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Finding Roger Federer Meltdown footage on YouTube is like finding a seat on the Number 4 Lexington Avenue subway at 9:30 in the morning. [Non-New Yorkers, take note: it's rare.] The Greatest of All Time usually deals with blown shots by dragging his middle finger across his forehead and tucking his hair behind his ear. Not this time. This was a semi-final match with Novak Djokovic at the 2009 Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, Florida. Djokovic just broke Fed in the third and deciding set and was up 15-0 when the Greatest of All Time took his eyes off a routine approach shot that could have evened the score. Federer went through lots of racquets when he was playing the junior circuit; wonder if he felt a little wave of nostalgia upon banging this one hard into the court.

On the Sideline

Entries in Rafael Nadal (16)

Sunday
May042014

Madrid: Does Nadal Believe He Can Win?

We all know Rafael Nadal, number one in the world, King of Clay and all that, can and should win in Madrid.  He's won it the last two years.  He's 302-23 on clay, what Tom Perrotta of the Wall Street Journal rightly described as "absurd." So why is everyone worried?

Rafael Nadal in a rare moment of defeat with David Ferrer. Ferrer is now 6-27 against Rafa.

Perrotta's article is titled "This Isn't the Nadal We All Know."  On the ATP's website, it's "Nadal Hoping to Banish Doubts in Madrid."  Over at Grantland, Louisa Thomas writes about Rafa's "Land of Nod," as in, nodding off, like he's in the midst of a bad dream and needs to brush off the cobwebs like he knocks the red clay out of the soles of his shoes before serving.

That's because Nadal is heading into Madrid having lost in the quarterfinals of the last two clay court tournaments he's been in, to guys he's routinely beaten.  

Here's how Perrotta sets up the conundrum:

The first defeat came against David Ferrer in Monte Carlo (where Nadal has won eight titles). Nadal had previously beaten Ferrer 17 straight times on clay. Then, last week in Barcelona, where Nadal had won eight titles and 41 consecutive matches dating back to 2005, he lost to Nicolás Almagro, who had never beaten Nadal in his career.

To those of us long accustomed to the logic of Nadal + Clay Court = Victory, just like 1 + 1 = 2, this New Math answer of Loss doesn't compute, especially when there's no apparent injury hampering him.  

Nadal's knees aren't broken this time.  What appears to be broken is his spirit.  He's suffering from Tennis Hate.

Nadal at Barcelona, where he lost to Nicolas Almagro. Not a face we often see on Nadal on clay.

Nadal tried to seize control of the storyline today.  As reported on ATPworldtour.com, he told reporters in Madrid, “When you lose, you have a hard moment, you have more doubts. But that's what happened. I've already said it several times. I didn't try to win Monte Carlo 12 times or Barcelona 12 times. Maybe that isn’t normal. This is the reality of the situation. Maybe it's normal to lose three times in the quarter-finals."

Wait a minute, is Nadal now second-guessing his past success?  "Maybe that isn't normal"?  Yes, it's extraordinary for most people, but it's been normal for him.  

Haters, this doesn't sound like a winning mental strategy to me.  Does it to you?  Hell, I've tried this! I've caught myself saying variations of it.   

  • "Maybe I'm supposed to lose to my husband.  After all, he's a guy and I'm a girl, and guys are just better at this eye-hand coordination thing."  
  • "Maybe I'm not supposed to win any matches my first year playing on a USTA league."  
  • "Maybe I'm not supposed to win, ever, because I am just not very good at this."  
  • "Maybe I'm not supposed to win because winning is for really competitive, bossy, control freaks and I'm just here to have fun."

My colleague, WNYC digital editor and 5.0 tennis player Caitlin Thompson, thinks Nadal's back-to-back quarterfinal losses to lesser players means he's in real trouble.  

Nadal's confidence took a hit after his 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 loss to Stan Wawrinka at the Australian Open in January.

"For a streakier player, such as Serena Williams, this would not be a big deal at all," she said in an e-mail. Williams is not as "emotionally invested" in a loss at a lesser tournament than she is in a Slam.  "For Nadal, who famously plays every point as intensely as the last, all losses are equal, which means they're all equally troubling. 

