Posts Tagged ‘final’

PostHeaderIcon Reflections On Rafa’s Ninth: The Physical & Emotional Toll Of A Rivalry

Rafa Nadals wins his record 9th French Open title (© FFT)

Rafa Nadals wins his record 9th French Open title (© FFT)

Rafa Nadal defeated Novak Djokovic in the men’s French Open final for a mind-boggling ninth title in ten appearances at Roland Garros.

Even with Rafa’s past dominance at the French Open, nothing was a given this year. A bad back, just one win on clay this spring, and four successive losses to Novak dating back to the ’13 Beijing Masters all made for considerable doubt coming into Paris. (Adding insult to injury, the last loss to Novak was on his beloved clay in Rome.)

Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal (© FFT)

Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal (© FFT)

Needless to say, there was little evidence to support his incredible triumph in Sunday’s final. But as incredible as this feat might seem under those circumstances, the only takeaway I got from this match was witnessing the MMA-like toll that this rivalry has taken on its’ participants.

Total match time was just over 3 ½ hours. And thankfully, it ended after only four sets. Most were hoping for Novak to take it to a deciding fifth set (aside from the jackass who disrupted Novak’s serve on match point).

But honestly, the last thing I wanted to see by that point was a fifth set between a player who had puked on court, and a player who was on the verge of another Slam final back collapse!

I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but their rivalry has taken a turn for the worse. The matches have become such over-the-top battles of technical, physical, and psychological endurance that their dread is palpable from the first serve.

Come to think of it, I do remember when their rivalry took that fateful turn: the rain-delayed ’11 US Open final. At the final Slam of a year, a year in which Novak had beaten Rafa in four Masters 1000’s and the Wimbledon final, the Spaniard decided to make a stand; bad knees and all.

Rafa Nadal (© FFT)

Rafa Nadal (© FFT)

Over 4 hours later, an exhausted Novak would lift the title in what was a prelude for the mother of all battles: a 6-hour marathon final at the ’12 Australian Open. The match was so exhausting that both started to cramp during the trophy ceremony, and were given chairs so they could rest their weary legs.

Both have played tough matches against other players, but not with the same level of physical self-abuse. Rafa’s epic ’08 encounter with Roger for his first Wimbledon win produced great shot-making and drama, but certainly not injury or dread. Even his back-to-back ’09 Australian wins over Fernando Verdasco and Roger, five sets each, weren’t quite as discomforting for spectators.

Novak has also seen his share of taxing Slam matches. Before that 6-hour final with Rafa, he endured a 5-hour semifinal with Andy Murray. He came out on top in the subsequent final, but wasn’t so lucky at ’13 Wimbledon. He lost in the final to Andy after a 5-hour semifinal win over Juan Martin Del Potro. Novak cited fatigue as a factor.

However, these matches are one-offs; not a persistent occurrence like when Novak and Rafa meet. Occasional epics are one thing, consistent beatings are another.

There are limits to what bodies can take, even from guys as fit as these two. Rafa’s physical ailments are well-known (knees/back), as are Novak’s attempts at body management via his gluten-free diet. In the end, these temporary remedies can only do so much to help when the rules of engagement are the underlying problem.

There are also limits to what we can stomach watching before it crosses the line and becomes too much. I have friends who love watching their titanic battles. Personally, I’d much rather see them have longer careers, and fewer cortisone shots after retirement.

PostHeaderIcon Reflecting On Maria’s Improbable French Open Triumph

Maria Sharapova holds the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen after her victory over Simona Halep. (© FFT)

Maria Sharapova holds the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen after her victory over Simona Halep. (© FFT)

By defeating Simona Halep in a thrilling 3-set French Open final, Maria Sharapova won her second title at Roland Garros, and the fifth major title of her career. Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on this achievement, and some odd facts which underlie this improbable win.

Notably, 2014 marked Maria’s third straight appearance in a French Open final. The last women to appear in three straight finals, no easy task, were 4-time champion Justine Henin, and 3-time champion Aranxta Sanchez-Vicario. Pretty good company, huh?

