Fascinating Problems

Rome Masters, Semifinals

(5) Nadal d. (6) Berdych, 6/2 6/4

(2) Federer d. Paire, 7/6 6/4

Roger Federer today defeated Benoit Paire in crooked straight sets, simultaneously reaching his first final of the season, and ensuring he achieved the least ideal preparation for facing Rafael Nadal in it. Clive Brunskill/Getty Images EuropeThe fascinating problems posed by Paire, an assertive and mercurial French right-hander with a bold first serve and an inclination to abbreviate points, are completely unlike those Federer will encounter tomorrow. It also doesn’t help that Federer has so far played all his matches at night, while the final is scheduled for mid-afternoon. To be fair, it probably doesn’t matter much either way.

Realistically, by which I mean unrealistically, the only useful preparation for facing Nadal on clay is to become Novak Djokovic. Tomas Berdych earlier discovered that merely beating Djokovic does not constitute adequate preparation. It might have helped had he eaten the Serb’s heart, rather than merely breaking it, thereby ingesting a portion of the world number one’s fabled strength. As it was, the Czech was decisively over-matched, and probably would have lost even had he better executed his strategy, which is a term I employ loosely. Not only did he lack answers, he repeatedly failed to ask the right questions.

Berdych wasn’t quite the same player who’d staged that astonishing comeback against Djokovic in the quarterfinals, but nor was Nadal quite the same guy who’d narrowly survived an inspired Ernests Gulbis. Nor was it the same Berdych who last year threw everything at Nadal in Rome, yet still lost. As I say, short of being Djokovic, what can one do? Nadal afterwards conceded under interrogation that today’s performance was indeed excellent, with the first set ranking among the best he’s ever played in Rome. You know it’s good when even he is willing to own up to it. It would have been perverse not to. Nadal landed 77% of first serves, but the more worrying statistic for his opponent was that he missed 23% of them, since this turned out to be a guaranteed prelude to Nadal winning the point: Berdych won just eight points on return, and none of them came on a second serve. Such figures more than bore out the visual evidence, which was that Nadal dominated even those few rallies in which Berdych actually remembered to press the Spaniard’s weaker backhand.

Federer has been broken only twice en route to the final, suggesting that tomorrow’s encounter won’t reprise the unparalleled 2006 Rome final, but might instead echo the notorious 1998 Wimbledon final between Pete Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic. The curious statistic appeared that the only other times Federer managed so smooth a passage in a clay court Masters event – Madrid in 2009 and 2012 – he subsequently won the event. You’d have to be a pretty determined fan in order to nourish your hopes on such numbers, though. More encouraging have been his first serve numbers, at least before the semifinals. Prior to today’s match, Federer was serving at over 75%, with no hint of the back injury that afflicted him several months ago. If he produces numbers like that tomorrow, he might make it close. Then again, Federer never does sustain numbers like that against Nadal, especially on clay. This is not a coincidence. Enhanced pressure means fewer of those first serves land in, while more of those that do come back. Whether Federer will be sufficiently battle-hardened when they do is a nice question.

His draw, in this respect, probably hasn’t helped. It would be wilful to pretend the Swiss hasn’t enjoyed a very generous path to the final, facing no seeds, and with only the lowly Potito Starace counting as a clay court specialist, insofar as the Italian is even less accomplished on every other surface. This is hardly a criticism, since you can only play who you’re presented with, and the men Federer was presented with had proven their mettle by repeatedly dismissing more fancied players. Indeed, this must be considered Paire’s breakout tournament, with the highlight being his fifty-seven minute thrashing of the hollering but hopeless Marcel Granollers in the quarterfinals. There was also a fine attacking effort against (an admittedly ailing) Juan Martin del Potro. Had he put together a better tiebreak in today’s first set he might have really given Federer a scare.

Jerzy Janowicz’s experienced his first taste of notoriety last October at Bercy, but this week’s result in Rome yields little to that earlier one, especially since upsets over top eight players at the Paris Indoors are unfortunately festooned with asterisks, huddled as it is in the lee of the tour finals. This week Janowicz was excellent against several accomplished players – Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet – who had every reason to give their best, and he won. He lost against Federer, but he lost well; there was certainly no shame in it.

Paire’s ranking has consequently soared ten places, to number twenty-six, meaning he’ll be pleasantly seeded for Roland Garros. Janowicz rose one place to number twenty-three. Federer will still be number three even if he wins tomorrow. Asked afterwards to assess his chances he was quick to signal his confidence, quite literally. If Nadal wins, he will vault past David Ferrer back into fourth spot. The happy result of this is that he’ll have a deserved top four seeding in Paris, even if Andy Murray does play, and that the rest of us won’t have to hear about it any more.

14 Comments

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14 Responses to Fascinating Problems

  1. tootsie

    In the last few years at least, Rafa has valued The Race rankings more than the ATP rankings so he must be feeling very good about being #1 despite missing a slam and the first month of the season.

    Sure hope he can bring today’s game into the final tomorrow as that confidence and shot making was a real treat to watch.

    • I’m sure at least some version of that form will be unleashed in the final.

      Can I ask, why does Nadal value the Race more than the rankings, especially since he doesn’t care much about the WTF?

  2. After some polished early round performances, Federer has appeared to suggest that he’s moving out of form rather than into it in the last couple of days. The first set tiebreak today was almost ludicrously bad from both players: one of them had to win it, under rules strictly enforced by the ATP, and Federer happened to be the chap with a chair under his bottom at the moment the music stopped.

