Notes on a Draw Sheet: Nadal rising

Nadal is recovering well, but can he beat other excellent players?

Rafa Nadal won another clay tournament. Just like in Monte Carlo, his victory in Barcelona gives him 10 titles in two clay events.

In the final, he crushed Dominic Thiem. As the Belgian said, there was no way he could win when the Spaniard kept smashing into his backhand. The young Thiem can wail his strokes from behind the baseline, hitting it as hard as he can, but his one-hander gets pushed way back in the court, and it was rare that he could nail it on the lines.

Against Nadal over the past 12 years, few can do it.

The 30-year-old has now won 51 titles on clay. Rafa clearly loves it, and although he hasn’t won a Grand Slam in almost three years, but he is trying very hard. Without a doubt, Nadal has to improve his backhand and his second serve — if he wants to. But we will find out very soon because he will play at the ATP 1000 at Madrid next week and then Rome.

Hopefully, he will get a chance to match up with Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray (who lost against Thiem in the semis) to find out whether he has actually improved enough to bring down the best. If he does, the 14-time Grand Slam champion will be the favorite at Roland Garros. If he does not, at least five players can win it all — Nadal, Roger Federer, Djokovic, Murray and Stan Wawrinka.

Siegemund wins but Pliskova stalls

Out of nowhere, the 29-year-old Laura Siegemund shocked Kristina Mladenovic 6-1 2-6 7-6(5) to win Stuttgart. Two years ago, she was out of the top 100. In fact, for 10 years, she was unable to get into the top 100 at all. In 2015, finally, she did, swinging much harder than she did. It has taken her a very long time but at least she can finally say that when she is on, she can beat anyone. Well, most of them …

Mladenovic overcame Maria Sharapova in a tough marathon in the semis. The Frenchwoman is looking much better than she did before; she has always been a little bit slow and she hits some crazy shots, but when she comes to the net, she can put it away. This year, she may finally reach the top 10. But at Roland Garros she may be to nervous to make a statement.

How about Karolina Pliskova, who loses against Siegemund in Stuttgart. But, on Monday in Prague, the Czech lost in the first round against Camila Giorgi. The No. 3 Pliskova is excellent some days, and, on other days, mediocre at best. Sure, she can become No. 1 this year, but more importantly, she has to win a major. Or next year, because some people don’t think that a couple former No. 1s deserved to be super great. Look at Caro Wozniaki, who was No. 1 for almost two years, but she was unable to win a Grand Slam. Maybe she will someday —or not.

Right now, Pliskova has to do the same thing: at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open, where she has to shake off her nerves and go for it.

All the world is Nadal and Djokovic’s stage

Nadal IW 13 TR MALT9260


There have been few instances in the past when a dethroned No. 1 went as hard as Novak Djokovic has during the fall season to show the world that’s he really still the best player in the game. As the Serbian says, now No.1 Rafael Nadal deserves the top spot after his tremendous year, especially because he bested Djokovic in two Slams, Roland Garros and the US Open.  But this fall season has been all about Djokovic tapping into his enormous mental reserve, tweaking a few parts of his game and going right at the Spaniard, beating him in Beijing and the ATP World Finals. He was on a 22-match winning streak headed into the Davis Cup final, courtesy of an improved net game, clutch serving and a more consistent forehand.

Yes, Nadal was a little mentally down during the fall stretch and wasn’t his normal self in London, but he was out played after a solid week indoors and it sure looks like Djokovic believes that he still has the goods to take him down on a consistent basis off of clay. Nadal says that he thinks he’ll have a better shot at home in Australia and he should believe that given he’s won their last two outdoor hard court clashes (Montreal and the US Open) but if he’s to best him Down Under he is going to have to amp up his service speed again, have faith in his forehand down the line as well as his inside out forehand and perhaps in the offseason, improve his backhand down the line, the weakest part of his game.

Outside of Andy Murray‘s amazing run at Wimbledon and his fine play in winning Miami, this season has been all about Nadal and Djokovic. No other players really mattered. They combined to win three out of the four Grand Slams and all of the Masters Series titles except Miami. A healthy Murray would have had a lot to say about who was winning tournaments post Wimbledon, but his bad back got the better of him and now he has to prove post-surgery that he can still keep up with Nadal and Djokovic. In great health, he can, but it’s hard to think of any great tennis players who have returned from back surgery at the same level. Back surgeries have become more effective over the past 20 years or so it’s possible that Murray will come back at his Wimbledon winning level, but it is doubtful that the tennis world will see that right off the bat, so his chances of having major effect on the Australian Open are slim.

