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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 (15)

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.  

 

Monday
Jun242013

Wimbledon: Nadal Out in First Round

The freshly-groomed, bright green grass of Centre Court at the All England Lawn Tennis Club did nothing to muffle the sound of Rafael Nadal, crashing out of Wimbledon.

 Nadal wipes disbelief from his face in 1st rd Wimby ouster. Photo courtesy Wimbledon.com

Rafa, just weeks from his triumphant and record-breaking 8th victory at Roland Garros, petered out against Belgium's Steve Darcis, 76 (4), 76 (8), 64.  Darcis is ranked 135th in the world.  

It's the first time Nadal has lost in a first round in 34 Grand Slam appearances.

The match stats show Nadal played a sloppy game, with 24 unforced errors.  That is the same number of errors Darcis racked up, but he hit 53 winners, while Rafa hit just 32.

Nobody was expecting me to win. So I had to play a good match, relax, and enjoy the game.  That's what I did. -- Steve Darcis

Here's how Ben Rothenberg tells it in The New York Times:

Nadal was often exposed during the match when trying to run around his misfiring backhand to strike a forehand. It is a tactic he often uses with great success on clay but the quicker grass courts proved less forgiving.

The 29-year-old Darcis has never beaten Top 5 players. Until now.Wimbledon.com writer Barry Newcombe notes that this early exit is worse than the second round beat-down Nadal suffered last year at Wimbledon at the hands -- and awesome serve -- of Lukas Rosol.  Rosol played out of his mind, the best of his career.  Darcis' win was impressive in a different way.  He did what Nadal often does.  He took control of the match from the get-go, holding six break points in Nadal's first four service games.

The odds were surely stacked against Darcis. He had played at Wimbledon only three times before – and was a First round loser a year ago. In twelve of his previous Grand Slam appearances he had lost in the First round.

Darcis's best performance at Wimbledon before today was to reach the second round in 2009. His best results have been on the Challenger circuit but he did have one good year on grass at Eastbourne in 2012 when he reached the semi-finals before quitting with a back injury against Andy Roddick. Today at Wimbledon Darcis kicked away his previous record for ever. He gained one of the historic wins of any era at the Championships. Moreover he did so against one of the unquestioned giants of the game. Nadal had 20 wins on grass going into this First round match

But Nadal had not played the Wimby warm-up in Halle, Germany this year.  Nadal doesn't like to give excuses for his losses, but he hinted at this one in his post-match face-the-press conference.

"The opponent played well.  I had my chances.  I didn't make it," he said.  "So in grass is difficult to adapt yourself, to adapt your game.  When you don't have the chance to play before, I didn't have that chance this year, is tougher.  I didn't find my rhythm."

Nadal says his knee didn't hurt in his loss to Darcis. But what about his confidence? Courtesy AFP/Getty Images.But sports reporters -- those hungry beasts -- would not let this go.  They were on the hunt for Tennis Hate, and there's no better Hater story line than the one that posits that the 26-year-old King of Clay plays too punishing a game and is grinding his troubled knees right out of the sport.

Q.  You turned a lot around your backhand to play your forehand, and also you didn't move that well.  Was your knee 100% today?

RAFAEL NADAL:  I think you are joking.  I answered this question three times or four times already.  I don't gonna talk about my knee this afternoon.

Only thing that can say today is congratulate Steve Darcis.  He played a fantastic match.  Everything that I will say today about my knee is an excuse, and I don't like to put any excuse when I'm losing a match like I lost today.

He deserve not one excuse.

Q.  You talked a little bit in Paris about your schedule, adjusting it.  I'm wondering if you think you might need to look at that more closely.  Obviously you love playing on the clay, but it's a lot of matches.  Is that something you think going forward you need to look at more closely? [TRANSLATION: IS IT YOUR FAULT YOU LOST BECAUSE ARE YOU PLAYING TOO MUCH?]

RAFAEL NADAL:  What?  I didn't understand that.

Q.  In Paris you talked about your schedule, maybe adjusting it.  I'm wondering if you think physically it's a lot on your body to play so much on clay, even though you love that surface. [TRANSLATION: IS IT YOUR FAULT YOU LOST BECAUSE YOU ARE PLAYING TOO MUCH?]

RAFAEL NADAL:  If I play too much?  That's the question?

Q.  I'm wondering if you need to look at your schedule. [TRANSLATION: SHIT, HE'S ON TO ME, HE REALIZES I WANT TO KNOW IF HE'S TO BLAME FOR PLAYING TOO MUCH.]

RAFAEL NADAL:  In which way?

Q.  To play less in the spring. [TRANSLATION: YOU PLAYED TOO MUCH TENNIS, GREEDILY SNATCHING UP TROPHIES AT ACAPULCO, SAO PAULO, INDIAN WELLS, BARCELONA, MADRID, ROME AND ROLAND GARROS IN YOUR 46-2 COMEBACK FROM A LEFT KNEE INJURY. AND NOW YOU'RE PAYING FOR IT AT WIMBLEDON.]

RAFAEL NADAL:  To play less?

Q.  Yes. [TRANSLATION: YES.]

RAFAEL NADAL:  I cannot predict the future.  I cannot say when I do a calendar if it was wrong or if it was positive.  Since six hours ago was a perfect calendar, now is a very negative calendar.  That's not true.

Darcis, meanwhile, credited his serve (13 aces to Rafa's 6) and his resolve to "do something today" with his unexpected triumph.

"I think today I serve very good.  I could use a lot of slice.  And I think he didn't like it so much," he said.

"Of course, he didn't play his best tennis.  But I knew it is the first match on grass for him.  Me, I played already four.  So I think it helped me today."

Haters, I zeroed in on what Darcis said he did to prepare mentally for his match with one of the greatest players of the sport.  He said it was "easy."  He actually used that word.  EASY>

"Nobody was expecting me to win," he said.  "So I had to play a good match, relax, and enjoy the game.  That's what I did."

Huh.  Nobody expects ME to win.  Even me.  Ah, but there's more from Zen Master Darcis:

"But I really wanted to do something today.  You know, if you go on the court, if you try to have fun, it's not the good point.  So I really try to fight.  I knew I could have a chance if I play a good match.  That's what happened today."

One can get TOO relaxed in a lop-sided match and giggle your way right into the locker room.  You still have to want to win.  You still have to be willing to fight, to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, to chant a favorite sports cliche during changeovers.  

Darcis will need to keep chanting.  He faces Lukasz Kubot of Poland next.  And he could see John Isner or veteran Lleyton Hewitt in the Round of 16, should he beat his personal best and get past the third round in a Grand Slam.