    When the second set started, the two men started a kind of “I can hit worse drop shots than you” contest. After they got bored with this, they began double faulting. Paire hit back to back double faults at deuce to hand a break to Federer: the number two seed then hit an extravagant double fault of his own (six missed serves in a row). However, losing the first point in a game does less damage than losing the last one: presumably, all Federer’s experience playing Masters 1000 SFs, held up by the TV commentators as a potentially decisive factor before the match, has taught him this. There were no more breaks of serve, so the Swiss legend went through.

    It wasn’t by the skin of his teeth, but neither did it suggest a fellow in the kind of nick required to take two sets off Nadal on clay. Federer has played much of the week very close to the baseline, meeting lots of balls on the rise. I’m not sure it’ll be enough tomorrow, but Federer in his pomp hardly ever had enough. I’d love to see Federer finally get his hands on the Rome trophy, though I regret to say the best chance of that probably slipped away when Novak Djokovic, having won 11 games to Tomas Berdych’s 4, switched off his brain because he thought he’d need to be fresh for Saturday. Federer might have had a 20% chance against a Nadal who’d scrapped his way past the World no 1, or a 25% chance against the Serb himself. 10% odds tomorrow, and that feels generous.

    • That 2006 Rome is probably my favourite match from last decade. The thought occurred to me, though: imagine if it was only best-of-three. A 6/7 7/6 6/4 win to Nadal. Tight, but no classic.

      In any case, you’re probably right, tomorrow’s final won’t be a classic, and wouldn’t be no matter how many sets.

      I’m really hopeful Paire does some damage at Roland Garros.

  3. Simmo

    “Don’t often see the ‘fake n’ bake’ these days!” Did you happen to catch that gem by Robbie Koenig? I hope one day you can dedicate an article exclusively to the antics and catchphrases of Koenig and Goodall! Their commentary is so entertaining.

    • It’s been Sky Sports all the way for me lately. Sky gives me loads of decent material, but even so I really need to get back to Koenig and Goodall. I agree they’re the best. There’s a facebook fan-page for them in case you didn’t know.

  4. Jade

    You nailed it; Federer was well and truly thrashed by Nadal today and I don’t think anyone on Earth was surprised by it. I’m glad that Federer at least reached his first tournament final of the year and stopped that fact from getting beaten to death by tennis pundits yet again, but the kind of form he showed against Nadal won’t do much to dispel suggestions that he achieved even that only by getting a ridiculously generous draw or my feeling that Wawrinka actually made a far more impressive and exciting run to the final in Madrid than his more heralded Swiss countryman did here.

    • I certainly think Wawrinka played better than Federer in the respective finals, though it’s hard to compare their passage to get there, since they could of course only play who was put in front of them. For all we know, Wawrinka could have lost to Janowicz, since he’s nowhere near as good as Federer at blunting severe first serves. But yes, it was very disappointing from Federer, though I can’t argue with his tactics. His only slim chance at winning was to hit Nadal off the court.

  5. Simmo

    @Jesse Pentecost
    Awesome thanks mate. Just joined the facebook group. I agree Sky Sports is a better source for your writing. Mostly cause the humour at Sky Sports comes from the appalling commentary and the nonsense they spurt! I like Koenig/Goodall the most cause they combine quality humour with informed and insightful commentary, and the two of em gel so well together.

  6. Simmo

    Thanks for the reference. I just saw Fish’s, but I guess Roddick took his down. I think they’re taking it out of context. Surely a man of Federer’s esteem is embarrassed by such losses, and as a Fed fan myself, I honestly can’t help feeling a degree of that embarrassment vicariously.

  7. Margie

    @Jesse Pentecost
    Only Rafa could answer that question for sure but, as a Rafa fan, I can give it a guess. The Race points tell a player where he is TODAY and where everyone else is too. It is far more realistic to a competitor (and Rafa IS THAT) than where a player was in the past. Rafa plays the present, not the past and not the future.
    I don’t thinK he actually cares about the WTF (could we change that title?) especially since they insist on playing it on indoor hardcourt (for the last 3 years and now the next 3 as well) which is Rafa’s worst surface. If the ATP can’t/won’t diversify the surface, it simply isn’t fair. I know, I know, “a good player should be able to play all surfaces equally well.” Fine, then let’s put the WTF on clay for 6 years running and listen to the shout that goes up then!! Wait! The “WTF” is a perfect name for it.

    • But the race doesn’t necessarily tell a player where he is right now (and does so less as the season goes on, until by December it matches the entry system). It merely tells you how you’ve gone since the season started. In February it tells you how well you did in Australia. I confess I can’t see any reason for it besides WTF qualification, which isn’t to say I think the ranking system the ATP uses is necessarily flawless.

      I kind of like that the name of the tour finals can be reduced to the WTF. I agree that having the tournament indoors seems to favour certain players more than others, though I’d say this is a matter of geography and season. If you want to play tennis that far north in November, playing outside leaves the event at the mercy of the weather. If it was to come back to Asia then I think they should certainly move it outdoors. It was outdoors in Houston in 2003-2004 and the final in both years was heavily affected by rain (in 2004 I think the final had to be shortened to Bo3).

      As to the hardcourt, they don’t use a ‘traditional’ indoor hardcourt at the O2, but a fairly slow, dead one (though not as bad as Valencia). This has of course had the effect of further slowing down all the indoor tournaments leading up to it (apart from that unusually slick Bercy court in 2010). I’ve never noticed that Nadal was particularly disadvantaged on lifeless hardcourts (Indian Wells, Melbourne etc), and nor do they favour attacking players like Federer or Tsonga, and maybe Berdych. I’d say it’s a good surface for Djokovic, but then again he can play on anything from molasses to ice. Ferrer seems to like the court. The speed is ideal for del Potro, I’d say. That’s just covering the current top 8.

  8. Eva

    Just brilliant! Thanks so much.

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