this year in Miami he beat the Swiss 6-4, 6-7, 7-6 in the round of 16 after saving a match point on Federer’s serve in the third set tie-break.

Just like Falla earlier Berdych attacked the Federer backhand and went around his returns to hit scorching forehand winners. The main weapon of Federer, his forehand, repeatedly let him down as he missed returns that a few summers ago he may have hit with his eyes closed.

Kevin Mitchell of the Guardian wrote: “Only Roger Federer and Tiger Woods among great athletes of modern times have had the aura to survive slumps and still be regarded as dangerous until they are scraped off the canvas. That, sadly, is no longer true in either case.

As Federer leaves Wimbledon, his back, right leg and heart aching, he must wonder if he can continue to absorb as much punishment as he once did, to his spirit as well as a body unused to such failings.

He was a god reduced, a humbled champion, and he has not been so despondent after a defeat in a very long time. He struggled and failed to hide his inner torment.

He is still hungry. “I can’t wait for Paris and Wimbledon to come around next year,” he said, defiantly. But he is angry too—angry at himself for being mortal and angry at suggestions he is not as great as he has been for nearly a decade. But defeat sent him tumbling to third in the world, a position of relative ordinariness he has not experienced since 2003”

Federer’s problems began in 2008 when Rafael Nadal literally blasted him on the red clay of Paris and then snatched his Wimbledon crown. There was consolation though as Federer came back from two sets down to level the match and the fight in the fifth set went on till near darkness.

Order was restored when Federer won the US Open at the end of 2008. He then reached the final of the Australian Open in 2009 and lost for the third time in a final to Nadal in less than a year. The rest of the year was productive as Federer won his first French Open title and won his sixth Wimbledon crown.

He went past Pete Sampras at the All England Club where past legends were watching from the stands. He lost the US Open to Del Potro but 2009 was a very successful year for him as he reached all four Grand Slam finals and won two of them. Federer then silenced his critics by winning the Australian Open in 2010.

Then came what he and others called a lean period rather than a worrying stretch: no tournament wins in five months. Soderling crushed him in Paris and even Lleyton Hewitt beat him in Halle two weekends ago on grass.

Mitchell wrote in his blog piece: “This is really amazing for me,” Berdych said. It was just as amazing for everyone fortunate to witness one of sport’s most dramatic moments, and perhaps a tidemark in the career of not only the Czech but the legend he dismantled.

“I don’t think I played poorly,” Federer said. “He went after it.” But he did play—if not poorly—without his familiar excellence.

The Swiss is often perceived as so good he does not have to fight, which is wholly inaccurate. There is calm in his soul that disguises his determination. But injury has dented his body; we will discover in the months to come if the hurt goes deeper.”

The act of a magician has three parts: the first is a pledge, then comes the turn and the success of the trick relies on the third part called prestige. Roger Federer has done it before, having gone through the turn he has restored his magic by conjuring a prestige on many occasions.

This time it is a sharp turn and a prestige looks highly-unlikely. On his part, Federer can take consolation from the fact that all great magic is achieving the highly-improbable.

Written by Deepan Joshi

July 1, 2010 at 3:12 pm

No Dessert For Samantha Stosur

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Samantha Stosur forgot to save her best for the last. On the all important Saturday it was Italy’s Francesca Schiavone who stole the thunder and left very little for the Australian to work with. Stosur has been the star of Roland Garros this year with her taut and imposing physique and, more importantly, her steely nerves that served her so well in matches against higher-ranked and more-experienced opponents.

The New York Times reported: ‘Stosur, 26, had beaten Schiavone four of the previous five times they played, including in the first round of the 2009 French Open. Stosur was seeded 32nd and Schiavone was unseeded, demonstrating just how much their fortunes have changed in one year.

For most of two weeks, Stosur looked like the best player in the tournament. She plowed through the draw, beating four-time French Open champion Justine Henin, current No. 1 Serena Williams, and No. 4 Jelena Jankovic in the semifinal.’

“I kind of expected her to be aggressive because in the other times that we played recently she probably wasn’t (aggressive) enough and I totally dictated what had happened and I won them,” Stosur said.

