Archive for the ‘Masters Series’ Category

PostHeaderIcon A Serena Cakewalk and Rafa Dethroned: Ten Final Thoughts on the Week in Rome

Serena Williams (photo G. Sposito)

Serena Williams (photo G. Sposito)

With work (and life in general) keeping me busy, it’s been awhile since my last pro tour post.  But now that I’ve had a chance to recharge, it’s time to dive back into the thick of things after a very telling week in Rome. Without further ado, here are some final thoughts on the gusty week that was in Rome.

  1. Question: Who can stop Serena? Answer: Nobody!
    Serena was soundly lambasted back when she first exclaimed, “When I’m playing at my best, it’s hard for people to beat me”. Years later, there isn’t a single player on tour who can refute that claim, and beat her with their best. She might lose a set or two, and maybe even an occasional match, but let’s be honest. The only two things stopping Serena from an unfettered Roland Garros title defense are her body and her mind: and both are looking pretty good after this past week in Rome.
  2. Though Victoria Azarenka has a grunt that grates on the nerve endings of every cell in my body, I’ll be the first to declare that the women’s tour desperately needs to return to action. The former No. 1 has been away from the game because of a foot injury sustained earlier this year, and withdrew from the French Open this past weekend because of ongoing issues with the same injury. I hope she comes back strong by the US Open. Serena needs a worthy adversary, and we need to see more competitive finals.
  3. Even if Sara Errani never stood a realistic chance against her formidable opponent, her tears after the loss to Serena in the Rome final were heartbreaking. Sara was 0-6 against Serena going into the final, so we knew this was not going to be a competitive match. But the leg injury that she sustained in the first set assured the loss while also casting doubt on her French Open prospects. The phrase “adding insult to injury” comes to mind.
  4. Maria Sharapova lost in the early rounds, but should still be a factor at the French Open. It all depends upon her draw. The only problem with that scenario is that, because of her ranking, her draw is gonna suck! I’ll be very surprised if she makes it back to the final.
  5. Novak Djokovic (photo: G. Sposito)

    Novak Djokovic (photo: G. Sposito)

    Novak Djokovic capped off a great week with a convincing win over Rafa Nadal in the men’s final. While it’s certainly true that Novak’s game is perfectly-suited to neutralize Nadal’s strengths, I’d even go so far as to say that the only thing that keeps him from beating Rafa on a consistent basis are his lapses in focus that come a little too frequently when playing the Spaniard, particularly in best of five matches. Take away those lapses and we could finally see the King of Clay dethroned on the final Sunday in Philippe Chartrier.

  6. Rafa Nadal’s rocky road to a ninth French Open title seemed to get a little less rocky with his showing in Rome. After losing to Ferrer in Monte Carlo and Almagro in Barcelona Rafa looked imminently beatable by anyone who could execute an attacking game plan. (Nishikori came close in the Madrid final until his back gave out.) In Rome, however, he pushed through early match struggles and successfully battled back to consecutive three-set victories. Unfortunately for Rafa, Novak – his likely opponent in the French Open final – is less a rock and more of a huge boulder.
  7. I appreciate Roger Federer’s “I play because I still love the game” attitude as much as the next guy. But can we all agree that it was silly for him to show up in Rome only 5 days after the birth of his twin boys? We get it Roger. You’re still viable at the top of the men’s tennis food chain. Now get back to Switzerland with your wife and twins where you belong.
  8. Andy Murray played his best tennis of the season in his three-set loss to Rafa in the Rome quarterfinals. Against anyone else, he most likely would have earned a place in the semifinals, and perhaps even the finals with a win over Grigor Dimitrov. Positive stuff to be sure! However, let’s hope he finds another no-nonsense coach soon. We would all do well if a return to Andy’s barking, griping, cursing, body part grabbing ways could be avoided.
  9. Stan Wawrinka continues to struggle under the burden of Grand Slam winner expectations. The Monte Carlo champion lost in the Madrid R32 to Dominic Thiem, and in the Roma R16 to veteran Tommy Haas. Rather than focus on Stan’s difficulties in embracing his newfound membership in the Grand Slam club, we should all be much more in awe of the ease with which Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic gladly accept, and live up to, the challenge.
  10. Speaking of Dimitrov, the young Bulgarian had a great week in Rome up until he went against the Nadal buzz saw in the semifinals. The same could be said of Milos Raonic in reaching his first Masters 1000 semifinal on clay. It’s nice to see the “young guns” really start to make their mark at the top of the game against the best. Grigor’s increased strength/fitness and Milos’ improved movement/footwork were on full display. But can either sustain their improved games over two weeks in best of five matches? We’ll find out next week.

