this pretty well sums up the semi's

pound cat

Nadal is gracious as usual, Federer even makes small jokes

Tennis Magazine

IW: "What the Hell"
Posted 03/22/2008 @ 11 :19 PM

You never know what the future will bring, but going into 2008 few of us could have conceived of one in which Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal became semifinal fodder. That’s what the two best players in the world have been in the two biggest tournaments of the year so far. First in Melbourne and now in Indian Wells, Federer and Nadal were both drummed out in the semis in straight sets. Today it was by the identically eye-popping scores of 3 and 2.

Eye-popping, yes, but what do these losses by Fed and Rafa mean for the top of the men’s game going forward? In some ways the results are anomalies. Neither guy is going to start losing 3 and 2 to anyone on a regular basis, and neither is likely to make a habit of getting blown out by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Mardy Fish. But the cracks in both of their armors grew a few new branches today.

First up was Nadal versus Novak Djokovic, the man who is hunting the No. 2 ranking that the Spaniard has held for three years. This was a 1:00 match on a 90-degree day, the kind of afternoon I associate with a classic grind-the-other-guy-into-the-dust performance by Nadal. But it was Djokovic who was sharp in the opening game. After a few early hiccups, he controlled the middle of the court for the rest of the day and watched as a demoralized and weary Nadal sprayed and shanked his way off the court as fast as possible.

In the second set, Nadal played as badly as I’ve ever seen him play. The comparison that comes to mind is his loss to Youzhny at the U.S. Open in 2007, but even then he seemed more spirited. Against Blake two days ago, he had attacked his returns; today he was passive with them, and he hit short with both his ground strokes. But even at his worst, he never caves and hits a half-hearted, all-or-nothing drop shot the way he did when he was down a break point at 2-4 in the second set. It landed in the bottom of the net and, the match now essentially over, Nadal marched straight to his chair on the sidelines. This followed a series of horrid frame shots and routine misses from both ground stroke wings. Nadal said he was tired, and he had a right to be after his last two matches. But it doesn’t hide the fact that he was also demoralized by Djokovic’s canny, tricky, complete game—the Serb was the better player in every facet of the match.

Through the first set, the two seemed ready to showcase baseline tennis at its best. They fought carefully to carve out a space in the middle of the court that would eventually allow them to get a look at a ball they could aim toward the corners. They were each trying to find a way around the other’s defenses, Nadal with high-kicking topspin, Djokovic by hitting line drives on the rise. The test would be, Who could create the opportunities to hit outside the center of the court, and who could deliver when they got that chance?

In both cases it was Djokovic. He got on top of Nadal’s topspin with his backhand, but even more impressive was how well he defended with his forehand. Typically Nadal takes control of a point with an inside-out forehand that forces his opponent far to his right. Djokovic used a wide-open stance to return those balls, which left him with an easy recovery back to the center of the court. Nadal couldn’t get him scrambling and couldn’t find a safe way to dictate points. The errors started to fly.

For his own part, Djokovic broke down Nadal by working up the lines and taking his time away (something Fish would do well against Federer later). He broke Nadal on a lucky net cord for 5-3, but what matters is how he followed that up in his own service game. Djokovic kept the pressure on with three good first serves, including an ace, and punctuated the set with another ace.

In the second set, Djokovic mixed up his serve well enough to fool Nadal a number of times (including with a half-pace slice in the deuce court that went for an easy ace.) And he had no trouble flicking his forehand short and wide to Nadal’s backhand and then sending a rifle shot up the line for a winner on the next shot. Martina Navratilova has said that she doesn’t love Djokovic’s forehand because it’s “busy.” And the little extra rotation he uses at the end of his backswing does look like an affectation. But does it help him somehow, with variety, spin, angle, trajectory? I can’t say for sure, but few players put the ball in different spots (short and long, crosscourt and down the line) with as much as ease and seeming disguise as Djokovic does with his forehand.

Afterward, Nadal said he wasn’t injured, and that the timeout he took was for a pinched toe. He said he was tired, but what struck me was how cavalier he was about accepting Djokovic as a potential No. 1 this year: “I think he’s not better than Roger,” Nadal said of Djokovic, “but in the first part of the season he play better than [anyone], so going to be big chances for be No. 1 this year for sure. Why not?”

This is just an honest assessment of the situation—you’d never get anything else from Nadal. But for perhaps the first time an honest assessment now means contemplating Djokovic as not just No. 2 in the world, but No. 1. Was this the match in which Djokovic established himself as superior to Nadal? I’m not prepared to say that, but as Rafa himself says when he thinks of how good Djokovic could be: “Why not?” In other words, the sky’s the limit, and everything is up for grabs.