“She went for it today and everything came off. It takes guts to do that and she did it. I don’t think I can really say I did anything wrong. It was just well done to her.”

It was the powerful serve of Stosur and her accurate and lethal forehand that made it possible for her to come out alive from the death draw that she had. She was a set down against Henin and saved a match point against Serena to emerge as the winner in two three-set battles. She so completely destroyed Jankovic in the semis that the former World No. 1 paid her a huge compliment by saying that ‘Stosur has the game of a man’. In any match of power against power, it was Stosur who came out victorious.

Schiavone, though, drowned her with guile and defense. The Italian was more enterprising and alive to the situation and being the underdog she got the crowd going for her. Stosur couldn’t respond as well to being the favourite as she had to being the unfancied.

In two big battles previously it was the third set that saw Stosur come out and dominate proceedings but the final proved to be like quicksand for her. The entry was quick and sudden and extrication became impossible. Stosur had her chances in the second set when she was up 4-1, but Schiavone displayed great variety to draw level. The Italian’s net play, in defiance of clay court logic, rewarded her and Stosur failed to take the battle to the third set where the Italian may have found it hard to hang in with the powerful Aussie.

The odds were stacked against the Italian as Stosur was the hot favourite; perhaps the best indicator of it was that Schiavone’s camp wore T-shirts saying ‘Nothing is Impossible’. The Italian showed that she believed in the leitmotif.

Greg Baum of The Age reported: “Stosur leaves a little hollow-hearted, perhaps, but not empty-handed. She has her biggest cheque, her highest ranking—No. 7—and the scalps of No. 1s Justine Henin, Serena Williams and Jelena Jankovic as souvenirs. Coach Dave Taylor dared to suggest before the final that she was playing as one of the top three players in the world. The memory will abide; Wimbledon is just a fortnight away.

From the beginning, Stosur did not play with abandon of her epic, successive victories over Henin, Williams and Jankovic. Schiavone was the aggressor, also tactically more astute, worrying away at Stosur’s more brittle backhand. Stosur’s own weapons—her forehand and her high, kicking serve—were blunted. They were evenly enough matched; there was no break point until they stood 4-4. Stosur conceded it with a double fault, and it was enough to forfeit the set.

Schiavone was the first winner of the French Open from outside the top 10 since 1933. Even by the standards of the French Open, which regularly throws up results as eccentric as the French themselves, this was a curio. Beforehand, the world did not know what to make of this one. The US media ignored it. The English, in one instance, sneered at it. ‘Is this the worst grand slam final ever?’ asked the Daily Telegraph.

From a British publication, still pining for Virginia Wade, this was snippy. These perhaps were journeywomen, who met last year in the first round of this tournament, but they came this year as reborn players, both defeating a string of eminent players. That is how tournaments are played. That is how major championships are won.”

The Telegraph came up with another gem which said that last year they were both playing in one of the side courts to reach the last 64 of the French Open with just some people who drift in and then go away for lunch as the audience.

“Today, Paris is being asked to care about Stosur and Schiavone, to make some emotional investment in the Australian and the Italian.

Stosur and Schiavone are to appear on Court Philippe Chatrier, in front of a crowd of 15,000, and in front of whatever television audience this match attracts, as they will be playing for the French Open title, for La Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.

“You have to wonder what Lenglen, the original tennis diva and celebrity, would make of this final. Since all the name players of the modern women’s game have been knocked out of the tournament, it is a couple of girls from the chorus line, Australia’s world No. 7 and Italy’s world No. 17, who are left. Only in Milan and on Australia’s Gold Coast, where they will be watching in the middle of the night, is this meeting of two Grand Slam final debutants guaranteed to make an impact.”

Sam Stosur was better known as a doubles player till about 2007 when she was diagnosed with Lyme disease and was out of action for 10 months. A lot of people involved with the game of Stosur have said that it was her fight with the disease that brought out her tough steely side to the fore. Regardless of the indifferent coverage by the British media, Samantha Stosur has got everything to be the next tennis superstar. She has already made a huge impact in Paris, in front of television audience around the world, and London should wait for her with bated breath.