 

PostHeaderIcon My Complete 2014 Sony Open Archives

2014-03-26-14.36.05-2

With Nick Bolletieri, new member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, at the 2014 Sony Open.

From the start of the tournament (before I got off the plane) and through my 20-hour travel day afterward, here’s a list of all 2014 Sony Open-related postings.
I hope you enjoy them.

ARTICLE/VIDEO POSTS

  1. Some Final Thoughts on Serena, Novak, and the End of the US Spring Swing at the Sony Open
  2. Djokovic Handily Defeats Nadal at the Sony Open For His Second Indian Wells-Miami Double
  3. My 2014 Sony Open Men’s Finals Preview (VIDEO)
  4. Serena Williams Wins A Record Seventh Miami Title
  5. My Sony Open Women’s Finals Preview and Post-Shock Thoughts (VIDEO)
  6. Kei’s Groin and Tomas’ Gut: An Absolutely Shocking Day at the Sony Open
  7. The 2014 Sony Open Men’s Semifinals Preview (VIDEO)
  8. Williams Continues Her Dominance Of Sharapova To Reach 9th Miami Final
  9. Bryan Brothers to Face Colombians Farah/Cabal in Men’s Doubles Final
  10. The 2014 Sony Open Women’s Semifinals Preview (VIDEO)
  11. Djokovic Fends Off a Strong Murray Challenge to Reach Miami Semis
  12. The Myth of Sam Stosur’s Slide From Greatness
  13. Roger Federer’s Awesome Anticipation & Footwork (VIDEO)

IMAGE POSTS

PostHeaderIcon Some Final Thoughts on Serena, Novak, and the End of the US Spring Swing at the Sony Open

Stadium court at Crandon Park after the men's final.

Stadium court at Crandon Park after the men’s final.

As with the BNP Paribas Open, I find myself with significantly more than my usual “Ten Final Thoughts” for this year’s Sony Open. It’s a very different experience when you’re on the ground at an event, with much more information around every corner.  So to that end, I hope this list of 25 musings from Miami satisfies; starting with last Friday’s shocking withdrawals.

DSCN8200

Novak Djokovic

  1. First, I’m still shell-shocked from last week’s double-withdrawals for the Sony Open men’s semifinals. It was an unprecedented event on an unprecedented day that, frankly, caught EVERYONE off-guard. People are mad at Adam Barrett for his response, or lack thereof, to the withdrawals but, really, what could he do? Make Kei Nishikori play injured? Scold him for not telling everyone that he couldn’t play sooner? Sue the restaurant that may have made Tomas Berdych sick? Send text messages to every ticketholder? Plead with Michael Chang (Kei’s coach) or Aranxta Sanchez Vicario (in attendance) to put on an exhibition? Though no potential solution was tenable, everyone sorely wished that something…anything… could have been done to salvage the wasted day.
  2. Speaking of Kei and Tomas, I wish them both speedy recoveries. Tomas should be better already, but Kei’s groin injury is problematic. He’s not a big guy, and he needs his movement to keep an edge over his opponents. He might be pressured into playing this weekend’s Davis Cup matches in Tokyo, and that could put his clay season in jeopardy if he aggravates the injury. Keep an eye on that one.
  3. Novak Djokovic is undeniably the Big Four’s “Top Dog” after Miami. Following an atypical start to his year with no Aussie trophy, he beat Roger Federer in three sets to win Indian Wells, and then comprehensively beat Rafa Nadal for a fourth Miami title. Tellingly, I saw relief in his eyes after the Indian Wells win. This time, I saw pleasure and an enormous amount of self-belief. Make no mistake: Novak is back! Depending on Monte Carlo, Rafa’s clay season might be a whole lot tougher this year.
  4. Speaking of Rafa, the Spaniard was merely a bystander in the final against Novak. He served poorly, couldn’t find the range on his backhand, never got a chance to impose his forehand, and couldn’t figure out a single solution to his “Novak problem”.  Afterwards, there was almost a sense of concession in his voice/manner that went well beyond the “Not my day” explanation that the top guys use to explain away a loss like this. Rafa knows that when both are playing their best on a hard court, Novak’s weapons can neutralize his weapons much more easily than the reverse. If this carries over to clay, Rafa’s ninth Roland Garros title might be in jeopardy.
  5. serena-presser

