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tennis

lukas rosol

The passage way between the umpire’s chair and the net is barely wide enough to let one person through. Rafael Nadal usually lets his opponent go first at the changeover. This time however, he appeared to bump into his opponent, Lukas Rosol, who stood there for a couple of seconds, walked over to his chair and sat down with a wry smile directed towards his box. That’s the moment he knew that “Nadal is only human.”

The 100th ranked Lukas Rosol had managed to do something that very few players on the ATP tour have rarely ever done. Rafa – a 11 time Grand Slam champion, a former champion here and recently crowned for the seventh time at Roland Garros – looked lost, slow, confused, rattled, frustrated and annoyed all at the same time.

It wasn’t just Rosol’s big game – a huge serve, groundstrokes that looked like they exploded out of a bazooka – that was getting to Rafa, but his attitude on the court, his belief, and most of all the complete disdain for everything Rafa had accomplished on the tennis court.
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What a difference a year makes! Exactly twelve months ago, Rafael Nadal had put an exclamation point on one of the greatest seasons that the tennis world had seen by winning the 2010 US Open. Not only had he completed a career grand slam, he now held three of the four majors in the same calendar year, a feat accomplished by a select few. If that weren’t enough, he had managed to finally chase down the inimitable Roger Federer, dethroned him from the sport’s pinnacle, established himself firmly as the numero uno, all set to rule for a while.

Or so it seemed, until 2011 happened! Rafa’s amazing year would pale in comparison to the year that Novak Djokovic has had so far. Not only has Novak managed to win three of the four majors himself, and usurped the number one ranking, he’s won all except two of his matches all year, and in the process, has decimated the entire field, including two of the greatest players the sport has ever seen in Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

As much as it highlights the phenomenal year that Djokovic has had, it also throws into sharp focus, the greatness of Roger Federer. Wait, what? Didn’t I just say that Roger got decimated by Novak too? Yes, I did, but let me explain!
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In this week’s Tennis Mailbag, Michael from NZ asks Jon Wertheim…

Why can’t Fedofiles and Rafaelites stop fighting over who’s the best? Sit back and enjoy the fact that, combined, they’re the greatest phenomenon in tennis history (21 of the past 23 and 25 of the past 30 Grant Slams)! They could potentially end their careers as the equal GOATs — and we as fans should love them both for it! Look at the video of the two promoting their Credit Suisse exhibition — they’re clearly great mates and so we should stop creating a “hated rivalry” when it doesn’t even exist!! I’m all RF, always have been, but RN has my 100% respect. Let’s just enjoy the history, don’t you think?

…and Jon responds with this…

One of the truly special components of the Federer-Nadal rivalry is the genuine affection that passes between the two. The Credit Suisse video is just one example of many. When “Fedofiles” (KADs as Pete Bodo calls them) skewer Nadal and “Rafaelites” are pronouncing Federer dead, it’s wildly at odds with spirit of the rivalry. I get rooting for one over the other. But when the two principals are so fond of each other, isn’t it hard to generate deep hatred for the other guy?

I would like to believe that most, if not all of the fans are accepting of the fact that these two guys are great in their own ways. As rabid a fan as I am of Roger Federer, I like Nadal for his competitive nature, his ability to learn fast, and of course, his humility. In one of my earlier posts, I had written this…

As fierce as these two rivals are on court, what impresses most people is the friendship they have between them. They are truly respectful of each other off the court, and genuinely happy about the others’ success. Can you imagine McEnroe & Connors being that way? How about McEnroe & Lendl? Together, Roger & Rafa have not just raised the bar for tennis, but also for sportsmanship.

Federer And Nadal aka Fedal

Having said all this however, there is a reason why we root for one over the other. It’s not that one is less likeable than the other. As equally likeable as Roger and Rafa are, they are poles apart when it comes to almost everything else – playing styles, demeanor on court, strategies – that makes up this rivalry.

When you have two polar opposites like Roger and Rafa, despite them being great friends and all, there is bound to be a lot of friction, between the fans of the two players. There is a fine line between being a rabid fan of one player and being a vociferous hater of the other guy, and of course, there are people who cross that line.

Add journalists and self-proclaimed tennis experts, who drop unjustified and irresponsible comments that appear to put one down to elevate the other, all hell’s going to break loose. What else do you expect?