Not content to settle for merely an appearance, Maria succeeded in winning her second title in that three-year span. Compare that to her rival Serena Williams, who needed 11 years for her second French Open win (2002, 2013). Serena may have more total Slams, but she certainly can’t match Maria’s efficiency at collecting them in Paris.

Maria Sharapova (© FFT)

Maria Sharapova (© FFT)

Moreover, Maria’s win in Paris came in a year when she wasn’t even expected to make it past the quarterfinals, due in large part to the aforementioned Serena. Placed in Serena’s quarter of the draw, she was slated to play the defending champ in the quarterfinals. And since it’s been nearly a decade since Maria has beaten Serena, that expected meeting probably wasn’t going to do anything to change the pattern of this all-too-familiar narrative.

Therein lays the major, pardon the pun, reason why this victory was so improbable. Maria, by some twist of tennis nature after her shoulder surgery, has become a clay court tour de force. She’s capable of beating almost any opponent on this surface; that is, any opponent not named Serena.

Her clay record speaks for itself. Including this year’s win, Maria’s overall record at the French Open is 50-10: a phenomenal 20-1 in the past three years. She’s beaten several quality opponents along the way, but can’t seem to overcome the Serena conundrum. (By contrast, Serena is 8-2 in the same 3-year period.)

Just imagine what could have been if there’d been a “Garbine Muguruza” (or Virginie Razzano, for that matter) to knock out Serena in 2013. We could have potentially seen Maria pull off a hat trick at one of the toughest Slams on the calendar. I hate to repeat this tired quotable, but that’s pretty remarkable for a self-described “cow on ice”.

Like the rest of her matches in the second week, the final wasn’t pretty. Maria racked up 12 double faults, 52 unforced errors, 7 breaks of serve, and won only 39% of her second serves. These are fairly atrocious numbers for any match, let alone a Slam final.

But Maria did what she does best, steadying her nerves when it mattered most in the third set. She found a way to win, then willed herself to do so in spite of Halep. If only she could do that when Serena is on the other side of the net, who knows what might have been in addition to a French Open hat trick?

This win tied Maria with Martina Hingis for # of Slam titles in the Open era, though I’m fairly certain she could care less about the specific number right now. Maria’s too busy relishing the fruits of a hard-fought win, and rightly so. Maybe on a subconscious level, she’s even secretly thanking the Spanish woman who made this all possible.

Garbine should expect something VERY nice for Christmas.

PostHeaderIcon A Battle Royale For Rafa’s 9th: My French Open Men’s Final Preview

Rafa Nadal in five sets for his 9th French Open title. (© FFT)

Rafa Nadal in five sets for his 9th French Open title. (© FFT)

Rafael Nadal (ESP) [1] vs Novak Djokovic (SRB) [2]

H2H: Nadal leads 22-19

Original Picks: Rafael Nadal*, Novak Djokovic

As expected, the men’s French Open final pits No. 1 Rafa Nadal against No. 2 Novak Djokovic, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Novak Djokovic (© FFT)

Novak Djokovic (© FFT)

For Novak, a win would finally give him the one Slam that’s eluded him since his rise to the top of the game. It would also give him a coveted “Career Slam Club”, an exclusive group that includes the likes of Laver, Agassi, Federer and, yes, Nadal.

For Rafa, a win would further cement his status as the “King of Clay”, and a man who’s achieved such a level of clay greatness that it’s almost hard to fathom. In nine years at Roland Garros, Rafa’s amassed 8 titles and a staggering 59-1 record. That one loss does little to mar a legacy that won’t be surpassed for many generations to come.

Given their history of epic finals, the stage is set for a test of physical and mental endurance.

I usually focus on the intangibles that determine the difference between winning and losing for these two. However, this match is different. At the tail end of a clay season that now sees them both playing well AND with confidence, the X’s and O’s matter. Let’s start with the things that Novak will need to do in order to beat Rafa in “his house” on Chatrier.

