This is my tennis blog, Lefty Advantage. Tennis is my biggest passion in life and I started this site to discuss the great game. I mainly follow the career of Roger Federer, but I truly love watching all tennis, whether it be the final of a Grand Slam
or a junior tournament on the other side of the world.

I have played tennis for 13 years. If you ever met me, I could talk your head off about all things tennis for hours on end if you would let me. Welcome, and enjoy the writing!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Nadal beats Federer in Rome Final

Roger Federer fell one win short of winning in Rome for the third time on Sunday, as he was beaten and outclassed by Rafael Nadal 6-1, 6-3. As a Federer fan it wasn't pretty to watch but Nadal was on his game and Roger wasn't, and when that happens, the match will be lopsided on clay.

The first two games were fine from Federer, but after that everything fell apart. Nadal started to utilize his tried-and-true patterns of play and Roger saw error after error fly off his racket as he tried to go for too much. To be fair to Fed, Nadal did play very well especially off the return and he did what he had to do to win - namely keep peppering the Federer backhand, forcing him onto the back foot and not letting him attack as he would so love to do. Nadal, a generally defensive baseliner, is able to be more aggressive than he is against, say, Djokovic, because he is getting short balls from one wing much of the time.

At the end of the day, it's a bad loss but the loss itself wasn't unexpected at all given their history on clay. Nadal on that surface is just the worst possible opponent for Federer and the challenges posed to the Swiss from Rafa are grander than the challenges he faces from any other opponent.

From my point of view, I don't know why Roger wasn't coming to net behind the first serve every point. Nadal was standing 10 feet behind the baseline to return and he just looped the ball back into play, usually deep, and from there he had the advantage. Fed needed to be like Stefan Edberg during the match. Edberg would come into net behind every serve. And I mean every serve. It didn't matter whether he got passed 10 straight times, he would always come in. This is what Roger needed to do to at least try and neutralize the edge Nadal has in the baseline rallies (especially today, when he was missing everything). Make him hit passing shots over and over and over and over.

It did seem to me that the conditions were very slow as it was dry and the match was played during the day. Nadal's shots kicked even higher off the court and that meant Roger could not attack whatsoever off the backhand side.

Everything Federer's game is designed to do he cannot, or at least with the same proficiency, against Rafa. Roger loves to hug the baseline and take the ball early, Nadal's heavy spin pushes him back. Federer likes to set up points with his backhand, Nadal doesn't allow him to as the majority of backhands are hit at shoulder height and off balance. Federer wants to win free points off his serve, Nadal gets many returns back and neutralizes the server's advantage immediately. Nadal's style is literally Federer's kryptonite with the exception of indoor hardcourt, which rules out the elements.

I have never seen a match-up like Federer/Nadal where one player is pushed so far out of his comfort zone and one player is able to play so easily right in it. Federer wants to play aggressive, and when he can't because of Rafa's forehand, he rushes and misses. While it is true that winning the points in 5 shots or less is a good play against Rafa, it's easier said than done with the way the Spaniard defends. Nadal also rarely gives him the opportunity to attack right away as the first ball he hits is aimed at Federer's backhand, pushing him back where he doesn't want to be.

Overall, it was still a great week in my view. Federer made his first final of the year, he served well all week, nearing 70% throughout the 5 matches played. He got the match practice needed for Roland Garros, and I expect he will do well there, at least making the quarterfinals. Much will depend on the draw.

I'm honestly not upset at all by the loss. Nadal fans will gloat as Rafa has a 20-10 head-to-head now. The media will write many articles about Federer's decline and they will speak of retirement. As always whenever Federer loses, things get blown far out of proportion.

Today wasn't his day. He ran into a great Rafa and he cannot do much against the King of Clay when he is firing on all cylinders. It's doubtful the French Open will bring him success but I believe the only person he can't beat in that tournament is Nadal. Not saying he can't lose to Berdych or Tsonga or Djokovic, but he can beat them. He can't beat Rafa. Certainly not in best of 5. He couldn't when he was 25-28, and he is definitely not.

Looking forward to Roland Garros, don't feel too bad Fed fans.


Friday, May 17, 2013

Federer beats Janowicz in Rome

Roger Federer faced a stern test from 22 year-old Pole Jerzy Janowicz on Friday night in Rome but prevailed 6-4, 7-6(2) in just under an hour and a half at the Foro Italico.

Janowicz, like Raonic, Tomic, and Dimitrov, is a young rising star on Tour and was riding a wave of momentum after beating back to back top 10 players in Tsonga and Gasquet.  Although he is emotional (ripping his shirt off after beating Tsonga) and a bit erratic, he is a great talent and has been on everyone's radar since he made the Paris Indoors final.