"When I was a junior tennis player, something my coaches tried very hard to instill in me was the idea of belief. Most matches, they'd tell me, were lost or won before the players struck the first ball - the winner having been decided by [the person whose confidence] was stronger. By thinking you could win, you made yourself able to win, and often did win.

"The big players - Rafa and Serena and all the others who dominate the rest of the field - have the biggest belief. And sometimes more important, they're helped out by their opponents lack of belief. Nadal's losing record indicates he's having a hard time - and he knows it." 

Nadal said he hopes the energy he draws from playing in Madrid, a tournament he describes as "special," will boost his confidence. He said he's also training hard, looking to make little changes.

"I don't think I have to change many things," he said. "I think I can change very small things, and the change can be quite drastic and quite big."

This is a great tip, Haters. You don't have to throw the racquet over the fence. I find I load up too much on all the things I'm going to do to win the next point. "Okay, watch the ball and hit through the ball and breathe as you hit and move your feet." And then what happens? None of the above. I'm too busy trying to remember what the first item on the To Do list was to even notice the ball coming over the net.

"I hope that it just works out," said Nadal. That's all you can do in this game, right? That hope-y, change-y thing. Hey, it worked for our nation's first black president. "If things don't come out well, we will go to Rome; if things don't work out there, we will go to Paris

Onward, through May, through the clay.

Tuesday
Mar112014

Indian Wells: Halep Edges Bouchard

Canadian Eugenie Bouchard looked like she didn't want to be playing when her third round match began against Romanian Simona Halep.  She had a sour look on her face, one that her coach, Nick Saviano, sought to wipe away.

Halep wallops a fearhand. She and Bouchard are seen as up and comers on the WTA tour. Photo courtesy SteveGTennis.

"If you want to be great, you have to fight for every point," he told her after Halep did a beat down on the Australian Open semi-finalist, 6-2, in the first set.  He told her to get her head out of her ass and into the court by moving her feet, showing more intensity and exploding up to the ball in her serve.  

Well, Saviano said everything except the "head out of the ass" part.  That's what I was shouting at the TV set as I watched.

The pep talk worked.  Bouchard tightened up her game.   She made just 7 unforced errors compared to 12 for Halep, and took control of the second set, 6-1.

But all the pep talks in the world -- and Saviano gave several -- couldn't get Bouchard a round closer to claiming her first tour title.  Halep, who's collected seven in the last nine months, oozed confidence and calm. She rallied from a break down in the third to win the last three games and the match, 6-2, 1-6, 6-4.

"I was a little nervous in the second set, and she's a very fast girl," she told Tennis Channel.  "I fought for every point."

Sounds like she overheard Saviano's tips for Eugenie.

"I play well now with difficult tennis," Halep said of her recent success.  She hit the top 20 last August, and the top 10 in January.

I found some Tennis Hate advice from Halep.  She told TennisWorldUSA.org you have to "take pleasure from the game."

I’ve had those experiences when I can’t move my body or hit the ball, and that’s because I’m too stressed. Just try to enjoy it, and don’t think about the results. If you’re more relaxed on court, you can play your best tennis. So try to have fun, and just focus on playing the next point. That way, you’ll be able to take pleasure from your tennis.

I wouldn't have thought to use pleasure and tennis in the same sentence. 

Neither would Rafael Nadal, perhaps, after the world number one and defending champion fell 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5) to Alexandr Dolgopolov of Ukraine. Dolgo beat Nadal even though he had more errors (49) than winners (36) and got just 40 percent of his first serves in. Nadal's first service percentage was 63.  Go figure.

Alexandr Dolgopolov is now 1-5 against Rafael Nadal. Photo courtesy of Getty.

"Today was an accident," Nadal said.   

Earlier this year, he beat Dolgopolov in straight sets to win the title in Rio.  He picked up his 62nd ATP tour title in Doha.  This, and his loss to Stan Wawrinka in the Australian Open final, were his only defeats this season.  

He smiled away questions about his back, which seized up in Melbourne.

“Forget about the back. I don't want to talk about the back anymore because my back is fine. The bad feelings were with my forehand and backhand," he said.

