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.

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