Federer started off smooth as silk with his serve and held comfortably. He saved two break points in his next service game but was unable to get a break point chance on Janowicz's own serve until the 10th game, where he broke to win the set.

The very next game, the first one of the second set, Janowicz caught fire and lasered a few returns which Federer wasn't able to handle, and he broke. He consolidated and then both men held serve until the 10th game of the set where, again, Federer managed to break back. After squandering two match points at 5-6 he played a great tiebreak and finished that off seven points to two.

It was Federer's 895th match win and his 17th this year.

Immediately when you saw the draw you knew there was not going to be a simple victory like his matches against Starace and Simon, and with big servers there rarely is a simple win. It took some time for Roger to get used to the massive Janowicz serve, but he returned very well overall and did what he does best against the big servers - block the return back, neutralize the point, and then use his better baseline game to his advantage.

Janowicz played pretty well overall but he did struggle in some areas. For most players, the drop shot is a surprise tactic but with Jerzy it's almost as if the shot is a go-to play and sometimes he does hit it at inappropriate times. A perfect example was when he had set point in the second and tried a drop shot from ankle height that didn't even get halfway up the net. He also used the dropper on set point in the first and Fed dispatched it.

The other part of his game that he and his coaches may want to work on is his forehand. It is certainly a huge weapon but it can be very inconsistent and at times today he went for the wrong shot at the wrong time (for instance, going for the forehand over the higher part of the net instead of taking the higher percentage play cross court). It's also a pretty flat shot even compared to some of the flattest hitters today and the little margin for error can be problematic.

As for Roger, he plays Benoit Paire in the semifinals which is all but a guaranteed victory if you ask me. Paire has had a great week but he has nothing to hurt Roger with when the Swiss is in this kind of form. Roger has hit his serve at over 70% in every match and has 92 winners to 39 unforced errors!

Nadal beat Ferrer 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 to win yet again against his countryman on clay. Ferrer was up 4-0 in the second but Rafa got back in the set only to have Ferrer win it on an incredible set point. David had a chance to break in the second game but failed to do so and almost predictably, he got broken the next game. Nadal broke again and won comfortably even though Ferrer showed much better fight than he did in Madrid when he lost the final set 6-0.

The King of Clay will play Tomas Berdych in the semis instead of Novak Djokovic as many anticipated. The Czech came back from a 6-2, 5-2 deficit to win 10 of the next 14 games to advance to his first Rome final four.

The head-to-head between Berdych and Nadal is 13-3 Rafa, and he hasn't lost to Tomas since 2006, a 12-match winning streak. At the end of that last Berdych win in Madrid, he made a motion to shush the crowd and Rafa disapproved. Since then, it's almost like Rafa refuses to lose against the big man. Nadal has won 28 sets to Berdych's 2 in those last 12 matches. The closest Berdych came to winning was at last year's Australian Open where he was a point away from a two-set lead.

Nadal has had two tough long matches in a row vs Gulbis and Ferrer and Berdych should take a lot of confidence after only getting his second win against Djokovic. Nadal is the favourite of course but the Berdman could pose a big threat if Rafa feels some fatigue.

I know many Fed fans hate Federer/Nadal matchups but if it does happen I would feel a little better about the match after seeing how well Fed has played and served in this tournament, and also the fact that Rafa may be a little tired, plus seeing how he hasn't played his best tennis this week.

I'm 99.9% sure Fed makes his first final of 2013 and it would be so sweet if he could lift the trophy on Sunday for the first time. I can feel good things coming, can you?


Thursday, May 16, 2013

Federer Rolls into Rome Quarters

After a disappointing week in Madrid, Roger Federer looks sharp after his first two matches in Rome, the final event before the French Open. After dismantling Potito Starace 6-1, 6-2, he did the same to Frenchman Gilles Simon on Thursday 6-1, 6-2 also to advance into the quarterfinals.

Quite simply, Federer has been sublime in his first two matches and this is the best he has looked since the Australian Open in January. He is serving well, using all the variety that he has at his disposal, and perhaps most importantly, he is keeping his intensity high point after point, game after game.

Usually in early rounds, Roger coasts after getting the one break he needs to win each set. So far this week in Rome, he has looked to keep his foot on the throttle even when he is comfortably in front, and that way of playing will serve him well when going up against the top guys. Case in point against Simon at 4-2 in the 2nd set. Simon had a few chances to hold serve and Fed had five break point chances, of which he converted on the 5th. Three of the five break point chances Simon earned the point. When he had game point chances to keep it close however, Fed didn't relent and didn't let the game slip away. The intensity in his game never dropped and he knew that losing that game would keep Simon within distance to strike back.

