Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Wk.13- Life, Death, Taxes, Time... and Federer

Hey, all. Galileo here.

Every three years, like clockwork, Rafa Nadal makes the final of Miami. He also loses. But he is not the only one who cannot get over that hill. Let us set the scene...

The year is 2005. Serena and Venus Williams are sort of in a slump. Justine Henin is not at her eventual level of greatness yet. Kim Clijsters has not retired yet nor won a slam. Amelie Mauresmo is also slamless, but in Miami she is the top seed. In the men’s, Roger Federer, Andy Roddick and Marat Safin round out the top three. All have won at least one slam. Roddick has not yet put on that extra 20 pounds that limited his career.
Guillermo Coria is the fourth seed, but by next year he will be done, burned out.

In the ladies draw, second seed Maria Sharapova dismisses Eleni Daniilidou 6-0, 6-4. In the next round, she smacks Marissa Irvin, who beat 31st seed Dinara Safina the round before, 6-2, 6-0. She beat Shinobu Asagoe for the loss of three games to make the quarters. Sharapova then struggles past former number one Henin-Hardenne in three laborious sets, before dismissing Venus 6-4, 6-3 to make the finals. But Clijsters denies her 6-3, 7-5.

Nevermind. She still has time to win it, right?

Nadal, seeded #29, gets a break when Roddick retires in the first round. He beats Rainer Schuettler and Fernando Verdasco in straight sets to make the fourth round. He escapes Ivan Ljubicic in three to win his section. He eases past Thomas Johansson and David Ferrer without losing a set to make the final. He has only played two seeds to get there. In the final it is the mighty Federer he must face. He wins the first two sets, but fades down the stretch.

Nevermind. He still has time to win it, right?

In 2006, Mauresmo is again the top seed. But good news for fourth seeded Sharapova -- second seeded Clijsters, the defending champion, has crashed out to Jill Craybas in her first match. The Backspin-dubbed "Supernova" capitalises by getting past Li Na and Maria Elena Camerin without losing a set. She scrapes past Maria Kirilenko next, winning 3-6, 6-4, 6-1. In the quarters, Anastasia Myskina is never at the races. In the semi-finals, she is struggling against Tatiana Golovin before the Frenchwoman retires. She will edge past her in the U.S. Open quarters the same year. In the final it is not Mauresmo or even Henin. It is Svetlana [My Sveta] Kuznetsova, fallen from grace. It is surely destined to be for Sharapova. But...

Nevermind. She still has time to win it, right?

In 2008, and you can see where this going now, Nadal is the established world number two. Federer is on the ropes. Nadal, in his role as the favourite, dismisses Benjamin Becker and Nicolas Kiefer without dropping a set. He does drop Paul-Henri Mathieu in the next round, however. James Blake gives him his first lost set, but Nadal wins a classic 3-6, 6-3, 6-1. In the semi-finals, tenth seeded Tomas Berdych is out of his depth and goes down 7-6[6], 6-2. In the final, Niko Davydenko spanks him 6-4, 6-2.

Nevermind. He still has time to win it, right?

Three long years go by. It is 2011. Sharapova’s comeback is almost complete. Nadal is the top seed. A lot is expected of both. ‘Pova sees off Petra Martic 6-3, 6-2 before giving Sabine Lisicki the treatment in a 0 and 2 smack-down. They will meet in the Wimbledon quarters later that year. She sees off fourth seeded Sam Stosur, who is months away from her biggest triumph, 6-4, 6-1. She somehow survives Alexandra Dulgheru 3-6, 7-6[6], 7-6[5] in a match this BACKSPINNER still remembers even now.

A little recap? (from "To Live and (Not) Die in (F)LA" - WTA Backspin; April 4, 2011)

“In a 3:28 drama-filled contest that lasted past midnight, Sharapova put on maybe the gutsiest performance she's had in three years. Dulgheru broke her serve four times in the 1st set, and TPFKATS (The Player Formerly Known as the Supernova) double-faulted on set point. Eleven games in, she'd already exceeded thirty errors. Dulgheru couldn't take the match, but she extended the Russian and forced her to find ways to overcome herself AND the Romanian. Of the eighteen breaks of serve in the match, ten of them came in Sharapova's service games. She had over 75 unforced errors, and nastily turned her ankle after taking a bad step following a serve at 5-5 in the deciding set. Down 6-1 in the tie-break, Dulgheru still refused to give up. Sharapova ended up winning the TB 8-6, and maybe BOTH players' seasons were turned around over the course of a single match.”

