Archive for the ‘Nadal’ Tag

Soderling vs. Nadal – 2009 French Open

In case you missed the upset of a lifetime, here’s the match in its entirety.  Robin Soderling does the unthinkable and hands Rafael Nadal his first loss ever at Roland Garros.  Nadal had won the previous four titles there, a run involving 31 consecutive match wins.

From the 2006 quarterfinals onward, he lost only two sets.  Let me make that clear:  In 20 matches, he only twice allowed an opponent to win ONE set.  Therefore, the idea of one person taking THREE sets off Nadal in the same match seems all the more preposterous.   Not only did Soderling do this, but he did so without having to play a fifth set.  I think this pretty clearly illustrates the magnitude of his accomplishment.  Especially since Nadal manhandled Soderling on clay in Rome barely a month ago, with Nadal conceding only one game!

In a discussion on The Tennis Channel, John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova expectedly labeled the match one of the greatest upsets in tennis history.  But they also brought up a past-era analogy by pointing out Björn Borg, who with Nadal is considered arguably the greatest clay-court player of all-time.  Of the nine French Opens contested between 1973 to 1981, Borg won the title six times and lost only twice (he didn’t play in ’77).  But those two losses were to the same player:  Adriano Panatta, who defeated him in the 1973 round of 16 and the 1976 quarterfinals.  It’s an apt comparison, since Panatta and Soderling both beat men otherwise unbeatable on the Parisian terre battue.

Without further ado, here’s the full match of Soderling def. Nadal, 2009 French Open fourth round, 6-2, 6-7(2), 6-4, 7-6(2):

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Thoughts on the 2008 US Open

1.  Lucky Number 13

Federer is now only one major title away from tying Pete Sampras's record of 14 Grand Slams

Firstly, some gushing is in order…

Ridunculous.  Beautimous.  Outrageous.  Just plain awesome.

Those were some of the commonplace and/or nonsensical expressions going through my head while watching Roger Federer capture his 13th Grand Slam title.  He made Andy Murray look like Maximo Gonzalez (who Federer beat in the first round of the tournament).  Murray looked completely out of his league, amateurish even.  And not by any fault of his.  He was simply outplayed by an all-time great who, like any great athlete, showcased his best stuff at the biggest moment and on the biggest stage.

Murray tried to become the first man from the United Kingdom to win a Grand Slam since Fred Perry in 1936

Murray had a fantastic tournament, becoming only the third player from the UK to reach a Grand Slam final in the Open era (Greg Rusedski in 1997 and John Lloyd 1977).  Along the way, he thoroughly outclassed the No. 1 player in the world, Rafael Nadal, displaying a mature and multifaceted combination of power, precision, mental fortitude, consistency, and control.  You know you’re doing something right when you have Nadal huffing and puffing, which is what happened after the penultimate point of the match (during which Murray controlled the speed and direction of the ball beautifully, mercilessly bending Nadal’s court position to his whim).

Some might say Murray’s lack of rest time contributed to the lopsided score of the final.  Although there might be some truth to that, let’s give credit where it’s due.  Federer once again made the game look easy.  After a year dealing with the aftershocks of mono — during which the media expectedly and opportunisitcally played the “Is Federer over the hill?” angle — Federer came alive in a way we haven’t seen all year.

At times, I was reminded of his performance during the final set of his match against Agassi in the 2005 final.  The parallels are striking.  In the 2005 match, Agassi gave a tremendous effort in sending the penultimate set to a tie-break, where Federer cleaned up.  The mental letdown of losing the set got the better of Agassi (justifiably), and Federer unleashed a frightening torrent of winners to go up 5-0 in the fourth.  By that time, Agassi had won only five (yes, five!!) points in the entire set.  He avoided the bagel, but still lost 6-1.

In yesterday’s match, Murray got to 5-all in the second set before Federer elevated his game and broke Murray to win the set 7-5.  And similarly, the letdown for Murray was noticeable.  In the blink of an eye, Federer had a 5-0 lead in the third, and Murray had won only…three points in the set!

I also saw a parallel to the man whose legacy Federer is now chasing:  Pete Sampras.  Like Federer in ’08, the Sampras of ’96 was plagued by a lackluster year.  For Federer, it was mono; for Sampras, it was the loss of his coach Tim Gullickson to a brain tumor.  Like Federer, Sampras lost at Wimbledon for the first time in several years.  And like Federer, Sampras looked to the US Open to salvage a thusfar Slamless year.

It doesn’t end there.  How about both men coming close to defeat in five-set matches??

Okay, so the Federer-Andreev match wasn’t nearly as close as the Sampras-Corretja behemoth, which went to a fifth-set tie-break.  That was one of the most dramatic matches ever played, during which Sampras doubled over with exhaustion, vomitted on court, saved a match point, and then hit arguably the greatest shot of his career (it’s not often you can say that the greatest shot by one of the greatest tennis players ever was a second serve barely over 90 mph).  But both matches went five sets, and were thus important physical challenges that put each man on the precipice of a year without a Slam.  And both made it through and went on to win the tournament (and swing the media predictably back in their favor).

