Archive for March, 2014

PostHeaderIcon Djokovic Handily Defeats Nadal at the Sony Open For His Second Indian Wells-Miami Double

Novak Djokovic, 2014 Sony Open champion (photo courtesy of sonyopentennis.com)

Novak Djokovic, 2014 Sony Open champion
(photo courtesy of sonyopentennis.com)

In a result that few expected, Novak Djokovic handily beat Rafa Nadal 6-2 6-3 in the Sony Open men’s final for his fourth title in Miami (2007, 2011, 2012, 2014). The win is also his fourth Masters Series title win in a row (Shanghai, Paris, Indian Wells, Miami), and his second Indian Wells-Miami double.

More importantly, it was his third straight win over his Spanish rival before the start of the clay season, which could make for interesting drama in run up to the French Open.

Today’s match between Djokovic and Nadal was the 40th meeting in what has become the most prolific rivalry in ATP history. Many expected today’s match to provide an encore to their epic 2011 final. But after fending off his only break point in his first service game of the match, Novak eventually settled into a ground game for which Nadal had few answers.

For Nadal, the key to winning this match was threefold: serve well, vary his ground game, and defend the Djokovic “down the line” backhand with aggressive hitting on his own backhand. There were early signs, however, that Nadal’s weaponry was misfiring.

He struggled to find the necessary depth on his crosscourt forehand, his backhand often sailed long, and Djokovic rarely allowed him to tee off on his preferred inside-out forehand. Conversely, once Djokovic found his range on his backhand and forehand shots, Nadal was on constant defense with little chance to assert his game on his Serbian opponent.

The crucial break in the first set came at 3-2 on the Nadal serve. Struggling to find his first serve, Nadal quickly sank to Love-30 with the help of a Djokovic touch volley winner and an untouchable crosscourt backhand winner. A timely unreturnable serve gave Nadal a glimmer of hope, but was quickly snuffed out by an amazing baseline-kissing Djokovic forehand followed by a Nadal backhand unforced error.

That one break was all that Djokovic needed to close out the first set in 39 minutes.

Nadal’s usually reliable serve let him down badly in the final. His first serve percentage of 59% wasn’t great, but his 47% second serve percentage was major a liability. Nadal’s lacking offensive game stemmed from an inability to defend second serves that were often 80-90 mph. Then again, it’s difficult to defend that speed at the top of the men’s game, even with perfect placement.

There was concern that perhaps a flair-up of his earlier back issues was affecting his serve speed. Nadal, always reluctant to talk about injury issues, gave a curt, “I am fine.  Thank you very much” when asked about this in post-match press.

The second set continued as the first ended, with Nadal struggling on offense, and Djokovic confidently hitting every shot in his repertoire. There were moments when Nadal’s offensive game surfaced, only to be muted by one of his many unforced errors on the next point. Nadal fought as best he could, but couldn’t stop the inevitable as Djokovic ended the long championship point rally with a volley into open court.

Nadal ended the match with 15 winners against 20 unforced errors. Djokovic’s numbers were significantly better at 22 winners against 14 unforced errors. In matches that are determined by a handful of points, it’s hard to overcome this type of deficit.

For Nadal, however, the primary cause for today’s final failures was the superior play of his opponent. Djokovic is one of the few players who can hurt Nadal when he’s playing his best tennis. He can hurt Nadal in many ways, and with few defensive options.

“So playing against him is the worst thing that can happen for me, because in general, talking about the first two shots, he has a better return than my one, he has a better serve than my one in this surface, especially.”

“Today Novak played at very high level in my opinion and was better than me.”

In sharp contrast to the relief displayed by Djokovic after his win over Roger Federer at Indian Wells, the newly-crowned Miami champion came into today’s post-match press conference smiling, happy, and obviously looking forward to continuing his momentum as the tour moves to European clay. He credited the confidence from that Federer win for much his strong play in Miami.

“That was a great confidence boost for me that I carried on in this week, and this tournament has been perfect from the beginning to the end.  The matches that I have played I played really well, and I elevated my game as the tournament progressed.  The best performance of the tournament came in the right moment on Sunday against the biggest rival (Nadal).”

When asked if he was glad that Djokovic existed to offer him a challenge”, Nadal quickly (and jokingly) said, “No.  I like challenges, but I am not stupid.”

In a telling reversal, Novak offered a very different viewpoint on the challenge of playing his rivals. “I think challenges, big challenges that I had in my career changed me in a positive way as a player. Because of Rafa and because of Roger I am what I am today…”

“Obviously it’s not easy when you’re playing a top rival at the finals of any tournament, but if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best, you know.  You have to win against the best players in the world. That’s the biggest challenge you can have.”

