Saturday, May 16, 2009

Magic in the Magic Box: Nadal outlasts Djokovic in Epic Struggle

Madrid: Rafael Nadal d. Novak Djokovic, 3-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (9)

I sneered when I heard that Madrid was, like most of the other Masters 1000 events, dubbing itself as the "5th Slam." But trust me on this one: I sneer no more.

La Caja Magica delivered a jewel of a tennis match today, and if the inaugural year of the event is any indication, this might indeed be the Masters 1000 event that really does deserve to make the claim.

The state of the art 12,500 seat venue was electrified by the longest match in the history of the Masters Series, a 4 hour and 2 minute display of breathtaking tennis, in which both players played some of the most exquisite tennis of the 2009 campaign.

The rallies were so regularly filled with improbably unfathomable shot making that at times I found myself wondering if there has ever been a better match played on clay. It bodes well for today's loser, regardless of the eventual outcome of the match. Novak Djokovic has gone on a mission this spring, and we as tennis fans ought to be thankful for that.

There has not been another player that has amounted to anything more than a mere fly on the windshield of Rafael Nadal's rapidly moving semi-truck of a clay court season. If it weren't for Novak Djokovic's commitment to his fitness and his hunger to reprove himself as a legitimate contender for Slams, this spring would have been nothing more than a Nadal target practice.

Even though he remains winless against Nadal on the clay, there is a very nifty story line developing in front of Roland Garros now. Djokovic has emerged as a threat (if there is such a thing) to the King of Clay's Parisian Monarchy.

What Djokovic did today in defeat is even more impressive considering the regular criticism that the Serb has received regarding his fitness level. Negativity and doubt was palpable after his unsuccessful roller coaster ride in the heat in Miami, where he lost to Andy Murray in the Masters final. In a match that it looked like he could have won if he had been able to catch his breath, Djokovic ended up getting blown of the court by the Scot - to many it was clear that fitness was the determining factor in the match.

But today we saw a different Djokovic. He was calm and determined, his hard work with recently hired fitness guru Gebhard Phil-Gritsch obviously paying off. Signs of fatigue did eventually emerge, but even then Djokovic seemed to abate his suffering by reaching deeper into his core of belief. Even though his ranking has dropped to world No. 4, this is the best tennis that Djokovic has played since his Australian Open win in January of 2008.

The King of Clay: That being said, we mustn't forget that until he's knocked off his throne, Rafa Nadal is the reigning King of Clay. For that reason, the story of what very may well be the best match of 2009 (it is already being compared to Nadal v. Verdasco the A.O. Semis this year), begins and ends with the Spaniard.

In the face of heavy artillery fire from Djokovic, the surly Mallorcan dug into his trench behind the baseline and made sure that his presence was felt. When Nadal faced a double break point at 4-4 in the 2nd set, it was he who willed himself to consecutive service winners to get to deuce. When he was down a break point at 5-5, again he was basically facing a match point. Again he delivered a service winner.

While it wasn't his most flawless endeavor (he committed the most un-Nadal-like double fault in the third set), or his most dominant, at the conclusion of the match, after facing three match points and three others that were all but match points, it was Nadal, covered in clay, tossing his wrist bands into the adoring throngs of supporters in the building.

One for the ages: The tennis was so phenomenal that it's hard to believe that anyone lost. It was such a well-played match, chess-like yet grueling - a clinic. The way Djokovic and Nadal popped the ball today - with total control, focus, precision, and gusto - is the stuff of tennis dreams. This was tennis nirvana, gift-wrapped in a Magic Box.

At 5-5 in the third set there was a frenzied exuberance that filtered through the crowd. Even if the best tennis had already been played it wouldn't have mattered. La Caja Magica was booming, sound spilling from every orifice of the cleverly constructed tennis palace.

The third set tiebreaker took it to another level. Djokovic's valiant attempt to steal the match was met with every inch of Rafa's steel will...3 match points were courageously exterminated and the salacious crowd erupted as Rafa finally closed it out.

While it is difficult to know where this match will stand in the annals of Masters history, it's hard to imagine it not being considered worthy of classic status. If the Slam's can provide the type of drama that we witnessed today, tennis fans will be counting their blessings as 2009 unfolds.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

When in Rome...

Greetings Octf's,

Just wanted to check in and let you all know that there's some pretty serious red-clay litmus tests about to go down tomorrow at the Italian Open.

But before I discuss the trivial matter of actual matches, I want to flashback to earlier in the week to the following quotes, captured by Asap Sports, which were uttered by the illimitable Serena Williams at a press conference prior to the start of the tournament.

Q. What about the No. 1? Safina now is the No. 1.


Q. It's a new question, no?

SERENA WILLIAMS: Well, I'm excited for her.

Q. Who do you think is the real No. 1 today?

SERENA WILLIAMS: Well, we all know who the real No. 1 is.

Q. A lot people think that if Serena dedicated all of her time to tennis nobody could beat her. How do you feel?

SERENA WILLIAMS: I dedicate a lot of time to tennis, and I dedicate a lot time to other things. So, you know, I have to do what's best for me. Right now, I'm doing that. Quite frankly, I'm the best in the world.

Really? Geez, if you're Dinara Safina, and you've been drooling over your brothers 2 Grand-Slam trophies for the last five years of your life, do you really need any more motivation to go out there and overcome any mental hang-ups that might have previously held you back? Is Serena that confident in her ability that she needs to function as her opponents motivation in order to keep her interest piqued?

This is just plain crazy in my opinion, whether you've got ten more Slams on your mantel than the worlds current # 1 or not.

But don't hate on Serena for saying what she feels, i.e. letting it all hang out and being completely honest with the press. You know what they ain't cocky if you can back it up...well, after her uninspired first round loss to 30-year-old Patty Snyder, her remarks are looking cockier, much cockier in fact, then when she first deigned to offer them up.

Now... on to more pressing matters, we've got two chances to look deeper into the clay court looking glass tomorrow, as Dinara Safina takes on Venus Williams in one Italian Open Semi-final and red-hot Svetlana Kuznetsova takes on Victoria Azarenka in the other. All four have to be considered possibilities for a Roland Garros crown at this point, but each still has a lot to gain in terms of confidence if they can play big on the red clay in Rome.

With Serena maybe potentially hampered by the leg injury that slowed her in the Miami finals against Azarenka, the field looks even wider open that we already thought it would be.

Kuznetsova was stellar last week taking the Stuttgart title, and she's been good again this week in victories over Italian Flavia Pennetta and Jelena Jankovic. Another two wins and her confidence would surely benefit.

Meanwhile the mercurial and streaky Safina is still quick to go from overpowering to overwhelmed. She finds a way to hurt her cause in nearly every set that she plays, but these days, her mental power is strong enough to allow her to find traction before all four wheels come off. It's amazing how much damage she can do when she is firing on all cylinders. But it's also amazing how she can completely lose her form in a matter of seconds and look like a child screaming for her bottle.

While she is a no doubt a head case, she's also got the most upside of all the women on tour, because the less hiccups she commits, the tougher she'll be to stay in a match with.

As far as Azarenka goes, she still looks a little green out there, but man is she feisty. I'm not sure if she's got a Slam in her yet, but her performance in the next to days in Rome could change my mind.

Thanks for reading,

The Fan Child