On Friday night, the eve of the final, Stosur and Schiavone found themselves just a few metres away from each other as they dined with their coaches and friends at Ristorante Napoletano, a small Italian restaurant in the back streets of Paris that had become a favourite of both the players.

For about two hours, Stosur and Schiavone dined on Italian fare and chatted with their entourage, neither acknowledging the other’s presence. Stosur dined on calamari, tomato and mozzarella and pasta while Schiavone had spaghetti carbonara. Schiavone, who had a small tiramisu, was the only one to order some dessert.

Written by Deepan Joshi

June 6, 2010 at 8:16 pm

Nadal Has Bigger Accounts To Settle

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Just as Roger Federer has feet of clay when it comes to playing Rafael Nadal on the red clay of Paris similarly Nadal has some serious questions to answer on surfaces other than clay. I am only considering the Grand Slams for seeing relative performance as they to me signify the bigger and the more important battles.

Allow me to take the same reference point that I took in my previous piece, the past 19 Grand Slam titles. There isn’t any special reason to pick the last 19 apart from the fact that at random I prefer to pick an odd number. I tend to agree with Samuel Johnson: “Round numbers are always false.”

The golden period of Nadal is closer to the immediate end of the spectrum as three of his six Grand Slam titles have come in 2008 and 2009 and he also reached the semi-final of the US Open and the Australian Open for the first time in 2008 and then won the Australian in 2009 while again reaching the semis of the 2009 US Open. He also won the Gold medal at the Beijing Olympics and took over the number 1 rank for some months.

This proximity to the end of the spectrum gives an exaggerated view suggesting that Nadal has finally taken the mantle from Federer on all courts. Nothing could be far from the truth as Nadal’s best season has given him two Grand Slam titles and two semi-final berths. Roger Federer has won three Grand Slams in a year thrice and two in a year once. In his worst year he has reached three finals losing two to Nadal and winning one in New York.

Out of Nadal’s six titles, five have come by beating Federer in a Grand Slam final and one by eliminating him in a semi-final. Out of seven Grand Slam finals that they have played, Nadal does have an imposing record of 5-2. If I count from the 2008 French Open title, where Nadal totally-dominated Federer and gave him his worst Slam final defeat till date, then Nadal has won three out of eight Slam finals while Federer has won four out of eight Slam finals. Federer has made it to all eight finals in this period while Nadal has just reached the three that he has won.

Why has Nadal reached just 8 Grand Slam finals out of the last 19 while Federer has made it to 18? For Nadal it is: Four French Open finals, three Wimbledon finals and one Australian. For Federer it is: Five Wimbledon, five US Open, four French Open, and four Australian Open finals. The chances of Federer reaching a Grand Slam final are 95 per cent according to the data of the last 19 Slams while for Nadal it is 42 per cent.

If I take the French Open out of the equation then Federer has won 12 out of 15 matches—two of the three losses have come to Nadal. That is a win percentage of 80 per cent on three surfaces other than clay. If I take the French Open to see Nadal’s performance in the corresponding period then he has won three out of four finals and has a win percentage of 75 per cent on his best surface.

I repeat eighteen Grand Slam final appearances and one semi-final appearance for Roger Federer; a very simple proof of great consistency. Now the 19 previous Grand Slam tracker is quite complicated for Nadal as he has had one second round exit, one third round exit, two fourth round exits, two absence, three quarterfinals, three semi-finals, two finals and five slam victories. That adds up to nineteen.

Let us check their relative win percentage on different surfaces taking five previous appearances as the yardstick and a total of 20 as the grand number in disregard of my preference for even numbers. At the Australian Open Federer has reached the final 80 per cent of the times with a win percentage of 60. Nadal has reached the final once and won it hence his win percentage as well as the percentage of reaching the Melbourne final is 20 per cent.

At the French Nadal has won four times out of five appearances and his win as well as the final reaching percentage is 80 per cent. For Federer the win percentage at the Roland Garros is 20 while the final reaching percentage is 80. Federer may have won just one French Open final but he has reached the final on three more occasions and a semi-final in the fourth. Nadal has had one elimination in the fourth round.