    Serena Williams

    Serena Williams beat Li Na for her seventh Miami title, adding yet one more line to an already-Hall of Fame CV. It was “vintage Serena”, or at least what seems to be the current definition of that term. There was once a time when Serena dominated her opponents from start to finish. Nowadays, she starts slows and sometimes comes perilously close to defeat before storming back with the brilliance that we’ve come to expect. Regardless of why, it’s impressive to watch and is also great drama. Serena doesn’t win all the time, but it speaks volumes that everyone, her competitors included, know that she can if she’s playing well. (And by well I mean 80% and above). Love her or hate her, I hope everyone can appreciate what she brings to the game.

  6. There’s no sugar-coating the fact that Li Na caved against Serena and, unforgivably, gave up a two-break lead before losing 11 of the final 12 games. Li Na has a great personality, a strong game, and a perfect husband to showcase her comedic skills. Moreover, she’s a wonderful asset to the women’s game. But one can’t deny the mental weakness that she sometimes displays in big matches. There’s simply no way that she should have lost the first set of that final. Carlos Rodriguez, has tremendously helped her game, but there’s not much he can do about that.
  7. I love Maria Sharapova’s competitive nature, but it’s now laughable just how absent that nature is when she faces Serena Williams.
  8. Vika Azarenka, one of the few who legitimately competes well against Serena, was absent in Miami with her ongoing foot injury. I’m hoping it’s not too serious, and that we’ll have her back on tour soon. Serena badly needs a foil. And like it or not, Vika is the only one right now.
  9. Aga Radwanska’s physio-taped body is becoming more tape and less body. I worry for her 2014 at this rate.
  10. DSCN4507

    Martina Hingis and Sabine Lisicki

    Petra Kvitova beat Ana Ivanovic 3-6 6-0 6-0. That’s all you need to know about Petra and why, Wimbledon title or not, she’ll continue to struggle for legitimacy at the top of the women’s game.

  11. Roger Federer lost a tough match Kei Nishikori in conditions that I knew would be tough… for his game! Roger’s game does best in quicker conditions. The conditions in Miami on that note were cold, windy, and heavy: an uphill battle for him. Still, it’s nice to finally talk about his game these days and not his racquet or his back. And always remember that conditions matter!
  12. Honestly, I just don’t know what to say about Andy Murray anymore. In spite of his quarterfinal showing in Miami, there are still a ton of questions about where his head and heart are these days in the post-Lendl era.
  13. Is it wrong of me to want Stan Wawrinka to carry himself like the Slam champion that he is?
  14. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s game is a mess. That is all.
  15. Martina Hingis won the doubles title (alongside Sabine Lisicki) with smart and gritty play, fighting off several match points en route to the final. I don’t buy into the narrative that her win is an indictment of the current state of women’s doubles. Rather, it speaks volumes to the smarts of a great player who still possesses great hands, sharp court sense, and can maintain a positive court presence for her sometimes overly-dramatic partner. However, one can’t deny the ridiculousness of a doubles match where all the players stay back from the net, or the improbability of winning a Premier event with serve speeds in the high-50s to upper-80s.
  16. DSCN7099

    The Bryan brothers

    The Bryan brothers completed their Indian Wells-Miami double with a strong performance over the impassioned duo of Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah from Colombia. After watching the Colombian’s Davis Cup-like support in previous matches against Peya-Soares and Sock-Harrison, I figured they might be tough to beat for the bros. ATP stat-man, Greg Sharko, reminded me that the Bryans are one of the best at playing against a hostile crowd. And so it came to pass!