In the semi-finals, Andrea Petkovic, fresh off an upset of Caro Woz, this BACKSPINNER also remembers, couldn’t quite finish her off. Sharapova was through 3-6, 6-0, 6-2. In the final, Vika Azarenka, who ‘Pova still struggles with, denied her 6-1, 6-4.

Nevermind. She still has time to win it, right?

Nadal, meanwhile, dismisses Nishikori 6-4, 6-4 and Feli Lopez 6-3, 6-3. Alex Dolgopolov, seeded 21st, does even worse, winning just three games. Nadal struggled past Berdie in three but creams Federer 6-3, 6-2 in the semi. It is one of Federer’s worst ever matches. In the final it is heartbreak. Novak Djokovic’s winning streak continues with a 4-6, 6-3, 7-6[4] win. If you were to rank their matches that one is right up there...

Six years after the first time, he and Sharapova are once more the losers in the Miami final. The Tennis Gods have a cruel sense of humour.

Nevermind. He still has time to win it, right?

Now it is 2012. Sharapova, seeded second, survives Shahar Peer’s challenge in three sets in her opener. She gets by Sloane Stephens and Ekaterina Makarova, not easily but in straight sets. It is struggling Li in the quarterfinals. She batters her to a pulp in a 6-3, 6-0 demolition job. Next she sees off the Woz in three sets. It ends controversially, though Maria isn’t really to blame... or is she?

In the final, you guessed it, Aga Radwanska comes from nowhere and defies a 0-6 h-2-h stat to win 6-4, 7-5. Their head to head is now 13-2 to the Russian. Sharapova still has not won a set in a Miami final.

Nevermind. She still has time to win it, right?

Now it is 2013. Don’t worry, we’re almost through. Sharapova, seeded third, beats Eugenie Bouchard 6-0, 6-2 to open up. Next, she dismisses Elena Vesnina 6-4, 6-2. Klara Zakapalova, no longer Koukalova (though she would be again later), is seeded 21st but only wins four games. In what is a quite awful match, Maria wins again, beating Sara Errani 7-5, 7-5. She then routs Jankovic 6-2, 6-1 for her third consecutive final. She even takes the first set against Serena in the match. When was the last time she did that? But she wins just three more games, going down 4-6, 6-3, 6-0. At least she won a set in a final. But no trophy, sadly.

Nevermind. She still has time to win it, right?

It is now 2014. This BACKSPINNER is finally integrated into the system. Top-seeded Nadal dismisses Lleyton Hewitt 6-1, 6-3. He lets Denis Istomin have just one game in the next round. 14th seed Fabio Fognini manages four games. Nadal is finally tested in the quarter but beats Milos Raonic 4-6, 6-2, 6-4. When Berdman withdraws, Rafa is in the final. But all his momentum is gone. It’s Djokovic again. He wins 6-3, 6-3. It is easy. Djokovic, Davydenko and now Federer. Only those three have ever beaten Rafa four times in a row. Again, it is no title for Nadal.

Nevermind. He still has time to win it, right?

Finally we are back to the present. Seeded fifth in 2017, there is little pressure on Nadal’s shoulders. He eases past Dudi Sela 6-3, 6-4 to open up. He almost loses to Philipp Kohlschreiber but escapes 0-6, 6-2, 6-3. Nicolas Mahut does better than expected, but does not win a set. Rafa does not falter against Jack Sock or Fognini and is into the final having lost just one set. Like twelve years ago, though, Federer denies him. For the fifth time, just like Maria, he goes home with nothing.

Nevermind. He still has time to win it, right? Right?

S: Roger Federer def. Rafael Nadal 6-4/6-3
D: Kubot/Melo d. Monroe/Sock

...Federer is having a season akin to David Ortiz’s final hurrah. He has not been to a final here in eleven [!] years. But now he has his third title and a 3-0 record in Miami finals to boot. He has beaten Rafa in two and Ljubicic, in three breakers, in the other. This is the kind of thing he used to do.