What that means is that there is a strong chance that Nadal and Djokovic will face off for the 40th time in the Aussie Open final. Will they play for almost six hours again like they did back in 2011? Perhaps not, but with the way that they match up they will surely grind it out for three hours minimum.

Can any other male player stop what appears to be the ATP’s inevitable final? No one really did at the O2 Arena in London. Sure, Juan Martin Del Potro has showed that in two out of three sets matches that he can play anyone tough and even beat them  on occasion but in three out five sets he hasn’t shown that since his return from wrist surgery in 2010. His serve and forehand are very effective weapons, but his backhand is relatively weak, his transition game is spotty, he doesn’t return all that well and even though he’s the best mover of any of the very tall competitors, he can’t run with the Big 4.

What he can do is continue to work on his offense, tighten the screws up a bit and do some mental exercises so he can avoid the lapses in concentration that plagued him in London in his loss to Roger Federer. He just announced he won’t play Argentina’s first round Davis Cup again, this one coming against Italy. He has a very poor relationship with the Argentine Tennis Federation

Speaking of whom, the Swiss played very at times during the ATP World Tour Finals, but he was also sloppy at times and that really costs him in his semifinal loss to Nadal. After the Spaniard’s tight straight set win, it sounded like Nadal described Federer’s play as “crazy” but he apparently said “aggressive” and noted that Federer had been effective against him in the past in London by going for winners off of every shot. While that strategy may have worked against Nadal a few years ago and might work one out of 10 times for Federer now against the man who is putting his GOAT status at serious risk, it’s just too hard for a 32 year old to pull that off when he’s lost a little speed and timing. Federer has to be more measured in his approach, like he was against Del Potro and to a degree in his opening three-set loss to Djokovic. Perhaps most importantly though is that in the off season and next year he has to open his mind up to change. He did not have a great season around the net, but he’s certainly capable of becoming a great volleyer and if he does not commit to charging ahead more and taking over matches at the cords then he’s not going to win a another Slam. His days of being able to consistently beat Djokovic, Nadal and Murray on anything but a very quick surface are gone. But a Federer 3.0 who can rush his foes and put away tough volleys? That Roger can win another major in 2014.

Regarding the other four men who played in London, the only one who really impressive was Stanislas Wawrinka, who displayed top 5 material at the tournament and for parts of the 2013. He has a terrific serve and backhand, and his forehand can be pretty effective when he’s on. He’s not bad at closing points at the net, but he doesn’t return that well and is still lacking that little bit of self-confidence that would have him actually upsetting a Djokovic or Nadal on occasion rather than constantly losing to them. If he can find a way to gain a little more belief in 2014, he may find himself back in Slam semi once again.

Of the other three men who competed there – David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych and Richard Gasquet – only the Czech showed off a very high level on occasion, but it also appeared that his mind was more on the Davis Cup final. Ferrer was exhausted after a long fall campaign and was underwhelming. Gasquet is quite a shotmaker, but he’s too erratic to take down the top guys and he’s no without a head coach as Riccardo Piatti has left him. Hopefully next year one of the so called up and comers such as Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov will make it into the final and add a little more flavor the competition.

Some other interesting reading:

Sharapova: Serena and I left feud at Wimbledon

Tipsarevic: I’m no Rocky Balboa story

 Bryan brothers aim to reach 100-title mark in 2014

Rio de Janeiro Terminates ATP Advertising Agreement Before Expiration



Sony Ericsson Open/Miami Draw Breakdown

Nalbandian shows a resurgence. Photos: Mal Taam/MALTphoto


Novak Djokovic’s path to the Miami semis looks fine; he could face the mercurial Marcos Bagdhatis in R2 (who says he can beat him but really can

What’s Happening at the Australian Open, Tuesday, Jan. 17



The tournament has scheduled women

Caro Mia! Wozniacki Upsets Kirilenko for Sexiest Award

Caro edged out two Russians.

Nadal Repeats as Sexiest Male; Newcomer Goes to Tomic by 1 Vote

The public has spoken in the seventh annual Readers’s Poll.

In the most anticipated and heavily populated voting ever, Caroline Wozniacki rode a wave of a European votes to outshine last year’s winner, Maria Kirilenko, and win the “Ana Ivanovic” Sexiest Female Player.  The Dane also outpolled two women who lead the early returns, Maria Sharapova and Julia Goerges.

Defending champ Rafael Nadal prevailed among the men for the “Marat Safin” Sexiest Male Player, edging fellow Spaniards Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez

Both awards are named after the two players who won the award for five straight years and were retired from competition.