  • Concentration! Novak must maintain concentration from start to finish. That may sound like a no-brainer, but one only needs to look at the third set of his match with Ernests Gulbis to see what happens when he goes walkabout. Rafa is not Ernests, and will gladly take the lapse and run away with a set or maybe even the match.
  • Attack! In a pre-final interview, Novak showed clearly what must be done to beat Rafa. “I’m going to try to be aggressive, because that is the only way I can win against him.” Bingo! He must attack Rafa early and often. When does correctly (assuming good execution), Rafa becomes uncomfortable and tight: rushing his shots, missing long, or landing them in an attackable position at the service line.
  • Short angle forehands! Novak possesses a great short angle crosscourt and inside-out forehand. Both are helpful when playing Rafa. The crosscourt forehand forces Rafa into a defensive posture on his backhand, with momentum carrying him away from the court. The inside-out is a trickier because of Rafa’s ability to redirect down the line. But a good attacking shot doesn’t leave him enough time for options other than a high crosscourt shot. If prepared on both counts, Novak has options to end the point in his favor.
  • Backhand down the line! This is the shot that best allows Novak to triumph over Rafa’s pattern of lefty forehand to righty backhand. While Roger Federer suffers with his one-hander, Novak’s two-hander can sustain the rally pattern, pin Rafa into the corner, then go in for the kill by driving his backhand down the line when the time is right.
  • Defend the second serve! Sun issues notwithstanding, Novak is a solid server. But he’ll need to do a better job of defending his second serve than he did against Gulbis. He only won 43% of his second serve points against the Latvian, which won’t be nearly good enough against Rafa.
  • Take the net! In Miami, Novak did a great job of unsettling Rafa by driving him into corners, then working his way to the net in order to put away volleys of Rafa’s airy defensive shots. If he can succeed in making Rafa uncomfortable, the same result might come to pass.
Rafa Nadal (© FFT)

Rafa Nadal (© FFT)

Rafa’s challenges are less about what he does to Novak, and much more about what he needs to do for himself to play his best tennis.

  • Stay up on the baseline! Rafa’s natural tendency is to drift back from the baseline; sometimes even as far back as the line umpires. Against Novak, this opens up way too much court, and is a recipe for disaster. He’s got to stand his ground and dictate play. This leads me to…
  • Dictate play with the forehand! Rafa does best in matches when he can dictate play with his forehand, and not just the lefty forehand into the righty backhand. Certainly that is part of the pattern, but the inside-out shot tends to be the “kill” shot. This is especially true against Novak. He can rip it with tremendous pace yet still get it to drop on or inside the baseline, leaving Novak flat-footed in response. A rare thing.
  • Vary serve pattern! Rafa is a creature of habit and plays according to patterns. This hurts him on serve because players know where the ball is coming and, if good enough, can make him pay for his predictability. Since he’s not going to be hitting Isner-like pace, he’s got to keep Novak guessing.
  • Watch the short ball! One of the hardest things to watch when Rafa was struggling at the start of the clay season was how badly he would miss short balls; often sending them to the back wall. When Novak gives him short balls, he’s got to do something with them by either putting them away or preparing for the next shot volley.
  • Step up on the backhand! Rafa’s backhand is clearly his weaker side, but it’s not what one would generally consider a weakness. When confident and holding his position in the court, Rafa can rip backhand crosscourt winners with the best of them. He generally can’t rip a winner against Novak, but he can definitely keep himself from getting bullied on that wing.

The biggest intangible of this match will be the weather conditions. If the conditions are bright, sunny, and warm, advantage to Rafa because of his ability to spin the heck out of the ball and make it jump. If the conditions are heavier, advantage to Novak. If Rafa can’t get the ball jumping up on his opponent, Novak can attack from a much easier strike point. The weather in Paris for Sunday is supposed to be warm, with a chance of rain. So this could go either way.

However, all things being what they are, my gut tells me that Rafa will win this match. Best of three favors Novak on clay. Best of five belongs to Rafa.

Pick: Rafa Nadal in five sets for his 9th French Open title.

PostHeaderIcon Sharapova Back to the Winner’s Circle: My French Open Women’s final Preview

Maria Sharapova is poised to win a second French Open title. (© FFT)

Maria Sharapova is poised to win a second French Open title. (© FFT)

Maria Sharapova (RUS) [7] vs Simona Halep (ROU) [4]

H2H: Sharapova leads 3-0

On this final Saturday, who would ever have predicted this unlikely pair to vie for the women’s title?