  17. Milos Raonic finally played up to the level of his hype in Miami, going the distance against Rafa and coming very close to an upset. I give him lots of credit for that result, but still need to see a big improvement in his awkward movement before I jump on the Raonic Slam bandwagon.
  18. John Isner left Miami after a tough loss to Berdych in the R16. Though it’s unclear how well his body will fare during the clay season, I’d like to take this opportunity to offer my support and belief in Big John. Contrary to popular opinion, John is working hard to take his game beyond the “win by tiebreak” level. I think that’s admirable from a guy who could settle for relative comfort in his position as top American. It’s also necessary if he wants to have a Top Ten presence.
  19. On the lesser American male front, Ryan Harrison lost two winnable matches in Miami. The first was his 3-set second-round loss to Benjamin Becker, and the second was his doubles semifinal loss (with partner Jack Sock) against Cabal/Farah. A horrible tiebreak in his singles match and a horrible drop volley at 9-9 in the dubs match-tiebreak sealed his fate. Ryan is a hard worker with respect to his physical game. I hope the same can be done for his mental game.
  20. With his loss to Nico Almagro in Miami, Sam Querrey dropped from his position as the #2 American. The new #2 is Bradley Klahn. No disrespect to Klahn, but this doesn’t say much about our ongoing struggles at trying to regain American tennis glory.
  21. Though the situation isn’t as dire for the US women as it is for the men, it doesn’t say much about our post-Serena/Venus prospects when Sloane, the anointed successor, is bounced 6-1 6-0 by Caroline Woniacki. Her on-court attitude is suspect, and she often appears indifferent. She also does herself no favors by saying things like, “I have 10 years of tennis to play.” That’s not the case if you get injured. Just ask Alexandra Stevenson.
  22. DSCN6874

    Sir Richard Branson and friends

    Speaking of Wozniacki, this was a pretty good tournament for her! After a period of crashing out in several troubling first round matches, she competed well and earned consecutive breadstick-bagel match results over Sloane and Varvara Lepchenko. A 5-7 5-7 loss to reigning Australian Open champ Li Na should give her encouragement. That is, unless she gets distracted in planning for her wedding to Rory McIlroy.

  23. Can we please stop the Caroline Garcia hype machine and let the poor girl develop organically? Didn’t she suffer enough after Andy Murray’s “future Slam winner” tweets?
  24. It was great to see a balanced weekend of finals with women’s singles/men’s doubles combo on Saturday and women’s doubles/men’s singles on Sunday. (This is not the case for Indian Wells or Cincinnati.) The crowd likes it, and it gives a great perception of equal value for the two tours. Mr. Ellison, please take note!
  25. After covering Indian Wells this year, I finally understand why some players gripe about Miami and its’ failings in comparison. Larry Ellison’s money has created a tennis tournament oasis with which few other tournaments can adequately compete. It’s the same for the media, with ease, access, and benefits that few other tournaments provide. So it will be interesting to see what happens with the upcoming renovations starting in 2015. (I saw Sir Richard Branson there watching the Bryan brothers. Is he the Sony Open’s “Larry Ellison”?) Anyway, don’t let that deter from going. It’s a great event and has an awesome South American feel. Check it out!

With that last unpaid endorsement, I’m out! I’d like to thank Tennis Panorama for allowing me to cover the Sony Open for their website, and look forward to my next assignment at Stanford’s Bank of the West Classic. Until next time… 🙂
(P.S. I’m winning that media tourney next year!)

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 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.

Follow SFTennisFreak on Twitter
Blog Search