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Rome Men's Final Re-Cap; Tournament Wrap=up

Rafa def. Joker 7-5, 6-3, regains #2 rank and seed in Paris


May 21, 2012 | 06:54 PM

Rafa def. Joker, 7-5, 6-3

QUESTION IS: Did a shrink cure Rafa, or what?

If not, what changed the balance this year between these two on clay?

A year ago after Joker had beaten Rafa in straights sets in both the Madrid and Rome finals (his 3rd and 4th wins in a row over Rafa in 4 months), it was obvious that Joker seemed to have Rafa's number, or at least be inside his head. We asked if Rafa could change his style enough to counter the Serb's successful aggression against him - it seemed that the Rafa's defensive skills were not enough to solve this opponent, even on clay. Three more major final wins confirmed this perception. And now, after Rafa's straight set wins over Joker in Monte Carlo and Rome, there's a different perception: Rafa is the favorite to defend the French Open.

Nothing has changed except in Rafa's head. His serve is the same, as is his play from the baseline, but his demeanor is back to being positive, and his racquet is once again the agent of his magical hands. The defensive skills which won him the title in Rome today are little less likely to work at Wimbledon, and unlikely to be enough on hard courts to make him the favorite over Joker. Unless, of course, he gets in Joker's head...

Last year, Joker had the magic touch that comes with a sense of destiny. It got him out of the toughest spots against the top players, and helped him dominate everyone else. This year opponents aren't accepting his winning as inevitable. We saw this happen to Roger in 2008 after 5 years of his dominating the tour's rank and file. To Rafa, it hasn't happened yet, except with Joker last year. After 7 straight losses in a little more than a year, it appears he's been able to even the contest, at least on clay.

The winner/error counts in this match give a pretty accurate picture of what happened. What happened to Joker against Rafa is exactly what happened to Federer against him in the semis:

Rafa v Joker Joker v Federer

WINNERS 15 22 14 22

UNFORCED ERRORS 21 41 20 42

Rafa did not try to outdo Joker at his game, but won playing within himself, as Joker had done against Federer. Their styles are very different, but the result on clay is the same: the better defender has the edge from giving away fewer points. The point differentials between winners and losers in the two matches were almost identical. Joker's loss closely resembled Berdych's to Nadal in the quarters: both men attacked but missed too much and won a very low percentage of points at the net.

QUESTION IS: Will Rafa carry momentum over from a successful clay season to other surfaces?

MATCH RE-CAP (Rafa v Joker)

Even if you are the top 1%, as #1 Joker certainly is, you don't want to lose the first set to a man who's won 99% of his matches on clay after taking set one (Rafa is 200/2 in winning matches on clay when he has the first set).

So it might be of no small consequence to the outcome, or to Joker's state of mind, when at 5-4 and two points from the set (at 30-30), a long point needed to be re-played due to his forehand called wide on Rafa's end. While Rafa had been returning almost everything and reached the down-the-line forehand before the out call was made, Joker couldn't control his frustration and made two bad unforced errors early in the next points. Nor did he recover entirely in the next game, when he was broken.

The Serb immediately broke back, thanks to several baseline errors from Nadal, and the set remained on serve until 4-5 on Nadal's serve. At 30-30, with Joker on the attack, his forehand was called wide but corrected and the point re-played. Talking loudly to himself between the points, Joker quickly sent a backhand long, and then put a forehand in the net to let Rafa hold.

At 5-5, Joker's aggressive play brought him to 40-15, but errors from the baseline once again cost him the advantage. At deuce one of the longest and best points of the match ensued with the usual pattern of Rafa defending with topspin groundies that often bounced before the service line while Joker aimed for the corners and moved Rafa side-to-side. Though he had won more of these exchanges in this first hour of the match (25% of their points lasted 10 or more shots), Joker ended this one with another forehand into the net. Rafa took matters into his own hands on break point with an aggressive forehand and his first dropper. The exciting exchange which followed at the net went to Rafa with a backhand volley winner.

Serving for the set, Rafa was energized and controlled play enough to force errors to 40-0. At triple set point Joker hit one of his few return winners, an inside out forehand, but Rafa ended the set 7-5 with a strong serve.

The 2nd set

Nadal broke in the first game, which forced Joker to press harder and allowed Rafa to rely more on defense. At 2-1, Joker had his best chances to break back. At 30-30, he had missed an overhead that cost him a sure point if he'd let the short lob drop (it would have been a foot wide), but he got a break chance after Rafa overplayed two forehands, only to miss a low volley on a dipping crosscourt forehand that left him little angle to play. A winning overhead from a short lob that bounced gave him a second break chance that he couldn't convert. Unforced backhand and forehand errors on the next two points put him behind 3-1.

A good effort by Joker to break again at 2-3 was countered by some inspired Nadal defense, getting a drop shot, making a difficult high backhand overhead and finishing the exchange with a leaping smash in the same point were a match highlight at 15 all. With two strong first serves into the ad court, Rafa held at 40-30 to go up 4-2.

Holding again at 2-4 from 15 with a huge forehand winner, Joker began the 3-4 game with another huge forehand on the return getting a short reply that he hit for a drop shot to force an error. Overhitting on the next 3 points put him down 15-40, and an outstanding Rafa topspin backhand lob winner ended the game.

Rafa's efforts at 5-3 on Joker's serve spared him the pressure of serving for the match against the best returner in the game. Joker continued to over-swing at groundies and make errors, while the Spaniard was content to return balls that sometimes didn't bounce past the service line but had enough topspin to keep Joker from getting too far inside the baseline. Joker reached 40-30, but erred again from the baseline with an off-balance forehand into the net. A second ad point for him was lost when Rafa's deep forehand took a bad bounce, and the deuce point saw him miss after an another untimely bad bounce near the baseline.

The double fault that followed from Joker ended the match on a symbolic note.

Rafa never let nerves creep far into his play. A few more of these beatings and it will be the Serb who needs to get his head shrunk...

Of Interest on the Earnings Side

After the withdrawal of the two women's favorites (finalists in Madrid, Serena and Vika), maybe some Romans are just as glad to see the men collect more than the women this week. On the other hand, the fact that the women's winner received half as much as the men's in Rome ($350,000 vs. $748,418) may have played into the withdrawals of the Madrid women's finalists. Serena and Vika earned twice as much last week as Maria and Na Li this week.

Of Interest on the Rankings side:

Rafa re-gained the #2 ranking and, more importantly, the #2 seed at Roland Garros. His lead over Federer is small, but not even the margin of almost 2000 points by which he trails Joker is enough to keep him from winning the #1 ranking if he wins in Paris. The largest gap in the top 10 is between #3 Federer and #4 Murray (over 2000 points).

Rick

ATP, Rome 5.21.12


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