Jon Wertheim, IMO is one of the very few journalists/tennis experts who is unbiased – as you can see from his response to the question. Sadly, I can’t say the same about some of the other analysts/experts.

Take Brad Gilbert’s tweet for instance right after Rafa won the 2010 US Open to complete a career slam…

There’s your GOAT – the best year I’ve seen in my lifetime

Best in your lifetime Brad? Really? As expected, one of the Federer fans wanted to know how he justified that…

“hmmm how can u b GOAT if someone won 7 more slams than u?”

Gilbert’s reply?

“Because Rafa has absolutely owned you

So, the fact that Roger has won 16 slams while dominating the tour during his peak years 2004-2007 amounts to nothing? Brad continues on…

“Healthy mindset, great water cooler talk, I just feel like Rafa’s accomplished more & the fact that he’s owned Fed H2H=big stat

Rafa has accomplished more than Roger? Really Brad? Ummm, 16 slams, 5 straight titles at both Wimbledon and the US Open, just to name a couple, says otherwise. If you’ve watched ESPN, you’d know that Brad clearly knows his history and records, so he can’t feign ignorance about Federer’s accomplishments. So, to make a ridiculous statement that Rafa has accomplished more than Roger simply smacks of hate. It wasn’t just me. Most of the tennis twitterverse disagreed with Brad as well. Here’s one of the tweeps…

“If you really think 9 > 16, you’re entitled to your opinion. Don’t expect the Tennis Twitterverse to agree with you”

Probably realizing that he had set in motion events that riled up the Federer fan base, he wrote this, but refused to back down on the H2H…

“Fed Heads relax-he’s an awesome player:the semi final record is off the charts, 16 majors is incredible but 2-5 against Rafa in major finals

I’m Pro-Roger rather than Anti-Rafa, so, expect me to be more civilized than the haters, but don’t expect me to put up with anything and everything that passes for analysis. Obviously, Brad has some unresolved issues with Federer, probably stemming from him being outcoached by Roger at the 2006 Wimbledon finals? Or, perhaps Roger couldn’t find space on his book shelf for Gilbert’s book “Winning Ugly?”

The whole head-to-head thing that Brad and a few others are obsessed with, is never going to die down unless Roger can somehow fix that. Let’s face it, given that Roger is past his peak, and Rafa is at the top of his, it’s more than likely that’s never going to happen.

Does having a poor H2H against his rival somehow belittle Roger’s incredible achievements? Is it Roger’s fault that he showed up at all those finals of Roland Garros from ‘05 until ‘08? Is it Roger’s fault that Rafa never showed up at most of the other slam finals during Roger’s peak years from ‘04 to ‘07? Brad Gilbert seems to think so.

I could go on in much more detail as to why the H2H is as irrelevant as Brad Gilbert’s tennis career, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll stay classy(!) and point you to some excellent thoughts and analysis from TopSpin’s post about the topic…

“So that 5-2 H2H? Completely misleading – Rafa has never reached as many hard court Slam finals as Fed reached RG finals – if he did the score might have been very different. That’s just fact”

The New England Patriots in 2007 had the most successful season in NFL history at 18-1. Yet, it meant Jack S**t! Why? Because they failed to win the one game that mattered – the Super Bowl. So, as heady as their 18-1 record was, history will show that the NY Giants are Super Bowl 2007 champions, and nobody will care that the Patriots won 18 games, although that number might live on in infamy. The Super Bowl is the yardstick to measure how successful an NFL team is.

It’s no different in tennis either. There has been a yardstick established and, just like in golf, the measure of greatness is the number of total slams won. That’s exactly why we anointed Sampras the GOAT in 2000, and that’s exactly why Federer is the GOAT NOW! I don’t give a rodent’s backside that Andre Agassi or Brad Gilbert decided to change the yardstick for their own convenience.

Don’t get me wrong. I will accept Rafa as a contender for GOATdom (as will most Federer fans who are not Nadal haters), but I will not consider him GOAT just yet. Not until he has won more slams than the the guy who has the most right now…. Roger! Why? Simply because that is the standard by which tennis GOATs are measured.

Going back to the question posed by Michael…

“so we should stop creating a “hated rivalry” when it doesn’t even exist!!”

I couldn’t agree more, but that responsibility lies not just with the fans, but more so with the journalists, analysts & experts as well.