Playing Starace in the second round was pretty easy and the level that he played at was certainly not required for him to win comfortably, though it was wonderful to see. Simon, however, has given the Maestro trouble with his consistent play. They first played in Toronto 2008 when Fed was in a terrible slump and at the Masters Cup a few months later he had a back injury that severely hampered his movement. At the Australian Open two years ago, Fed got off to a blazing start but the Frenchman hung around and forced Roger to play his best to get the win.

Tactically, Federer played a near flawless match against the pesky Simon. Gilles loves to counter-punch and feed off pace, so what did Roger do? He sliced nearly half the time from the baseline and used many drop shots to get Simon off the baseline, and to a place where he is very uncomfortable, the net.

For the match, Roger hit 21 winners to 18 errors, though those numbers really don't mean much as whenever you play Simon you will have your fair share of errors because you are playing so many 8+ shot rallies. He served at 73% and won 83% of his 2nd serve points. Pretty solid numbers. Simon hit 26 unforced errors but many of those errors I saw as him going for more than he was comfortable with, which is what Roger forces you to do when he's in the zone.

In the quarterfinals Fed will play Jerzy Janowicz who has beaten Tsonga and Gasquet back-to-back. He is a confident fellow and Roger will need to be as sharp as he was in his first two matches as he has a big game and plenty of weapons. But Fed loves playing the young guns and you know he'll be fired up to play Janowicz for the first time.

If he gets by that match he will play the winner of the Granollers vs Paire match, and then a final against likely one of Nadal or Djokovic. He may have more of a chance that he might usually have against those two on clay because of the draw. Rafa will have to go through Ferrer which is going to be a physical match and Djokovic has to get by Berdych, who, in spite of never beating the Serb is no slouch. If both Rafa and Novak advance then they will beat each other up and will have a short time to regroup against a (likely) fresh Federer.

Let's hope Roger can keep up this masterful play!


PS - as crazy as it sounds, I think the short hair that Roger has displayed this week has done him a world of good. In his book "Winning Ugly" Brad Gilbert noted that when things weren't going his way during a match, a shirt change would give him a recharge of sorts, and something tells me the haircut may be a kind of mental rejuvenation after a tough few months to start the season.

But maybe I have it all wrong and he just cut it because it's hot in Rome this week.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

May thoughts: Federer back on the clay

Roger Federer's long-anticipated return to the ATP World Tour came this past week on the clay - the red clay - of Madrid. The Swiss Maestro was the defending champion at the event but in the third round he was knocked out by Japanese up-and-comer Kei Nishikori 6-4, 1-6, 6-2.

It was a disappointing loss but it could have been expected. After a 7-week absence from playing competitively, there was bound to be some rust, and there was - not just stroke-wise but mentally as well. The loss, while not good in the sense that he didn't get more match practice, does allow him to hit the training grounds for more hard work, and he is already practicing in Rome for the final event before Roland Garros.

As for the match vs Nishikori, I didn't think it was as bad as many Federer fans thought. In the first set he served pretty well and played decent enough but lost it due to one bad service game. In the second set he opened it up and used his full repertoire to perfection. He used a few drop shots, hit his forehand harder and with better placement, and even sneaked into net on second serves occasionally, a tactic he used to great effect at times last year when he won on the blue clay. In the third set he got down early and from there he looked finished. But full credit to Nishikori who played a very solid match and did not go away after losing a 6-1 second set.

Nishikori is a very solid player in all aspects. He has good groundstrokes and a killer backhand down the line. He takes the ball early and has an effective all-round attacking baseline game. In some ways he reminds me of Agassi because of that, and Andre used to give Federer problems in the same sort of way Nishikori gave the Swiss problems. He took away Federer's time away in the first and third sets and did not allow him to dictate. Usually whenever you can do that and not let your opponent glide into his comfort zone, you have an advantage, and in order to beat Federer you must certainly not let him get comfortable. If you do, match over.

I didn't overreact when Fed lost. It was his second match back and he lost to the better man on the day. Some say he looked uninspired and unmotivated, and that may have been the case. He certainly wasn't match-ready in his second match back, and on clay no less (clay that seemed to be slower than it was in years' past). As Fed fans we must accept that he will be losing more week-to-week in the next few years, and that is only natural. But it doesn't mean when the important tournaments on the schedule roll around, he won't be ready. He is a major contender until his results say otherwise. Even if his stamina has drained and he cannot handle longer matches back-to-back anymore, his experience and mental approach to Grand Slam matches will always make him a threat to anyone.