But this year is different. Federer is looking exquisite. He may be playing inferior opposition - if I say it about Murray and Djokovic it must be said about the Swiss, too - but the opponents he saw off in the last three matches all should have beaten him. They all could have, too. This year is all about Federer’s resilience. He has literally ‘outlived’ the big three. He is the best player in the world five years after last being so. His wins against Kyrgios and Berdych were so impressive. He was pushed all the way. Normally there is no defence for Kyrgios’ smashing of rackets, but here there is. That was a heartbreaker for the Australian. And Federer playing that return match point down against Berdman is extraordinary. He has slayed so many demons - Del Potro, Rafa in Miami, Berdych in tiebreakers and his relatively poor record in Miami itself. Federer now leads Nadal 10-9 on hard-courts. He leads the head to head on two surfaces. He also leads off clay 12-10. Do you want a reminder of all of their matches? I thought so.

...This edition of ATP BACKSPIN is very Federer & Nadal-centric, with a sprinkling of Supernova. No apologies for that. This BACKSPINNER loves Federer. That is obvious. But once again here he reiterates how much respect he has for Rafa. The Spaniard is, for my money, the toughest guy in sports. Not Big Ben Roethlisberger. Not Mike Tyson. I will not even hear you talk about Jaromír Jágr. No, it is the bullfighter from the Balearic Islands. You’ve already had to trawl through twelve years of pain, shared at least with another, so there is no point accounting how he did at this tournament. We are back to the days of 2006-10. No Djokovic or Murray around, except to make up the numbers in the semi-finals. Del Potro is dangerous again. Tsonga is hanging around the top ten. The best two players in the world are Rafa and Roger. We’ve come full circle in a way. And it is comforting in its own way. To have these two back is nice. Fedex is back in the top four and Rafa is ranked 5th. Both rose two places today. The Swiss could challenge for the top two. So instead of making progress, well, we’ve gone backwards.

A funny note to leave you with...

...His first ever Masters hard court semi-final. Only his second semi-final ever at this level. Yes, you were expecting Kyrgios to win this. But he is hardly fresh. Besides, he can win any one of the awards on offer. Well, all the positive ones anyway. Fabio has had a banner week and, for the first time on record, he was unpredictable. But because this BACKSPINNER picked him to go one round less than he did, the irony of that, well, it hurts. His win over Jeremy Chardy was entertaining and inspired. His dismissal of Donald Young 6-0, 6-4 was totally professional. He even made Rafa work for it in the 6-1, 7-5 decision. So top marks for Fabio. Now he will lose ten in a row before making the semi-finals in Roland Garros.

...It is the same thing every week. He turns 29 this year. Time is running out. With his body the way it is and his history of injuries, is there any chance he is still here when he is Nadal’s age? What about Federer’s? Exactly. Time is running out.
...Forget the semi-final. Forget that he made another semi-final here. Forget that he is developing into a consistent top 15 player. The most surprising thing of all is that he made Roger Federer sweat. The Aussie is becoming, to paraphrase a certain Batman film, the hero the ATP tour needs. He is brash, bold and loud. He has spiky hair and can pull off awful neon green outfits. He demands attention. He is what is needed. People need to watch our sport; we need to branch out. Boring number ones won’t do it, they just don’t sell. When he smashed his racket it was human. We need a world number one like Safin, like Hewitt. It goes in cycles. After Sampras and Agassi retired we had human number ones. Now that the immortals of our age are quitting we need the humans to come back.
...It was a rare thing this tournament - in both doubles events the top ranking was right there for the taking. Like candy in the hands of an infant. But the Bryans, much like Bartolo Colon, seem to be on borrowed time. Time was they would have snatched up the prize on offer as their less illustrious peers fell by the wayside. But they lost to Nicholas Monroe and Jack Sock. That loss coupled with their lack of slam wins and the retirement from the Davis Cup. Well, is the ATP ready for a post-Bryans era?
....It is a rare thing to beat a top seed anywhere, but a three-time slam champion at this level? It just does not happen. Ever. So we have to call out the German for such a fantastic win. And the last two sets? Superb.


1. Miami SF – Federer d. Kyrgios 7-6[9], 6-7[9], 7-6 [5]
...I am going to call it now. This will be the match of the year, not at a grand slam. Federer was broken just once the whole tournament. This match had less breaks than that. The last time these two played there were breakers. This was rock and roll, rip-roaring. Big shots, exquisite slices and huge booming serves. The two most in-form players in the draw playing the highest quality calibre of tennis you or I have seen in a long while. There was more quality in this than in those Murray/Djokovic Australian Open finals. And that is no joke. Words cannot do this advertisement for the glory our sport can achieve justice.