Nadal’s loss in today’s final continued a disappointing trend for Spaniards in Miami. No Spanish men have won the title in the tournament’s 30-year history, and are 0-7 in the Miami final. Nadal lost in four of those finals, and is joined by David Ferrer (2013), Carlos Moya (2003), and Sergi Brugera (1997).

PostHeaderIcon My 2014 Sony Open Men’s Finals Preview (VIDEO)

850501Rafa or Novak?

Honestly, it’s hard to say who’ll come out on top in this 40th meeting between the World’s #1 and #2 players. Court surface be damned, conditions be damned, this match-up often comes down to the intangibles. I lean towards Rafa in 3, but only if he can execute crucial “keys to the match”.

Check out my thoughts and let me know what you think.

PostHeaderIcon Serena Williams Wins A Record Seventh Miami Title

Serena Williams with trophy (photo courtesy of sonyopentennis.com)

Serena Williams with trophy
(photo courtesy of sonyopentennis.com)

Serena Williams won her seventh Miami title over Li Na in straight sets, 7-5 6-1.

With this win, Williams becomes the winningest player in tournament history. Competing in her ninth final, Williams’ seven titles now eclipses the six won by Andre Agassi. She has the most main draw match wins in tournament history (67), and joins Evert, Graf and Navratilova as the fourth player in the Open Era to win the same tournament seven or more times.

None of this would have come to pass, however, if Serena hadn’t willed herself into yet another brilliant comeback after an error-filled start to the women’s final. In her semi against Sharapova, Williams found herself in a deep hole, down 1-4. In her final against Li Na, the reigning Australian Open champion, she once again found herself behind the eight ball.

The statistics tell the story of Williams struggles, with a first-serve percentage at 42%, 3 double faults, and 21 unforced errors against only 15 winners. While it’s true that Li Na got off to a great start with her own game, Williams was her own worst enemy. And then, two breaks down and fighting to stay in the set at 2-5, Williams rediscovered her championship mettle.

Forehands that had previously found the bottom of the net were hitting their mark deep in the corners or on the back of the baseline, her “down the line” backhand became untouchable, and her serve became the weapon that we’ve all come to expect from World No. 1.

The rest is history. Williams went on to win 11 of the next 12 games, fighting off one set point at 4-5 before winning a closely-fought first set, and rolling through the second. It was a vintage performance from a player who seems to play her best when facing defeat.

When asked about this particular trend in her post-match press conference, Williams was quick to say, “I definitely don’t do it on purpose.”

“I think for the most part, I try to do the best I can, and sometimes, you know, things I’m doing don’t work out, but they are the right things and eventually they start to work.”

Li Na had her chances to close out the set, but was broken twice in the process. The second of those breaks, lasting 6 deuces, handed the first set to Williams. After relinquishing such a big lead, one might expect a certain amount of frustration or disappointment. But Li Na, who’s gained a newfound sense of calm since beginning her work with coach Carlos Rodriguez, was pragmatic about the lead that slipped away.

“I don’t have to see how was the score, because even the match didn’t finish yet.  Still everyone has a chance.” She went on to add, “I think this is tennis, because if I was play more aggressive, for sure she will going back a little bit.  If she play a little bit forward, I have to going back a little bit. So this is tennis.”

In spite of the loss, Li was happy with her game. “I mean, really nothing to say.  I don’t think today I was doing like a wrong game plan or I was play totally wrong. I think it was pretty good match.”

The second set was a cleaner affair for Williams. Though her first serve percentage remained low at 43%, she managed to win 90% of first serve points and 61% of second serve points. More importantly, she didn’t allow her serving woes to bring down the rest of her game as it has in past matches.

“I think now if my serve isn’t great, it’s okay because I have a great forehand, I have a great backhand, I have great speed.”

“You know, I have so many things that I want to have a backup plan, because today I only served at 40%.  I still have to figure out a way to win doing that.” Her backup plan was clearly more than enough to overcome on this day.

With 59 titles under her belt, and a slew WTA records, Williams could justifiably retire tomorrow as one of the all-time greats. I was curious to know just how this future Hall of Famer continues to challenge herself when there’s so little left to prove.

“I think I love the challenge, and I feel like if I feel like I can be the best right now, then why not continue to be the best and do the best that I can?”

Spoken like a true champion!