After all, Simona Halep had only won a single main draw match (against Alla Kudryavtseva) during her career at the French Open: an inexplicable truism even as she tore through the ranks of the WTA’s second tier. The trend continued of disappointments for the Romanian in 2013 with a 3-set first-round loss to Carla Suarez Navarro.

Halep won a total of five titles in 2013, second only to Serena Williams for the year. She also managed the rare feat of winning titles on grass, clay, hard, and indoor courts. By the time she lifted the trophy in Sofia, Simona had proven herself as a dangerous player of note on all surfaces; just not the red clay of Roland Garros.

Simona Halep (© FFT)

Simona Halep (© FFT)

Her opponent, the fortune-kissed Maria Sharapova, is also an unlikely participant in Saturday’s final. Given her positioning in Serena Williams’ quarter of the draw, Maria should, by all rights, already be on holiday in the south of France before the start of her grass season.

Enter Garbine Muguruza. One upset victory of the defending champion later, and Maria sees a clear path that had been previously blocked by a decade of defeats. And so, plucked from the jaws of a certain quarterfinal defeat, Maria now has an opportunity to win an unlikely second French Open title.

This is not just hypothetical. In fact, I think it’s fairly probable. That’s not to say that Simona isn’t up to the task of a final, because she is. But when you look beyond the X’s and O’s, the one intangible that’s most likely to give Maria her second title is “nerves”, and who can handle them best.

Maria has shown, once again, that she’s one of the steeliest competitors on the tour; fighting back from a one-set deficit in each of her last three matches (Stosur, Muguruza, and Bouchard). Many would look at these types of come-from-behind victories as a sign of vulnerability. Not Maria. These kinds of matches simply serve to bolster her belief that she always has a chance to pull off the win, even when the chips are down.

After her win over Bouchard in the semifinals, Maria had this to say about that particular aspect of her game. “I’m not sure if that’s something you can work on, but I think when you’re forced to be in those situations when you’re either not playing good or you find yourself in a losing position, I just don’t want to give up, because I work too hard to just let something go and let a match go.”

By contrast, Halep faltered badly in the latter stages in Melbourne. Her 6-3 6-0 loss to Dominika Cibulkova was a direct result of her nerves. Simona admitted as much in her post-match.

“I had emotions, big emotions, and I couldn’t manage this.  Before the match I was very nervous and I didn’t feel the ball at all.  I couldn’t move my body and I couldn’t play.”

So far she’s managed to keep any nerves at bay, torching her way to the final without dropping a set. But facing Sharapova, a former champion, in her first Slam final is a far cry from facing someone like Sloane Stephens; the highest seed she faced en route to the final.

A look at her two previous matches can give us a glimpse into just how nerves can affect her performance. Against Kuznetsova in the quarterfinals, she faltered with three double faults while trying to serve out the match. Against Petkovic in the semifinals, she was broken at the start of the second set and ultimately forced into a tiebreaker to secure the straight sets win.

Halep is generally a pretty cool customer, and has appeared completely unruffled and happy in pre-final interviews. But I can’t imagine she’ll be able to disregard the magnitude of the moment.

As far as X’s and O’s go, a look at their Madrid final may give us clues as to how this French Open final might play out if “nerves” don’t come into play. Sharapova won that match, 1-6 6-2 6-3. It wasn’t a particularly clean affair when you look at the statistics. Her first serve percentage was slightly better, and she won a higher percentage of Halep’s second serve points. The one stat that stands out most, however, is break points saved. Halep saved 1 of 6. Maria saved 6 of 10.

While neither served well enough to stave off break opportunities, Maria was slightly than Halep while also capitalizing on her chances to break the Halep serve. These are small margins, but ones that make a big difference in the final score.

Based on their play up to this point, we could see a similar match on Saturday. The outcome could (and probably will) be decided by the intangibles. For me, that means Halep’s nerves vs Maria’s experience and steely resolve. I’ll put my money on experience and steely resolve.

Original Picks: Serena Williams*, Li Na
Revised Pick: Maria Sharapova in three sets.
(* – original pick for French Open champion)

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.

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