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It was the year 2000, and the great Pete Sampras, in winning his 7th Wimbledon and his 13th overall, had surpassed Roy Emerson’s long standing record of most ever Slams won by a male tennis player. At the US Open that year, Pete was looking for his fifth title at Flushing Meadows and his 14th overall.

Youth Is Served

As I watched the US Open coverage on TV that year, I vividly remember a quarter final match, between two scrawny 19 year olds, billed as the future of men’s tennis. One of them was a talented Spaniard – no, not that one – Juan Carlos Ferrero seeded #12, and the other was a kid from Switzerland, wearing a headband, a pony tail, and a goofy smile, who went by the name of Roger Federer.

True to its billing, these guys were playing some fantastic tennis, but what struck me most was the style of the Swiss kid. Unlike his opponent who seemed to be playing tennis the usual way – hitting the ball big from the baseline, this kid seemed to simply glide around the court, hitting his serve and ground strokes with barely any effort, making the game of tennis look deceptively, yet beautifully simple. “Boy, this kid is something else. He’s going to be in the top 10 soon”, I thought to myself. His game plan and his strategy on the other hand, was as terrible as his game was brilliant, and not surprisingly, he lost to his much “steadier” rival in four sets.

Sampras, despite poor results since his Wimbledon victory had made it to yet another US Open final. In his way stood Marat Safin, a tall lanky 20 year old from Moscow who, from what I’d seen and heard, was one of the most gifted players of his generations, alongside Lleyton Hewitt, Juan Carlos Ferrero & the afore mentioned Roger Federer. As gifted as he was, surely, he stood no chance against the most clutch player in a grand slam. Boy, was I wrong? What transpired over the next hour and a half left me, and everyone around me shell shocked. We had witnessed a brutal annihilation of arguably the greatest player of all time, as Safin, playing near perfect tennis, made Sampras look old, slow and inadequate.

Time Catches Up To Everyone

Asked what he thought of his vanquisher, Sampras had this to say… “He passed and returned my serve better than anyone I’ve ever played. He reminded me of when I was 19 and came here and won it for the first time”. A year later, Sampras would lose in a blow out, to another one of the new generation, Lleyton Hewitt. While Sampras did manage to win another Grand Slam beating his old rival Andre Agassi the following year, the torch had been passed. It was time for the king to move on. The year 2000 marked the end of the Sampras era.

Sampras however, is not unique to this experience. In the 30+ years that I’ve been following tennis, I have seen other greats go through this as well. Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, and Andre Agassi – all of them rose up the rankings, became great champions, dominated their competition for years, kept the younger generation at bay, before eventually fading away into the sunset.

Federer: The Champion

That 19 year old kid from Switzerland that I thought would make to the top ten, what happened to him? Unlike the other players of his generation – Marat Safin, Lleyton Hewitt, Juan Carlos Ferrero and even Andy Roddick – who matured fast and made their marks on the Grand Slam scene, Roger Federer was a late bloomer, likely because he had way more talent, and way more variety in his game that he needed time to pull it all together into a cohesive game plan. Reigning in his hot temper to go with his brilliant game, was the last piece of the puzzle. Beating Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001 gave him the confidence that he belonged, as he won his first Grand Slam – Wimbledon 2003 – at the age of 22, meeting the expectations that were placed on his young shoulders.

Yeah, we all knew that this kid was capable of winning a few slams, but little did we know that he was about to go on a tear and become arguably the most dominant men’s player of all time, breaking records that we all thought could stand the test of time. It took 35 years for Roy Emerson’s record of 13 Grand Slams to fall. Nobody in their right minds would have thought that Pete’s new record would fall, leave alone in 7 years. 16 Grand Slams, a career slam winning all four Slams, reaching the finals of all four slams in back to back calendar years, 10 consecutive slam finals, 23 straight semi-finals, and a lot more. To say that his records are impressive would be an understatement by every stretch of the imagination.

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It was abundantly evident that Fernando Verdasco was going down in straight sets to his more famous and accomplished countryman, Rafael Nadal, yet again to make it 0-11. This time around, the conditions were tough, windy & tricky to add to his woes. It’s not as if he didn’t have his chances – Rafa had been broken for the first time this tournament – but he simply could not close out that VERY key first set. So, there was ample reason for Nando to be utterly disappointed, but I had no idea how bad.

