At the 2010 U.S. Open, in watching Roger Federer cruise throughh 5 rounds without dropping a set and clinically dispatching Robin Soderling in gail force winds in the quarter-finals, and then to see him come out so flat for his super Saturday main event semi vs. Novak Djokovic, to blow 2 sets and several match points, I was struck with this Venus Williams sort of feeling. Venus’ last major showing at a major was in the O9 Wimbledon final against “little’ sis. She failed to capitalize on a 1st set business end break opportunity and she didn’t get another sniff. Serena blitzed big sis in the breaker and 20 minutes later, instead of holding a 6th singles title of her own, she was watching little sis hoist her 4th. Since, we’ve seen Venus play some flawless matches in majors, but she has been unable to put a complete fortknight together. Venus made runs in Melbourne and Roland Garros in 2010, and of course, we wanted desperately to see her add both pieces to the trophy case. We bought the hype hardcore on the red clay, especially, as Venus won an event on the dirt in the spring and played nearly flawlessly 2 weeks before Paris in Madrid, until she was upset in the final by Aravane Rezai. The thing about Venus of late that we feared was beginning to apply to Roger was that looking good 1 day had absolutely no conceivable carry over effect. Venus was barely taxed at RG, dropping no sets until being bounced by Petrova in straights in the round of 16.
In fairness to Rog, aside from his failings vs. the Djoker in the semis, the man had an outstanding Open, and the command performance vs. Soderling and another highlight reel tweener shot, with a routine 24,000 spectator standing O would attest to that. Our opinion? The great man suffered a big let down after battering Soderling in a highly anticipated rematch of the 2010 French quarterfinal which he lost. After 23 straight major semis, and then 2 straight misses, we think that Roger was also a bit satisfied with returning to the final 4. The great man’s concentration waned. Still great, but not great enough to throw away sets and still win majors, as he proved at the prior Open in his finals loss to Juan Martin Del Potro. In retrospect, we’ve been very hard on Federer this year. Deservedly so. Sure, he won a major, went to 2 other major quarter-finals and an Open semi, and had a year anyone not named Roger Federer would die for. But he went from February to August without winning an event, lost gimmes to Montanes in Estoril and to Lleyton Hewitt at Halle, giving Hewitt his 1st win vs. Roger in about 8 years to boot–a more epic drought against the master than Roddick’s famous time in the desert.
And worse yet. Roger, on his best surface at this stage of the game, left a 2nd consecutive US Open title on the table. If you’re of a mind to think grass is Roger’s best surface, think again. It was true in the midst of his run of 5 straight Wimbledon titles, but at this point, Roger is almost a hardcourt specialist. He hasn’t won on clay or grass since July 09 and his last 6 titles have all been on hards. Still worse than that: putrid counter pucher’s defensive tennis at the hands of Rafael Nadal has prevailed in the wake of Roger’s beautiful, elegant shot making gone MIA.
Let us be truthful here. We are always pissed when Roger and Venus go down in majors. Always. Unless they win it, we feel they could have done better invariably. With the way Roger ended his summer, we were very concerned that even with Paul Annacone in his corner, that his will was fading. Then we watched vintage Federer circa 06 this fall, and we felt really good about his chances at the YEC in London. Federer did not disappoint. Straight set, easy wins vs. Murray, Soderling, Ferrer and Djokovic, and his 1st win over Nadal since June 09–in style at that–for his 5th YEC have us daydreaming about more than just Roger’s 17th major. We are envisioning the scenario that sees Federer return to #1, and though it will be bitter sweet as an even bigger fan of Pistol Pete, breaking Sampras’ all time record for weeks at #1, we could stand to see it and regard it as one of the few records of note that Federer has not yet broken in the singles game.