In 2011, Novak Djokovic basked in the glory of his standout season with a large lead over the field in the Top Male Player. Somewhat remarkably, despite winning Roland Garros, No. 2 Nadal came in third in the poll behind Roger Federer, who did not win a 2011 major.

Wimbledon and WTA Championships winner Petra Kvitova outdistanced No. 1 Wozniacki by a commanding number for Top Female Player.

Even though the annual poll drew in an amazingly large vote total

ATP Finals: Federer & Ferrer on fire

Ferrer is on fire.

Outside of Roger Federer’s usually excellent play indoors, this has been a bizarre ATP World Finals, with two eye-popping results already being registered: Federer’s 6-3, 6-0 destruction of Nadal followed up by David Ferrer’s altogether shocking 6-3, 6-1 defeat of Djokovic. Let’s take nothing away from Federer, who has not lost a match since he came back from some R&R post the U.S. Open and stormed through Basel and Bercy, or Ferrer, who time and time again has proved himself to be worthy and gutsy opponent.

But Nadal losing 6-3, 6-0 to anyone is always a stunning result, even if you believe that Federer is the best player ever. Put it in context: the Spaniard entered the match with a 17-8 head-to-head record against the Swiss and had taken him down the last three times they played. Yes, Federer is a better player indoors but that does not explain how Nadal failed to hold serve once against the Swiss in the second set. If he served well, he should have been able to hold at least three times. If he returned well, he should have been able to grab at least one break. If he could grab Federer by the throat from the baseline and exhaust him with high hopping forehands, he should have been able to win a set. But frankly, Nadal is playing nowhere near as well as he was during the first eight months of the year. His uncle Toni needs to tell him to go out and rip the ball, because his backhand has become as vulnerable as Federer’s once was and he’s not able to will himself through points. If he does down to Jo Tsonga and gets knocked out of the competition before the semis, he is not going to feel great about his season, regardless of what he says in press.

Djokovic’s year has gotten way from him too, but of course nowhere near what has occurred with Nadal, as the Serbian can be very happy that he won three Slams. I do believe him when he says that little matter to him post the U.S Open and I also believe that when he was saying back in Basel that he kind of wishes that the season was over and he could rest now. Does he really want to face Federer in the poor form that he is now? That’s questionable, as how many times in two of out three sets, or let’s say in more accurately in 16 games, has he committed 33 unforced errors this year?

Probably none when he was healthy. Djokovic says that he have to raise his level by 50% to beat Janko Tipsarevic, who gave Tomas Berdych a hell of a fight in a three set loss. That’s a good call even though he owns his fellow Serbians. So if he grabs the win and Berdych does not stomp Ferrer – which is highly doubtful given the Spaniard’s level – then we will likely get a Federer-Djokovic semifinal, which would be perfect, especially given how tough Federer played Djokovic at the US Open. If Federer wants to go into next season feeling like he’s ready to grab his 17th major title at the Aussie Open, wins over Nadal and Djokovic is the recipe that he’s looking for, even if they were indoors in towo out of three sets. The Swiss is doing a much better job of dictating than he did earlier in the year and if he can serve as well and hit his backhand as sweetly in Melbourne as he has London, he really will have a chance at retaking the No. 1 ranking sometime in 2012, which for a 30-year-old, against super elite competition would be an incredible feat.

I’m just amazed at how Ferrer keeps improving given that he’s 29 and is seen as a counterpuncher: his forehand is a huge weapon; he’s now clubbing his first serve into the 120s and is a competent volleyer. Let’s not forget that his win over Djokovic was his fifth, so it’s not likely it was a fluke. I can’t see him winning the title over Federer, but I can definitely see Ferrer besting Nadal or Tsonga and reaching the final…Berdych has played fairly well too, which he should given that his game is fine fit for the thin air of the O2 Arena. He and longtime GF Lucie Safarova have split and he is now dating Czech model Ester Satorova, pictured here…Mardy Fish’s season came to an end in a three-set loss to Federer. Fish also took Nadal to three and played Tsonga tough for a set. It was fine year for the American, but I’m sure he wished he could have come into the ATP finals healthy and in better form. Happy Thanksgiving North America.




Federer is really an underdog this time.

Djokovic and Nadal Miles Ahead of Field Murray, Federer, DelPo Capable, but Longshots

Two men stand out here, and we all know who they are. If anyone other than Novak Djokovic or Rafa Nadal reaches the final it will be a stunning development unless one of both of them are hurt.

NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Djokovic has never reached the final at Roland Garros and totally choked against Jurgen Melzer last year, but in so many ways we may well toss out his entire career prior to the 2010 US Open when he really picked up steam and nearly won the tournament, falling to Rafa Nadal in the final. Jump to December 2010 and the man hasn