By the time Nadal was finished talking, Federer was down 3-0 to Mardy Fish. The press walked, stunned, to our seats to survey the damage. What we saw was an old-fashioned thumping—Federer was as feeble as Fish was awesome. Federer played as if he were in a daze; some of his return misses looked about as fierce as the ones he was tossing back to Pete Sampras a couple weeks ago.

But make no mistake, Fish beat him. He beat him with deep serves when he needed them, jumping backhand winners on crucial points, and unreachable forehands up the line. Fish said afterward that he wanted to beat him with pace and take Federer’s time away. He implemented the game plan right form the coin toss:

"Sometimes in big situations," Fish said, "I'll tend to receive [if I win the coin toss], just to kind of get my feet under me. Today I said, What the hell. Let's go for it."

Fish went for it in the simplest and most effective way possible: by putting a heavy serve on the line and pounding a heavy forehand into a corner. Even when Fish isn't at his best, it’s tough to get a rhythm against him. But he had it all working against Federer, who had no time to set up and work the point to his advantage. Federer said afterward that his only regret was that he hadn’t done more with Fish’s second serve when he had the chance. Otherwise, he said he’d been beaten by a guy who “took all his chances.” What can you do against that?

Federer’s losses in recent years have come against grinders, but this one came to an attacker. Does that give other attackers hope, or a game plan? We’ll see—go for broke is always a tricky proposition, and nothing to count on, but if Mardy Fish can do it….

It’s a textbook approach—take the other guy’s time away—but it still works. For years, Federer has defended, returned, and backhand-passed his way around all attackers. The big question for the year may be whether he can continue to work that magic with as much confidence now that his expectations of near-perfection have—by necessity, by illness, by the reality of the sport, by losses like today’s—been lowered.

And Federer’s expectations are currently lower than they were at this time last year. That’s hardly surprising: In 2007, he came to Indian Wells on a 41-match winning streak, only to lose in a similarly deflating and somewhat baffling manner to Guillermo Cañas. In the press conference afterward, he credited Cañas, but today he was much more upfront and plainspoken about the fact that Fish had been the better player. Federer then pronounced himself happy with his semifinal finish. These are the realistic words of a guy looking to work his way back to his best form. But the modesty of their ambitions, as well as their prospective quality, were still a little shocking to hear from a 12-time Grand Slam champion. If Nadal is being directly challenged, and perhaps passed, by one player, Federer is in the midst of the most uncertain period of his No. 1 reign. It hardly spells doom, of course—if he wins Key Biscayne, the old ultra-confidence will flow back in a hurry. It’s a part of his makeup by now. But he didn’t show any of it today.

Still, Federer and Nadal, while they didn’t give us much in the semis (let alone win the event), remain good value. No one gives fans more for their money than Nadal. And he gave plenty at Indian Wells, from his tooth-and-nail comeback against Tsonga, to his fabulous pick-ups and forehand bombs against Blake, to his self-deprecating manner in his pressers all week. Today he was asked if he would do anything special for Easter Sunday. “Nothing special, no?” Nadal answered, not quite getting the reporter’s drift. “I would love to go to Los Angeles to watch the Lakers, but [Pau] Gasol is injured.” His own Jesus has an ankle sprain.

Federer wasn’t much of a presence on the courts—he didn’t play Thursday or Friday—but he had his own, much more wry, sense of humor intact in the presser today. He and Bud Collins had this exchange:

“Are you well, Roger?”

“I’m well. How are you?”

“I don’t have to run.”

“Well, I didn’t run much, either.”

If Federer and Nadal will no longer reign as utterly as they have in recent years, they remain class acts and civilized in defeat. For today, let's just call them game’s best champions.

Beacon Hill

Hall of Fame
I always cheer for Federer over Nadal, but I sure am more and more appreciating Nadal as a person. You have to admire him. There is a really good chance that he will never reach number 1, and he may be starting to realize that.

He's a top 10 player on hard courts, but certainly not the best. It's unlikely he will continue to win almost every clay court event he enters, and he has to because so many of his ranking points depend on it. The Wimbledon final may be as far as he ever gets there. It will be difficult for him to play the way he does and be injury free or have a long career.

I wish him well, but it will be a struggle for him to get to number 1 now. If he's going to do it, his best chance is going to be sooner rather than later.

PS: You might want to get rid of the spelling mistake in the title of this thread.