PostHeaderIcon My Sony Open Women’s Finals Preview and Post-Shock Thoughts (VIDEO)

657007Some quick thoughts before Serena wins her 7th Miami title. (That sentence alone should tell you my thoughts on how this is going to play out today.) And a few additional first-hand thoughts about the craziness of yesterday’s double withdrawals by Nishikori and Berdych.

PostHeaderIcon Kei’s Groin and Tomas’ Gut: An Absolutely Shocking Day at the Sony Open

Kei Nishikori (L) and Sony Open tournament director, Adam Barrett.

Kei Nishikori (L) and Sony Open tournament director, Adam Barrett.

DSCN8537

Kei Nishikori at his withdrawal press conference.

My usual Shock or Not columns deal with players match results and/or activities on and off the court during tournaments. Today’s column deals with the aftermath of an historic day at the Sony Open after Kei Nishikori withdrew from his early semifinal with Novak Djokovic only to be followed later by Tomas Berdych, withdrawing after a severe bout of gastroenteritis.

Let’s dive right in to a very special Win-by-Walkover edition of “Shock or Not”.

Kei Nishikori withdraws prior to his semifinal against Novak Djokovic: Shock or Not? Not

Kei, God bless him, is an exceptionally talented player. Unfortunately for him (and his fans), he’s not a particularly hearty physical specimen. He retired once earlier this year at Delray Beach, and twice last year at Delray Beach and Brisbane. (Note to self: don’t buy tickets to Delray Beach if Kei is in the draw.) In 2012, there was a retirement in Barcelona and a walkover loss in Paris. That may not seem like much, but there are many other players who don’t ever retire in from a match or withdraw from a tournament.

I watched him in practice for a brief time yesterday and he looked extremely fatigued, and a little distressed. So I have to believe that this injury wasn’t spontaneous. It’s all well and good when a player tries to tough it out to see if they can make the situation workable (like Victoria Azarenka in Indian Wells), but this probably isn’t the guy who’s going to do it.

tomas-presser-before-after

Tomas Berdych after his quarterfinal in top photo, and at his withdrawal press conference in bottom photo.

Tomas Berdych withdraws prior to his semifinal against Rafa Nadal: Shock or Not? Shock

A picture is worth a thousand words, or so the saying goes. Take a look at the pictures I sent after yesterday’s victory over Alexandr Dolgopolov, and then take a look at the picture from his brief appearance in the press room today after his withdrawal. It’s almost like looking at two different people. Tomas is known for a lot of things, good and not so good, on tour. Wimping out from a tough match isn’t one of them. I wish him a speedy recovery!

Initial Shock and Shock Aftermath

According to Greg Sharko, the main stats man for the ATP, no Tour-level event has had both semifinals cancelled due to withdrawals. There was a certain amount of displeasure among some of the veteran media personnel when Kei’s withdrawal was announced, but most settled in for a boring afternoon killing time before the anticipated Berdych-Nadal match.

When Tomas’ withdrawal was announced, the mood in the media center was disbelief. I thought the announcement would be followed by a big, “Just kidding. Tonight’s match is still on.” But it wasn’t. The next announcement was “Berdych to the main press room now”, so everyone filed down in shock to see if this was actually happening. On the way down, we were handed the tournament press release stating the reason for withdrawal, and the day became an instant washout.

Our wasted day paled in comparison to the “damage control” work that needed to be done by the IMG and tournament staff. The Sony Open is on the hook big time for today’s schedule meltdown. Ticket holders for both sessions must be offered either refunds for their ticket purchase, or tickets for next year’s semifinals. No matter which method ticketholders decide upon for compensation, the tournament is out this entire day’s net gate receipts. And since many patrons didn’t stick around after the withdrawal announcements, I’m sure the various on-site vendors suffered a loss of revenue as well.

The person I felt the worst for in all of this mess was Adam Barrett, the Sony Open tournament director. It’d be safe to say that the last thing he expected to do on this glorious day was be present at two separate withdrawal press conferences, trying to put the best face on an absolutely horrendous day. He did his best, but there must be a mountain of Tums wrappers in his office trash.

PostHeaderIcon The 2014 Sony Open Men’s Semifinals Preview (VIDEO)

youtube-thIt’s a warm, humid day at the Sony Open, and I’m thinking it might have a bearing on at least one of the men’s semifinals slated for today. Kei Nishikori takes on Novak Djokovic in the day session, and Rafa Nadal takes on Tomas Berdych later tonight for a place in Sunday’s final. Rafa should be okay tonight, but I’m looking for Kei to go down swinging in today’s conditions after a long week on court.

Take a look and tell me your thoughts on today’s action when you get a chance.

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