Early exit for the defending champ, who insists his back is not the issue. Photo courtesy of Getty.Dolgopolov, meanwhile, had Nadal at 5-2 in the third and was serving for the match when a 500-pound gorilla climbed onto his back.  Tennis Hate strangled his whiplike service motion.  He couldn't get a first serve in.  He lost the game at love.  Nadal stormed through three games in a row to tie it at 5-5.  Both held serve to bring it to a tiebreak.  Nadal got the early lead at 5-2, but hit balls long, including a gimme volley at net, and Dolgopolov had match point on his racquet.

He thought he won it with an ace, but an electronic review showed it a smidge wide.  I wondered about that invisible gorilla.  Was it tugging on Alex' ponytail?  Wrapping a fat old paw around his serving shoulder? Fogging up Dolgo's focus with his banana breath?

Dolgopolov elbowed the beast away and won with a flourish, snapping one of his signature flat backhands crosscourt for a winner that zoomed just out of the reach of the ever-efforting Nadal.  Dolgo shook his head in disbelief.  It was his first-ever win against Rafa.

 "I think I found some smallpoints, in the middle of the point," he told Tennis Channel.  In previous matches, he said, Nadal pushed him off the court.  "I just tried to turn off my head and go for the shots...find a good shot to risk and go for it."

He gets Italian Fabio Fognini in the fourth round.  Simona Halep faces qualifier Casey Dellaqua of Australia, who won in a walkover of Lauren Davis.  The American got food poisoning and withdrew.

Sunday
Jan262014

Australian Open: Wawrinka Wins, Getting 1st Slam Title and 1st-Ever Victory Over Nadal

Stanislas Warinka beat a wounded world number one, Rafael Nadal, to lay claim to the Australian Open championship title, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.  But most of all, Stan beat Tennis Hate out on Rod Laver Arena.  It was really starting to push Wawrinka around in that third set.

Stan delivered: first Slam victory, first win over Nadal, first time as World No. 3. Photo courtesy Getty Images. 

Wawrinka was a Stanimal at the start, doing the unthinkable:  he won the first set.  He'd never won a set against Nadal in their 12 previous meetings.  Wawrinka also got an early break in the second against Nadal when Rafa's back seized up, apparently on a first serve.   Rafa bent over at the baseline and squeezed his eyes shut in pain.  

Not his knees, for once. Nadal's history of injury-plagued Aussie Opens continues. Photo: Amy EddingsIt's rare to see that from Nadal.  The guy plays with pain all the time.  He's got two creaky knees, one that kept him out for 7 months and caused him to miss last year's Australian Open.  He's been playing with a huge blister on his hand.  So to see Nadal doubled over like that, and breaking down briefly into a towel, you knew whatever he was feeling in his lower spine had to be bad. But the crowd thought it was gamesmanship, and booed Rafa when he took an injury time out.  Even Stan was barking at the umpire. 

Wawrinka kept his cool and closed out that second set.  But, as ESPN commentator Brad Gilbert puts it in his classic, Winning Ugly, "Beware the Wounded Bear."  And beware the Wounded Bear on Vicodin.  Especially Rafa Nadal.  The guy came back last year after a seven-month break to tend to one of his many knee problems to tear through the 2013 season and return to the number one spot.  You knew he wasn't going to let Wawrinka win in straight sets.

Wawrinka must have been thinking the same thing -- I can't let one of the greatest players ever to lose another set! -- so he gifted Nadal with the third set.  He wrapped it up with unforced errors and tied it with a bow by letting go of two break point opportunities.  

Stan almost let it go in the fourth set, too.  He was the first to break, getting Rafa to go up 3-2.  But nerves and Wawrinka's old story of being the Fighting Failure got to him.  (The tattoo on his left arm is a Beckett quotation, ''Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.'')  He couldn't buy a point in the sixth game and gave the break right back at 0-40.  

Maybe Wawrinka re-read his tat during the changeover and decided that the way to fail better is to win.  Stan brought Rafa to another nervy 15-40 spot.  He looked at his box, pointed to his head and punched it a few times. That must've rattled something into place, because Wawrinka seized the moment, the game, and, serving it out at 5-3, the fourth set, the match and the tournament.  

