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What can you say after that Open?!

How Joker did it and why Rafa came up short - again

September 13, 2011 | 02:35 PM

Regarding the final, it seemed like there were two matches going on alternately:

At the start of the 1st and 2nd sets, and throughout much of the 3rd set, there was a battle royale with the longest, most vicious rallies one could expect, sensational tennis for the highest stakes.

Toward the end of the first two sets, and throughout the 4th set, there was another lop-sided performance in which Rafa seemed to hit too many short balls, and Joker made hitting outright winners against the toughest defender ever look like target practice against a stationary ball machine.

Why the difference?

Sometimes, it seemed to be simply fatigue on Rafa's part when he was back so far and had been run all over the court (almost 160 feet in one point, according to the graphic presentation offered by CBS). His fatigue in the 4th set is a matter of his own record from the press conference afterwards (The fourth, even if he was very bad from the back, I was very tired.).

Why did Rafa's game suffer more from fatigue (!) than Joker's, who needed an injury time-out after the first game of the 4th set to continue?

Afterwards, Joker said that Rafa was the fitter of the two by the 4th set, and explains how he succeeded with that disadvantage:

You know, luckily for me I had the ability to ask for medical timeout, and it helped me in the fourth set. I felt the most discomfort and pain with my serve, so I tried to go more for the precision rather than for speed [his average 1st serve speed dropped well below 100 mph, at least 10 mph slower]. I think that actually helped me to get into the rally better, because he was expecting maybe a bit stronger serve so he was returning short and I was taking my chances. I had to make the points very short, because it's obvious that he is the one that's physically fitter than me on the court today after the third set was done. I knew that and I had to go for my shots, and I did.

RE: Rafa's play in the 4th set, his response to the question:

Q. Did it knock you out of your rhythm when he took the long injury timeout after the first game of the fourth set after you had just won the tiebreak?

RAFAEL NADAL: We are starting the press conference in a bad way, I think. (Smiling.) Let's talk about the match. It's not the right moment to find excuses if he stops the match there or if I was tired.

Rafa's own answer explains why he too often fell fatigue throughout the match:

My serve worked bad tonight. That's the true. If I have to say two things about I'm not happy tonight, it's my serve for sure the first one. Because if my serve works really well, I know I have the challenge, the mental challenge for sure. Losing six times affects in the match, and you have to know that. And I know. I was ready for that. So accept everything, to fight every ball, and that's what I did. So I'm happy about that. But I didn't have free points during all that games. I didn't have not one free point in both sets. A few moments that you are tired and the few moments you really need something, I never had these free points. Last year I had; I didn't have this year. That change a lot the match. My serve has to come back to another level... So I have a goal, easy goal for me now. It's going to be tough to change the situation, but the goal is easy to see. To have a goal always you know how to work every day.

At other times, it seemed that Joker's serves and returns were surprising Rafa and leaving him flat-footed, like so many opponents before him (I think Roger and Tipsarevic both read Joker's serves and groundstrokes better than Nadal, though neither are in Rafa's league in fitness). Given an opening, as Rafa pointed out, Joker is just not missing much:

Q. What do you think he's improved this year the most in his shots that has brought him to this level? Serve or...

RAFAEL NADAL: No, no, no. I think he's always ready to -- he's having less mistakes than before. In my opinion, that's all. He's enough confident in every moment to keep believing in one more ball, one more ball. So that's why. I think his forehand is not more painful than before; his backhand is not more painful than before; he serve the same. So what I have to say is what I feel and what I told you.

Bottom line:

- Joker's making fewer mistakes and playing with the enormous confidence of a winner.

- Rafa served much harder and better last year throughout the Open and won many free points.

- The combination gave Joker a big advantage that Rafa couldn't overcome in spite of Joker's weakening over the course of the match. Rafa wore him down, which was his objective, but it wasn't enough.

RE: The Open as a Whole (for men)

Top line thoughts are probably the same for most of us:

- Joker has proven to be a warrior and THE winner this year (better in each major win and each final).

- Rafa continues to be a warrior of the first order and the second rank (as he hasn't beaten Joker).

- Federer continues to be very dangerous, though his warrior credentials need a little polish.

- Murray continues to be an also-ran at every Final 4 party, the man who never gets the girl (teeth?).

Beyond this, I've shared how unusual I think it is for four men to take 14 of 16 semi-final berths in the four majors of the same year, given the different surfaces. More likely is that the same four men will reach the semis in the same major two years in a row or a couple of times in the same 'era', as these four did in '08 and again this year. Connors, Borg, McEnroe and Gerulaitis were in the Open semis in '78 and '81 (Connors beat Borg in the '78 final; McEnroe beat him in the '81 final).

I've also written often about how dominate two and now three men have been in the Federer era (if either Nadal or Joker were to proceed to dominate majors in the next few years, while Federer was still active, there might be a case for Federer's era having ended this year and another's era having started). These statistics are broadcast ad nauseum, so I won't repeat them here.

I've started to look at how the Federer era compares with the Borg or Sampras era in terms beyond the number of Major title winners:

- How many different players have reached a Major final between '03 and '11?

- a semi-final?

The fact that so few people have won a Major title on every surface leads me to believe that the domination of a few players will be greater in the present era, though after scanning only past Open results, I'm not sure it will be that different from those other eras. I'll look at the other three majors and post anything of interest later this week.

RE: What Comes Next in 2011?

After Davis Cup semi-finals in Serbia and Spain this weekend, there is an Asia tour in October (with the ATP 1000 in Shanghai as its centerpiece) before things wind up back in Paris and London in November, with the Davis Cup final following on November 28. All but the top 8 players and Cup finalists can actually take 6-8 weeks off from tournaments after Paris in early November.

The ATP 2011 race (as opposed to the rankings) has qualified Joker, Nadal and Murray for London, with Federer and Ferrer virtually of spots. Below that, ongoing performance is more important.Less than 800 points separate Fish at #6 from Del Potro at #12 (for perspective, consider that Joker is almost 10,000 points ahead of Ferrer and is over 3000 ahead of Nadal).

Rankings as of September 12:

- Roddick (#14) and Tipsarevic (#13) moved up 7 places each.

- Isner moved up 4 to #18 (his highest ranking before this year).

- Dolgopolov up 3 to break into the top 20 for the first time.

- Wawrinka moved down 4 to #19.

Joker has basically locked up #1, and within the top four, only Murray retains any hope of moving up past Federer, who has a more points to defend this fall having won 2 titles (750 points) and been a finalist in Shanghai (losing to Murray), and a semifinalist in Paris (losing to Monfils).


US Open 2011 Men (final report)

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