Just watch this...

2. Miami R4 – Zverev d. Wawrinka 4-6, 6-2 6-1
...Any other tournament and this would be the match people remember. Or one of them anyway. But this coronation of Zverev has sadly been forgotten. It is a seriously good match and a tactical masterpiece from the German. He kept plugging away knowing he was doing the right thing. Eventually it paid off. His backhand is one of the very best there is.

1990 Stefan Edberg (L-W-L)
1994 Pete Sampras (W-W-W)
1995 Pete Sampras (L-W-L)
1998 Marcelo Rios (L-W-W)
2001 Andre Agassi (W-W-W)
2006 Roger Federer (W-W-W)
2011 Novak Djokovic (W-W-W)
2015 Novak Djokovic (W-W-W)
2016 Novak Djokovic (W-W-W)
2017 Roger Federer (W-W-W)

1991 Jim Courier
1992 Michael Chang
1994 Pete Sampras
1998 Marcelo Rios
2001 Andre Agassi
2005 Roger Federer
2006 Roger Federer
2011 Novak Djokovic
2014 Novak Djokovic
2015 Novak Djokovic
2016 Novak Djokovic
2017 Roger Federer

49 - Djokovic vs. Nadal (active)
45 - Djokovic vs. Federer (active)
37 - Federer vs. Nadal (active)
36 - Djokovic vs. Murray (active)
36 - Lendl vs. McEnroe
35 - Connors vs. Lendl
35 - Becker vs. Edberg
35 - Connors vs. McEnroe
34 - Agassi vs. Sampras

24 - Djokovic vs. Nadal (active)
23 - Federer vs. Nadal (active)
20 - Lendl vs. McEnroe
19 - Djokovic vs. Murray (active)
16 - Djokovic vs. Federer (active)
16 - Agassi vs. Sampras
16 - Becker vs. Edberg
15 - Connors vs. McEnroe

Italy d. [7] Belgium 3-2
...Yes, Beligum are home and, yes, it is on indoor hard courts. But look at Italy’s strength in depth. Fognini can beat anyone, anywhere. If he beats Goffin it is game over. After beating the top seeds in the last rounds, they will win here, too.

Australia d. USA 3-2
...We are going back to Brisbane. Kyrgios does turn up for the Davis Cup. Isner is notoriously inconsistent in this tournament and Jordan Thompson has shown how well he plays in his home country. But the big difference? John Peers. With the Bryans retired from the Davis the U.S. have no safety net.

France [6] d. [3] GBR 5-0
...This BACKSPINNER will never pick against the French in this competition. The percentages are too good. At home on indoor clay against a Britain without Murray, this is a lock.

Serbia [8] d. Spain
It is at home. They have Djokovic. Spain do not have Nadal. Is there anything else left to add?

At this point, Gavrilova’s season is not going well. We could swap her with Ash Barty and pretend nothing happened. But that would be cheating. If she has a dreadful season, well, we predicted it wrong. I predicted it wrong. We must live with it.

She is playing in Charleston. Jo Konta withdrew because, as the cynic would say, she didn’t expect to even make the final in Miami let alone win it. So now she needs a rest. Dasha is seeded ninth and takes the spot in the draw of the 2nd seed. Sam Stosur and Venus Williams are the major threats here, particularly her compatriot, who won it seven years ago.

She and her fellow Dasha go up against the second seeded Hlavackova/Mirza. It is a new surface and a fresh chance for Gavrilova to change the trajectory of her season.

NOTE:: Todd and I were laughing about this the other day in the BACKSPIN HQ coffee room. He said he couldn’t believe that I had not picked Federer to do so well, winning the Australian, Indian Wells AND Miami. He was speaking a tad ironically, of course. Honestly, though, I would have looked ridiculous and like I was playing favourites. I try not to do that. There is only one player I’ll break the rules for and that’s because she breaks all the rules, too. Even picking him as I have in the tournaments he has played in, this year is coming from bias.

[Ed.: And, hey, if either of us HAD predicted such a start for Federer then, well, it surely wouldn't have happened at all, right? I mean, look what we did to poor Pliskova in Miami and Indian Wells. - tds]

Thanks all and visit WTA BACKSPIN please.

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