Surely Federer was disappointed by the result and he will advance into Rome with more tenacity. He will take note of what he did well in Madrid (the second set vs Nishikori) and he'll work on what he needs to do better in order to thrive at Rome and at Roland Garros. Personally I believe he should use the drop shot more often since it is a great tactic for him against any opponent. Getting to net in general must be a focus for the Federer team over the next few weeks as he cannot afford to hang back at the baseline against younger opponents, especially in best-of-5 set matches. 

I have read on and on about how Federer is 15-5 this season and hasn't looked that great since the Australian Open. That is true. I have also read about how Roger is taking a reduced schedule this season. That is not true. He skipped Doha and Miami, events he played last year. But he is playing in Montreal for the Rogers Cup (which I will be going to), which he didn't play last year after the heavy stretch from Roland Garros to the Olympics in which he played 23 matches. Overall, if he doesn't skip any tournament he is expected to play in (Halle or Paris being the candidates for that), he is only playing one less event this year than last (two if you count the Olympics, but I don't).

If you look at this year compared to last, the margin of difference really isn't that large. Had a few matches not gone Roger's way in the first 5 months of the season, he may have been going into Roland Garros with no titles. He escaped defeat against Davydenko in Rotterdam. He came through against del Potro in Dubai in a tight match where he was up 6-2 in one tiebreak to win it 7-5 and was down 6-2 in the other only to win it 8-6. In Indian Wells he was two points from Bellucci serving for the match in the third round. In Madrid he was very close to losing against Raonic and Berdych. If he doesn't win those matches, his season doesn't look as great.

This year, the only loss that didn't set well with me was the loss to Benneteau in Rotterdam. In Dubai, he played well enough to be a point away from the final. In Indian Wells, the back injury sabotaged him. He played great vs Istomin and Dodig and even against Wawrinka, even though he had the back injury in that match. Then running into Nadal was cruel and instead of withdrawing, he played and lost graciously. And in Madrid, he showed some mental rust and lost to a younger, more concentrated player in Nishikori. But to think, last year, if had lost to Davydenko in Rotterdam, Delpo in Dubai, Bellucci in Indian Wells, and Raonic in Madrid, he would have had a 16-7 record instead of the 29-3 mark he had. All in all, I feel like the difference between this year and last hasn't been much. Perhaps it's just motivation. Last year's performances were driven by getting back to #1, and this year that goal isn't there. Part of it has been health as I suspect he wasn't training that well between Australia and the final match in Indian Wells.

But make no mistake. Federer, while he is declining, is still very much a threat and not somebody to be written off. He has been written off since 2008 and he keeps proving people wrong. He will do so again this year, I fully believe that.

Now, onto Rome. The draw was released and Nadal and Djokovic were drawn in the same half, which is very good for Roger. If the seedings hold up, Fed would have to play Stepanek, Haas, Tsonga, and Murray before the final. However, Haas may have to get by Simon, and Tsonga may have to deal with Jerzy Janowicz, and Grigor Dimitrov or Richard Gasquet before a meeting with Federer. Murray, who is susceptible to being upset on clay by his lesser-ranked foes, may have to deal with Juan Martin del Potro or Nicolas Almagro before a semifinal appearance. And if he does make the semis, I would give Roger an advantage.

Ideally, Federer should make the final. Haas or Simon would be tricky 3rd round opponents and Tsonga, Dimitrov, or Gasquet would all be tough quarterfinal opponents, but they are all very beatable for Fed on clay if he's playing up to his standard. Of course a Dimitrov/Federer match is what most are hoping for and for good reason.

Last year Fed had a decent Rome where he fell to Djokovic in straights in the semis. That tournament came after his wins in Rotterdam, Dubai, Indian Wells, and Madrid, so losing was not a big deal. And historically Fed has never done great in Rome, obviously coming closest to the title in 2006 where he held match points vs Nadal. But this year Rome may mean more than in years' past. First of all, Roger won't want an early exit as he has only played 20 matches this season. Going out in the third round would only put him at 4 matches in two months before the French Open, and that is not great preparation. If he can play well, he can make the final, and I think that would be splendid. If Djokovic and Nadal meet in the semis you know it will be a tough physical match and if it happens, it would be a day before the final. And seeing the way Djokovic manhandled Nadal in Monte Carlo, he could definitely beat Rafa in Rome as he did in 2011.

Of course, Djokovic doesn't have an easy draw himself. He may have to go through Wawrinka, Berdych, and Rafa just to make the final. Nadal has it a little easier with Seppi/Fognini in round two and then Tipsarevic/Troicki/Nieminen in the third round, with David Ferrer in the quarters (basically a walkover on clay).

It should be an interesting tournament and I know all eyes of Fed fans' will be glued to his matches, watching his every stroke. Here's hoping he has a great tournament and rounds into the kind of form that could win him his 18th major title.