Maybe Wawrinka re-read his tat during the changeover and decided that the way to fail better is to win.

It took Wawrinka a few beats to even acknowledge his winning shot, a gutsy inside-in forehand from inside the service  that he blew down the line into the corner of the deuce court.  Nadal, who usually owns the baseline, a champion defender, a guy who gets to every ball, just stood there, flat-footed, and watched it sail past.   

It's the 28-year-old Wawrinka's first Grand Slam victory.  He becomes the number 3 player in the world.  That other Swiss, Roger Federer?  He drops from 6th to 8th.  

Wawrinka was muted in his victory celebration.  He wasn't beaming or bumping his chest (Djokovic) or pointing to the sky (Murray) or doing wirlygigs (Tsonga).  He just smiled.

He said during the trophy ceremony that he was still wondering whether he had won.  "Last year I had a crazy match, I was crying a lot after that match," he said of his five-set heartbreak against Novak Djokovic in the Round of 16. "Let's see if I'm still dreaming."

To Rafael Nadal, he said, "Your back is going to be fine."

Down Under, everything is topsy-turvy and upside-down.  It's been a tournament of upsets.  Rod Laver Arena is where Nadal and Djokovic sat down during the 2012 awards presentations after their epic, record-shattering five-hour, 53 minute final. It's where the usually calm, cool and collected Federer became undone and wept openly after his 2009 loss to Nadal.  

Now it was Nadal who was tearing up as he accepted the runner-up trophy. "I'm sorry to finish this way.  I tried very, very hard."  

He called it was one of the most emotional tournaments of his career.

Photo: Amy Eddings

 

 

Thursday
Jan232014

Australian Open: Nadal Advances to Final to Play Surging Stan

Rafael Nadal did what he usually does when he faces Roger Federer: he beat him.  And he did so fairly easily, too, in their Australian Open semifinal, 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-3. Nadal has now beaten Federer 9 times in their last 11 Grand Slam meet-ups, and owns a 23-10 record against the Greatest of All Time.  

Nadal gets the GOAT's goat. Photo: Aaron Favila/AP

Which again brings up the question: IS Federer the greatest of all time?  

Certainly, Rog has the record of most Grand Slam wins -- 17 -- and the  most consecutive weeks as Number One. But the 27-year-old Nadal, "in the meaty years of his career," as Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim put it, is just four Slam wins away from tying that record.  His career trajectory still seems on the rise, bad knees be damned, while the 32-year-old Fed's is trending downwards.

IS Federer the Greatest of All Time?

Federer has entered this season trying to shake things up, with a new, bigger racquet and a celebrity coach, 6-time Slam winner Stefan Edburg.  But the strategery was no match for Nadal.

"For nearly two weeks now, Federer had played like the Federer of old — but Nadal beat that Federer, too, for the most part," said The New York Times' Greg Bishop.

"I tried a few things," Federer said.  "I think Rafa does a good job of neutralizing you."

Check out Nadal the Neutralizer:

Nadal said it was his best match of the tournament. 

"I think I played great," Nadal said.  His only dissatisfaction with his level of play was on a point during the first set tiebreak.  Yes, Haters., just one point.  I can only dream.  

Here's how he analyzied the tiebreak:

In the deuce position I made second serve return with a backhand that I had mistake.  That is the only point I am not happy about the way that I played on the tiebreak.  With 5-1, I missed a forehand down the line but it was the right shot.  Missed it for just little bit.

It's a little window into Nadal's Tennis Love, how he learns from his mistakes.  He doesn't get into whining and self-flagellation, doesn't indulge -- at least, in front of reporters -- in self-pity.  IHis analysis was a dispassionate dissection of what was working and what wasn't.  He asked himself simply: Was it the right shot at the right time?  

Nadal plays for the championship against Federer's countryman, the now-best Swiss player on the tour, Stan Wawrinka.  He defeated Tomas Berdych, 6-3, 6-7 (1), 7-6 (3), 7-6 (4) in their semis.