I woke up this morning and my twitter feed was all about the post match interview where Fernando supposedly picked Roger Federer to beat Rafa, if they were to meet in the final. Here’s what some of the tweeps had to say…

Verdasco tips Federer over Nadal for U.S. Open title http://dlvr.it/50skx

Don’t miss: US Open final betting odds: Verdasco bets on Federer http://ow.ly/18X65o

Boy! I thought. That defeat stung so much, that despite being a compatriot and good friend, he picked that other guy, yeah the guy who’s been to six straight finals here and won five of them. The twitterverse and the blogosphere was abuzz about this sacrilegeous prediction. “No, this can’t be right. Something definitely got lost in the translation here”, I thought to myself.

As I clicked through to the articles I realized that he did pick Roger to beat Rafa. And, Rafa in response said Fernando was free to think for himself, and believed it was a fair assessment that Roger is the favorite. So, I pitched in, with my own conspiracy theory about how Fernando was simply trying to lower the increasing pressure of expectations on his good friend. As a die-hard Roger Federer fan, that had to be the most plausible explanation ;)

A few minutes later I see a series of tweets from Fernando that appear to be retractions of the comments he had made in the his post match interview.

To all the people who thinks that I said that rafa is going to loss again federer, that’s not true! I just said that the conditions here are better for Federer because the ball and the court its fast! And federer likes this conditions more than rafa I think! But of course I prefer Rafa to win this us.open! He is my friend, he is spanish and he deserved so much! So never take the words of the news exactly like they say because they just say what they want!

Maybe he had realized that his words were taken out of context? One of the tweeps didn’t think so…

Yo, Fernando. No one misconstrued what you said. You may have meant something different, but you said what you said. And, it’s ok dude.

I wasn’t so sure. I wanted to get to the bottom of this nonsense. Did he or did he not? All I had to do was “read” the transcripts of the interviews by Fernando and Rafa. So, here are two questions from Fernando’s interview…

Q. With Rafa playing so well here at the US Open, how does somebody beat him?

FERNANDO VERDASCO: Well, I don’t know. Everybody have better days than on others. He’s playing good, but I think that he will have a tough if I am not wrong, I think that he will play the final against Roger. It’s gonna be a tough match, because I think Roger play really good in these conditions. He gonna be a very tough final for Rafa if he plays against Roger in the final.

Q. So you think Roger’s about the only one who has the game to beat Rafa right now?

FERNANDO VERDASCO: Well, Novak is a player that also on fast surface like this one, he already beat Rafa many times, and he have also the game to beat Rafa. But, I don’t know. I think if I need to bet here, I will bet for Roger. I think that he won five times here and he like these conditions.

Pay close attention to the statements in bold, because this is going to get very interesting. Ready? Off to the transcript now of Rafa’s interview…

Q. I understand you do not like to look ahead. You like to keep it from point to point, match to match. But Fernando was saying he thinks you’ll get to the final and play Roger. He says if he had to bet, he’d put a bet on Roger to win because he says likes Roger likes these conditions. What do you think about that statement?

RAFAEL NADAL: Well, for sure Roger is the favorite of the tournament, especially because he won five times five times? And six finals in a row. No one doubt on that. And I am in semifinals, so I don’t think about the final. Everybody free to think, and what Fernando says is completely fair. I hope keep playing well and have my chance in that match in semifinal.

Notice how this question to Rafa was twisted out of context to mean something other than the original meaning? Before you know, it’s all over the interwebs that Fernando Verdasco dissed his friend Rafa and picked Roger to win it all. Now, there’s a story that will get your site more hits and improve your SEO!

I’m not blaming any of my fellow tweeps or bloggers who are simply spreading the news that they hear or see. However, I will put the blame squarely on the irresponsible journalist who decided to throw honesty, fairness and integrity out the window just so he/she could manufacture a story and sensationalize it. Whatever happened to truth & fairness in journalism?

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I was never a huge fan of Andy Roddick during his younger days. I saw him as nothing more than a big forehand and an even bigger serve. He didn’t possess skills like a Federer, Nadal, or for that matter Djokovic or Murray. Over the years however, what he has lacked in terms of skill, he has more than made up for, by putting in the hard work and showing a lot of heart – something a few players in the top 20 – Monfils, Gasquet & Berdych to name a few – could learn from.