The YEC means more to Federer than it does to the field. Aside from his 4 YEC titles going in, there was only 1 other YEC title even floating around in this year’s 8 man field (Djokovic). Usually Roger makes a very strong run at the YEC for the hardware. Two years ago, the great man could hardly bend over and still gave his all in 2 marathon 3 setters vs. Murray. In 2005, when the final was still best 3 out of 5 sets, Federer was rolling against Nalbandian, up 2 sets and cruising until hurting his calf. Instead of retiring (see Djokovic and Nadal), Federer trudged on with greatly hampered mobility and eventually lost in 5 sets. The win in 5 over a gimpy Roger represents Nalbandian’s greatest triumph to date, and prevented Roger from ending that year with the all-time best year end record ever, as he finished at 81-4 rather than 82-3, which would have topped John McEnroe’s record 1984.
But why so much optimism regarding Federer in 2011? Well, the best in the land, the fairest by far, is once again playing like it. When the year kicks off down under, Roger Federer will be looking for a 5th Australian crown and 17th major title. He’ll be fresh and uber motivated, and who navigates the landscape better at majors? Federer also tends to benefit, as does Murray, Djokovic and Soderling from the full time return of injured Nadal killers Del Potro and Davydenko. Davydenko’s ability to get balls back throws the most prominent aspect of Nadal’s success right back at him, and his take-it-on-the-rise-while-crowding-the-baseline style means he can go from D to O very quickly, and is effective at turning Nadal’s pace against him. Then there’s the next legitimate #1, Juan Martin Del Potro, who at 6’6 is able to take Nadal’s high bouncing topspin well within his strike zone. Del Potro mauled Nadal in a laugher in the 09 Open semi, 2, 2, and 2. Nadal, who does not play first strike tennis well, is left constantly on his heels by Del Potro’s immense serve and huge groundstrokes. The return of Davydenko and Del Potro to major tennis means more challenges for Nadal through the draws, and at the very least a greater physical toll will be exacted.
Personally, we feel Nadal owes his US Open title and career slam to Del Potro’s wrist injury more than any other single factor. Del Potro could also be the player best suited to take up the mantle on clay, his natural surface. and Del Potro’s 135-140 MPH serves are not dampened much by the dirt. After watching Rafa take just 3 out of 54 in the YEC final on Roger’s 1st serve, we again see Nadal’s return game against quality servers as a weakness. The same way in which Nadal won 1 major in 09 and then “fell apart”, so did Roger in 2010, and so could again Nadal in 2011. After Melbourne, Roger will be poised to gain points, as we are already pencilling him in for better results almost unilaterally across the tour.
Can Roger get back to #1? He can if he keeps playing like he’s 24. And what about Venus, our best lady, now thirty something? Can she add an 8th singles major title in 2011?
It certainly does boggle the mind that Lady V would exit the Australian Open in the quarters at the hands of Na Li, in a match she led handily, and that after beating eventual RG champ Francesca Schiavone in Madrid, that she’d be blown off the court by a lumbering Petrova in France. While we like Tsvetana Pironkova as a player and have admired her poise in big spots, she has no business beating Venus 6-3, 6-2 on Wimbledon lawns. But the fact is, the women’s game is wide open. Venus went to the semis at the USO–her last major–and came this close to taking out eventual champ Clijsters in a tough 3 setter when a win would have paved the way for singles US Open title number 3.
Venus went 38-7 last year, won 2 tournaments, made 2 other finals, and did not lose before the round of 16 in any event. she also partnered with Lady S for French and Aussie major doubles titles, bringing her obscene majors total to 21 (7 singles, 12 doubles, 2 mixed). Hearing her comments about the US team’s Fed Cup Finals loss to Italy (“I was too sick to watch”) and of her committment to Mary Joe Fernandez’s squad for 2011, makes me think that Venus is focused, and she realizes she is on the clock.
I used to frequent an awful trollfest of a tennis message board littered wall to wall with morons–you know the type. Agassi and Nadal fanboys. In 2006, their lack of collective genius came up with a thread before Wimbledon called “What’s wrong with Venus Williams?” She only won the tournament. My friends bumped the thread the next year, and she won it again. And the next year.
I imagine there’s a “What’s wrong with Roger?” thread too. I also imagine them playing flawless tennis, and feel neither is that far removed from doing it again.