At the Wimbledon Federer has a final reaching percentage of 100 and a win percentage of 80. Nadal at Wimbledon has a win percentage of 20 and a final reaching percentage of 60.

At the US Open Federer has a final reaching percentage of 100 and a win percentage of 80. Nadal has a zero for both win and final reaching percentage at the US Open.

Overall Federer has 12 wins out of 20 appearances and 18 finals out of 20—a win percentage of 60 on all surfaces and a final reaching percentage of 90 on all surfaces.

Nadal has a win percentage of 30 in this period with 6 wins out of 20 and his final reaching percentage is 40 with 8 finals out of 20.

In Nadal’s recent words those who consider him as a better player than Roger Federer do not understand tennis. Federer has some questions to answer especially his performance in finals against Nadal but that does not mean that Nadal is the all-conquering ogre with no issues to settle.

Written by Deepan Joshi

June 1, 2010 at 2:44 pm

Federer Still Has Accounts To Settle

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On his 19th birthday Rafael Nadal made a blistering entry to the tennis world by beating World Number 1 Roger Federer in the 2005 French Open semi-final. He then went on to win the title two days later on his maiden attempt. The next year in Paris Clay Nadal became the first man to beat Roger Federer in a Grand Slam final. The Man from Majorca made it three years in a row when he defeated Federer in the 2007 French Open title fight at the Roland Garros in Paris.

Federer won his first Grand Slam in 2003 by defeating Mark Philippoussis at the Wimbledon. Apart from all the money, which obviously wasn’t on show, the world got to see the new champion shed a few tears and then receive a beautiful cow, perhaps brought from his hometown in Basel, Switzerland.

Federer then leapt up to a different plane and 2004 saw him win three Grand Slam titles, the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open. The year 2005 didn’t start that well and he did not make it past the semi-finals in both the Australian Open as well as the French Open, losing on both occasions to eventual champions Marat Safin and Rafael Nadal respectively. He did make up by winning both the Wimbledon and the US Open.

The year 2006 again saw Federer win three Grand Slam titles but lose the one that had started to matter more by now. Federer tasted his first defeat in a Grand Slam final as Rafa outmuscled him from the baseline. It was the same story again in 2007 and Federer added three more Grand Slam titles while Rafa picked up his third silverware at Paris.

And by the end of 2007 Federer had 12 Grand Slam titles while Rafa had three clay court crowns. The next year was the Golden year for Rafa as he picked up his maiden Wimbledon crown after he had demolished Federer on Paris Clay earlier. In 2008 Rafa also won the Beijing Olympics Gold medal and dethroned Federer from his number 1 ranking. Federer bounced back from a nervous period to pick up four more Grand Slam titles, including a French, in the period till now.

Federer now has 16 Grand Slam titles and Nadal six, but he is yet to achieve what Nadal has already accomplished. Roger Federer needs to beat a fit Nadal on the surface that suits the style of Nadal. Out of Nadal’s six titles five have come by beating Federer in a Grand Slam final and one by eliminating him in a semi-final. Out of seven Grand Slam finals that they have played Nadal has an imposing record of 5 : 2.

Three of those five titles have come on clay and the other two that Nadal has won demonstrate how he has year-by-year improved and adapted his game to reach a higher level on grass and hardcourts. And if Nadal has raised his game it begs the question as to what path has the game of Federer taken?

Has his prowess declined, has his game remained stationary while the field has caught up with him, or is it that he too has improved on clay, where he won last year, and has been improving on grass and the hardcourts as well but his incremental improvement is slower to that of Nadal?

It is a tough question to answer because in this very period of the ascendance of Nadal it is Federer who actually takes the spotlight. At the Australian Open in 2008 Federer lost the semi-final to eventual champion Novak Djokovic and this loss ended a record run of 10 Grand Slam final appearances in a row for Roger Federer. Then he lost in the finals of the French Open and the Wimbledon to Nadal. He ended the year on a happy note by lifting the US Open trophy. In 2009 Federer made it to the finals of all Grand Slam tournaments and won the French and the Wimbledon. He lost the Australian Open to Nadal and the US Open to Juan Martin Del Potro.