During the finals, Federer danced around the court, striking winners of considerable difficulty with a fluidity that took on an aesthetic dimension.  I don’t hide my favoritism for Federer, but watching him yesterday, I was reminded why.  He has the ability to turn a strenous physical skill of unquestionable complexity into a dazzling display of mellifluous and balletic virtuosity.  It’s why I go out on a tennis court and practice diligently, trying desperately to attain the blissful satisfaction that comes with turning the toils of hard labor into the exquisite reality of a techincally flawless, perfectly struck winner.

When you appreciate that kind of brilliance, you can get a little overzealous about it.  I’d be the first to admit that my admiration for Federer can at times take on an annoyingly evangelical tone.  But that’s what happens when you have anything akin to a religious experience.  You want to spread the gospel.  (Hmmm…need I point out the irony of my atheism here??)

As I said in a previous post, if you scoff at my comparing sports to religion, I point you towards this wonderful article by David Foster Wallace.

So Federer becomes the first player in history — male or female, Open era or otherwise — to win five straight titles at two different Grand Slams (Wimbledon 2003-07, US Open 2004-08).

Hopefully, he’ll be able to recapture the No. 1 ranking before the year is out (although it will be tough) and regain his form at the Australian Open in January.

*  *  *

2.  The Youngins

Donald Young

Donald Young

In particular, it was a good tournament for young players.  First the Americans:  Donald Young pushed James Blake to five sets in one of the first night matches in Arthur Ashe Stadium.  Though Young lost, he’s not yet 20, and the poise and maturity he showed in pushing a player almost 10 years his senior showed that he’s going to be a terrific player in the up and coming years.  His speed and his lefty spin will be great assets.

In the fourth round, Sam Querrey pushed Rafael Nadal to four sets.  Unfortunately, his inexperience and lack of confidence ensured that he didn’t get into the match quickly enough.  But he broke Nadal three times in the second set and once again in the third set.  Since the start of the French Open in May, Nadal has lost only one match, and he’s rarely dropped serve, so Querrey’s four breaks are quite an accomplishment.

Sam Querrey

Sam Querrey

I expected Querrey to give Nadal trouble, because he’s extremely tall (6’6″), which means Nadal’s high-kicking, mad-spin strokes aren’t as big a problem.  He’s also got a big ground game and can hit strokes flat, ideal against Nadal.  He’s just not yet consistent enough, but that will come with time.

And how about Ken Nishikori!  In one of the best matches of the tournament, the 18-year-old Japanese phenom beat the No. 5 player in the world, David Ferrer of Spain.  The upset seemed a foregone conclusion when Nishikori won the first two sets.  But experience helped Ferrer claw back to win the next two sets and force a fifth, at which point everyone (including me) thought the teenager would fold due to a combination of inexperience and exhaustion.

But surprise!  Nishikori broke Ferrer to go ahead in the fifth set and served for the match at 5-3.  As would be expected, though, nerves got the better of him, and he lost his serve to put the set back on even terms.  To make matters worse, Nishikori squandered a match point along the way.  Surely now, after another let down, Nishikori would fall apart.  But he held his serve to go up 6-5, and Ferrer was forced to serve to stay in the match.

Ken Nishikori

The 12th game went to deuce, and the two traded advantages before Nishikori finally earned himself another match point.  Ferrer stretched him out wide on the forehand side, but he got to the ball, threw up a perfect defensive lob which landed on baseline.  Ferrer replied with a weak forehand that dropped in the middle of the court, and Nishikori smacked a forehand to Ferrer’s backhand side.  As it landed in and bounced out of Ferrer’s reach, Nishikori fell to the ground in celebration.  Ferrer, meanwhile, tossed his racquet violently to the ground.

Nishikori’s win makes him the first Japanese male player to make the Round of 16 at the US Open.  He’s known as “Project 45” at the Bollettieri Tennis Academy where he trained, because the highest ranking ever for a Japanese player is 46 (Shuzo Matsuoka, who made the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in 1995).  If Nishikori continues this kind of play, he’ll be there very soon.  And he’s only 18, so he has plenty of time.

Unfortunately, he lost in straight sets in the next round to Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina, another teenager, who went on a ridiculous winning streak (winning four tournaments in a row going into the US Open before before losing to Andy Murray in the quarterfinals).

Juan Martin del Potro

Juan Martin del Potro

Yet another teenager, Marin Cilic of Croatia, gave an ominous performance and threatened a high seed.  In another of the tournament’s best matches, he won the first set off of No. 3 seed Novak Djokovic.  The similarities in the games of the two were eerie:  huge groundstrokes, incredible court-coverage, and massive serving.  There was one point where I actually mistook one for the other.  Ultimately, Djokovic’s experience, consistency, and superior fitness won out, but Cilic will continue to get better, and again, there’s plenty of time.

Marin Cilic

Marin Cilic