It's Stan's first Grand Slam final, and he'll be unnerved, no matter what.  Stan is 0-12 against Nadal.  The blog Busted Racquet points out that Nadal has not lost a set against Wawrinka.  But Stan had lost to Novak Djokovic 14 times in a row before upsetting The Djoker in the quarters Wednesday night.  With the top seeds Djokovic, Serena, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka ousted during this year's Aussie Open, why not bet on Wawrinka beating Rafael Nadal?

"I didn't expect to make a final in a Grand Slam and now it's happening," Wawrinka said.  "I'm just really happy."

He's got another day to enjoy that feeling before looking across the net at Nadal.

Sunday
Jan122014

Australian Open: Nadal Over Wawrinka, Li Over Azarenka

The Australian Open is about three hours away AS I TYPE.  Talk about Tennis Hate.  I'm hating 16 hour time zone differences and draw sheets.  I'm scrambling to submit mine by 7:00 PM Eastern Time for Tennis Channel's contest. Every day, at WNYC, I work under deadline pressure.  Why should my Sunday afternoons at home be any different? 

 

Serena Williams seems likely to pick up her 18th Grand Slam title, which would put her in the same company as Chris Evert and Martina Navratalova.  Yeah, she has to beat Victoria Azarenka, but she can do that.  She just did in Brisbane, and Williams' last take-down of Azarenka was for the US Open title in September.  It won't be easy, though.  Both of those matches were close, with Serena needing three sets to beat Vika at Flushing Meadows.

But there's Li Na lurking in the semifinal, to spoil it all for Serena.  Haters, you know how I love that.  If Li gets past Serena, she could see a rematch with Vika in the championship round.  Azarenka is going for her third consecutive Australian Open trophy.  

Li Na could upset the conventional narrative of this tournament in so many ways.  It would be awesome.

I want Li Na to beat Vika Azarenka in a go-for-broke three-set chamionship match.

What I'll be looking for to entertain me in the interim: an early exit for 7th-seed Sara Errani, who suffers from Tennis Hate and doesn't think she belongs in the Top Ten.....an upset of Azarenka by young gun Sloane Stephens in the Round of 16, just like she last year to Williams in the quarters...a Kerber/Kvitova nailbiter in the Round of 16.....and, in third round action, Jersey girl Christina McHale besting 10th seed and former world number one Caroline Wozniaki, who's too distracted by plans for her upcoming wedding to Rory McIlroy.  

On the men's side, I'm actually predicting more unpredictability than on the women's half of the draw. Unconventional, I know.  I don't think Andy Murray is going to go very far.  He's recovering from back surgery. Philip Kohlschreiber can take him in the quarters, after he confounds John Isner, who will suffer a letdown from his skin-of-his-teeth 7-6(4), 7-6(7) victory over Yen-Hsun Lu (who?) in Auckland.

I'm making a sentimental pick, by-passing a world number one Rafael Nadal/world number 2 Novak Djokovic dream final, for a championship match between Nadal and 8th-seed Swiss Stan Wawrinka.

Stan will have to upset Djoko in the process.  He came close last year in the fourth round in Melbourne, leading at one point 6-1, 5-2 (ah, the Tennis Hate that ensued!).  It was one of the best matches of his life and in tennis. Stan's no longer languishing in the fading Federer's shadow.  He stepped up his game in 2013.  He climbed back into the top ten for the first time since May 2008 -- reaching his current spot of 8th in the world in July, a career best --  and collected his fourth ATP World Tour title at Oeiras, his first since 2011.  

So, payback time for Stan when he meets Djokovic in the quarters.  I think he can do it, and defeat Berdych, too, in the semis.  But he won't get Rafa.

What I'll be looking for to entertain me in the interim: Ryan Harrison, losing his cool and busting some racquets over the shots of quicksilver trickster Gael Monfils in the first round....16th seed Kei Nishikori, newly empowered by advice from Hall of Famer Michael Chang, giving Nadal a scare in their fourth round match....the battle of the beautiful one-handed backhands in the fourth round between Wawrinka and 9th seed Richard Gasquet....a first-round battle of the old-timers, American Michael Russell and might-as-well-be-American Dmitry Tursunov (Russian, seeded 30th)....and how quickly the Greatest of All Time, Roger Federer, will get sent home to his pregnant wife and twin daughters.