The two finals he lost were both tight and Federer looked in control and on course to victory before he was surprised. At the Australian Open he surprised himself and others by showing that he too can be a victim of nerves. He played an abysmally-poor fifth set which the fighting but tiring Nadal gleefully accepted. In Flushing Meadows he was two sets to one up having lost the second in a tiebreaker and had surgically dissected Del Potro and seemed on course for an easy win. This time he was surprised by Del Potro, who got his rhythm going and seized the momentum from Federer and blasted away to his maiden Grand Slam title.

In the last 19 Grand Slams Roger Federer has been there on one end 18 times—the loss to Djokovic dividing his record run of 10 final appearances and his current continuing stretch of 8. In the last 19 Grand Slams Nadal has reached the finals on eight occasions and he has an impressive 6:2 win-loss ratio. Federer has won 12 out of 18 finals in the same period but importantly 5 of the six losses have been to Nadal. Rafael Nadal can boast of a better win-loss ratio but Federer gives himself a greater chance and that is the reason why in the same period Federer has won double the number of Grand Slam titles than Nadal.

You don’t, however, become a Federer by resting on laurels and he would be conscious of the fact that he still has to put the stamp of his authority on this rivalry. This rivalry is raw and alive and only time will tell whether the Spaniard inflicts more pain to Federer or whether the Swiss comes out as a Gladiator and fights for his life.

The Flight Of Federer

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A young correspondent, apparently in love with Rafael Nadal, once left me in a philosophical bind about the nature of all crafts, although she was just talking about tennis. When Nadal was locked in the battle for his life with fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco at the semi-final of the Australian Open last year; the girl and her friend were worried about the final as they reckoned, and probably rightly, that only Nadal could take out the Swiss. For that moment it was more to do with Federer losing the next match than Nadal winning the one hanging in balance.

A month or so later a corridor conversation cleared my doubt and left me speechless and I wondered about the nature of art, or, more specifically, the understanding of it. I was telling the girl ‘see how easy Federer makes it look’ to which she, thrilled by the observation, replied “that’s the whole point because it doesn’t even look like he is playing.” She was young and Rafa, of course, is a wonderful player, therefore, I didn’t want to disturb her equilibrium by my oozing admiration of the ease with which Federer operates. I should have told her; please don’t mind, Federer does make people mad. How else can you define what Nikolay Davydenko must be felling in the locker room after today’s match?

Davydenko began his flight in earnest and in top gear and you could see the speed of it like one sees the white streak that a supersonic jet leaves as its mark on a cloudless blue sky. Federer lost the first set 6-2 and was trailing a break at 3-1 in the second. And just like that from that position he won 13 games in a row and Davydenko did not know where to go or what to do. It was as much tennis as it was torture; made excruciatingly-painful by the whiff of the ‘disdainful and regal’ detachment with which Federer conducts himself on court more often than not. And he did it with such finesse today that you could only see the executioner; as the one being executed had been taken out of the equation. The scoreboard for Federer-Davydenko read: 2-6, 6-3, 6-0.

Davydenko then made his presence felt in the fourth set when he came back from 3-0 to three all. The fourth set swayed for a while and Federer blew the first chance to take the match on his serve. He then broke Davydenko again and this time there was no stopping him. Game over.

When Federer is in full flight he is less like a jet and more like a swift eagle; born to fly without leaving a mark in the sky. And he rules the court like some ancient monarch in full control of his territory. No doubt that Nadal handed Federer one tough year and the young Spaniard is one of the game’s best defenders from the baseline; who can additionally pounce and attack when given a loose ball. Nadal forces the opponent to play an extra winner and that is why his presence induces an error.

Unlike Nadal, whose physical game is unleashed in grunts; Federer operates in relative silence. That one year when Nadal won the French Open and the Wimbledon and followed it up with a win in Melbourne the next season was his golden period. And if you come closer and just see the last season then Federer reached the finals of all four Grand Slams and won two. There is no one in the circuit who could make it to even two finals. Nadal could make it to just one and he has already pulled out of the first one this season.
Do you have to be Einstein to see that the Swiss is a cut above the rest?

Written by Deepan Joshi

January 28, 2010 at 2:33 am

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