His self-depricating sense of humor and funny post match comments have certainly been endearing to me over the years that I’ve been willing to overlook the “failings” in his game, and begun to root for the guy. Who can forget this brilliantly funny 2007 post match interview, after he was annihilated by a Federer who could do no wrong? Not too many people would have shown up for an interview after a beat down, let alone put it in perspective.

Let’s face it, if it wasn’t for Federer, Andy could very well have been a six-time grand slam champion, and I’m sure the world would’ve seen him in an entirely different light. Despite being a die-hard Federer fan, I would have been more than happy for Andy if had won last year’s Wimbledon championship. It’s safe to say he made a lot of new fans – I know a few of them myself – after losing yet another gut-wrenching final to his nemisis.

Fast forward to last night’s second rounder against the Serbian, Janko Tipsarevic. Not unlike his famous countryman Novak Djokovic, Tipsy is awfully talented, and had beaten Roddick the last time they played at Wimbledon. So, this was by no means your run of the mill second round match that Andy was just expected to waltz through. To be honest, although Andy won the first set, I didn’t think he was playing well enough. His normally powerful serve wasn’t effective enough, and he was content on simply pushing the ball back, expecting his opponent to make the errors. Instead of obliging Roddick, tied one set a piece, Janko cranked it up a notch, played some brilliant passes that left his opponent stranded at the net, while breaking him.

Down 2-5 in the third, serving to stay in the set, Roddick got called for a foot fault, got rattled and went off on the lines-woman who called it and chair umpire Enric Molina. No, it wasn’t even close to being on the same level as Serena’s tirade last year, but it was enough to get the Bronx cheer from the pro American crowd. Watching it on TV, I tweeted that he was losing the plot, and worse, losing the crowd, as he insisted on continuing the tirade. What’s worse, as he later admitted, it wasn’t that he was called for a foot fault that bothered him more, it was the fact that she didn’t know left from right.

“I wasn’t upset with the call, I just expect my umpires to know their left foot from the right foot,” said the 28-year-old.

“It’s the fact I couldn’t get her to admit it wasn’t the right foot which infuriated me, the lack of common sense was unbelievable to me. We have got to be able to have a test like ‘Point to your right foot, point to your left foot, now call lines.’

It was clear that the match had turned, and was quickly going away from him. IMHO, he was simply looking for a way to fire himself up. To his credit, Andy clearly realized that he said things in the heat of the battle, and was almost apologetic in his post match interview.

“The stubbornness… I let mine get in the way. I got called for two others after that and have no issue with it. In the moment I was just stupefied”

“In hindsight did I let it go too far? Yeah, probably. I think it was a very correctable mistake, and I probably let it get to me more than it should have”

Might Roddick have been a little more sensible on the court and might he have been sensitive to the lines-woman? Sure, but, it’s tough to see reason in the heat of the moment. If this is the worst thing that Roddick does, it simply pales into insignificance when compared to what Serena did at last years open, and it is a far cry from some of the things that other players have done in the past – John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Ille Nastase – to name a few. Who can forget Andre Agassi’s deplorable behavior against Karol Kucera?

I am not justifying or defending Andy’s behavior, but, before we go completely nuts, I think the guy deserves some slack, and a break.

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Roger Federer recovered from two sets down, and barely scraped through his first round match 5-7, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6, 6-0, against unheralded Alejandro Falla. First rounder on grass, against the defending and six time champion, you’d think Falla had no chance.

Yet, here he was going toe to toe against Federer, possibly the greatest grass court player of all time, applying pressure on the defending champion, unlike any that he had seen other than from another left, a certain fella that goes by the name, Rafael Nadal.

So, what was Falla doing that Roger couldn’t quite deal with? Simple. Take a look at where Falla was serving almost the entire match, especially on the second serves – exclusively to the Federer backhand, so much so that you’d think Falla was either getting tips from Roger’s nemisis. This is exactly what Rafa does to Roger, time and time again.

Falla played strategically brilliant tennis for most of the match, but the great champion that Federer is, he hung in there knowing that he would get an opening, and capitalized when he got one.

If Roger and Rafa were to meet in the finals, as expected, Roger would need to come up with a smarter game plan to counter the “serve to the backhand” strategy, because Nadal, unlike Falla, will not let go of a stranglehold.

 

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