Thoughts on Nadal-Federer in the wake of the Aussie Open; more mail

Wednesday January 29th, 2014

In their 33rd career match, Rafael Nadal defeated Roger Federer in straight sets in the Australian Open semifinals.
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

A jet-lagged, post-Australian Open mailbag ...

I am pretty sure Rafael Nadal will break Roger Federer's Grand Slam record. He deserves it all the way, and I totally admire his perfect-and-permanent resilience. Also, I will root for Stanislas Wawrinka, as I have always rooted for Federer. Reason: Love the fluidity in tennis -- Federer, Wawrinka, John McEnroe, Marcelo Rios, Hana Mandlikova, Henri Leconte, Rod Laver, etc.
-- Carlos Acosta Torreon, Mexico

• A few of you took issue with this theme over the course of the Australian Open, but I have no problem dispensing style points. Fans like one-handed backhands and wish there were a dozen more Grigor Dimitrovs in the pipeline. We like Agnieszka Radwanska and her intuitions. We like Benoit Paire and his quirk. We like Gael Monfils and his highlight shots. We like older players and shorter players and players like Dustin Brown and Luksika Kumkhum (and even Nadal) who come from unlikely backgrounds. That's totally legit. It's not ice skating where this has any material bearing on the outcome. (Nice routine but the judge from Slovenia didn't like your choice of tafetta.)

WERTHEIM: Rafael Nadal's game scarcely described as normal

Without a big serve to win him easy points, there is no way that Federer can ever beat Nadal. Federer cannot outgrind Nadal, and his serve is not big enough to serve-and-volley and win. What do you think? This is why I think Pete Sampras would have done better against Nadal. Sampras would have an easier time holding his serve against Nadal than Federer does.
-- Robert, Kansas City

• Apparently this came up on Australia's Channel 7 broadcast the other night. Jim Courier, if you're out there, maybe post-Davis Cup, you could summarize the discussion. Sampras would make Nadal work harder on the return games, but I think the matches would play out quite similarly. Nadal would pick on the one-handed backhand. All that pace and spin would thwart Sampras' designs of attacking. He would grind down Sampras with the exasperating defense and those heavy balls -- tennis' equivalent of body blows.

The X-factor is the mental game. Sampras had such a different personality and mentality from Federer. This is neither condemning nor condoning, but one suspects Sampras' reaction to a rival bettering him would surely have been different.

Not taking anything away from Nadal, I believe that the single biggest advantage that translates into his dominance over Federer is that fact that he is a lefty. If those crazy forehands were going into Federer's forehand, I believe that the head-to-head would be 50/50, if not in Federer's favor.
-- Bob S. Redwood City, Calif.

• I think it's hard to isolate variables. My stock answer: It's largely mental. And the worse the history gets, the more mental it gets. When Nadal is on the other side of the net, Federer competes differently, acts differently and reacts differently. That strange outburst over Nadal's "grunting" was telling.

But does the unfavorable X's and O's matchup and Nadal's sui generis funkdelic lefty style -- and the history it's created -- trigger the mental issues?

Not to rehash the debate about having a tiebreaker in the deciding set, but it occurred to me watching Stanislas Wawrinka in the quarterfinal and semifinal that it is a very inconsistent rule. In order to win his quarterfinal in five sets, he had to break Novak Djokovic, which he did finally at 8-7 in the fifth. In his semifinal, he beat Tomas Berdych in four sets on a tiebreaker, winning 7-6 in the fourth set. If matches can be decided by a tiebreaker in the third or fourth sets (second set for women), what's the point of playing it out in the fifth?
-- Aaron Mayfield, Chicago

• I don't mind that quirk. And provided there's a limit -- 70-68 makes the sport look silly -- I don't mind playing out the decisive set. The bigger issue: At a time when every sport is trying to speed up play -- accommodating television, attention spans, the metabolism of 2014 -- why is tennis prolonging matches? I LOVE tennis, and I have trouble sitting through a four-hour match. My kids and their friends? Zero chance.

WERTHEIM: Stanislas Wawrinka's confidence carried him to Aussie Open title

For once can you please call out Roger Federer's childish, snarky behavior? I feel as if over the years, especially since the end of his dominant reign in 2007-08, from time to time Roger will take a dig at a competitor or be oddly critical, and never get called out for it. And, frankly, it's incredibly annoying. His most recent display was during his semifinal against Nadal where he barked at the chair umpire to do his job while complaining Nadal was grunting too loud. Are you serious? It's easy to be Mr. Nice Guy when you are winning everything under the sun, but when Roger faces defeat or doubt he turns downright bitchy. And it'd be great if someone would call Princess Federer on his occasional diva behavior. Although I'm sure you won't.
-- Michael

• Three points:

1. Federer calling out Nadal for grunting was not his finest moment. I thought of it less as diva behavior than as a real tactical misstep. It's early in the second set and you're making an argument that you won't win and basically copping to being distracted and out of sorts. If I'm Nadal eavesdropping, I'm thinking, "I got this guy."

2. Second, we are judged on the totality of our deeds. For someone whose every move is scrutinized, Federer's sportsmanship and overall comportment are at the far, far end of the bell curve.

3. We should talk about this: When athletes compete, they go to a "place" foreign to most of us -- myself included. There is an intensity most of us never know. I was talking to a UFC fighter recently who compared it to an out-of-body experience. "You barely recognize yourself." Read Federer's comments when he left the "place," both overall and specific to the grunting tiff, and then reassess, please.

Regarding the discussion about coaching greats like Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and Michael Chang: I am surprised to see the media omitting Magnus Norman, a French Open finalist and former top-two player. Under Norman, Robin Soderling beat Nadal at the French Open and now Norman accomplished a similar feat with 'Wow'rinka. I haven't seen a single mention of Norman anywhere. Does the media pay attention only to Grand Slam winners as coaches?
-- Gorti Brahma, Cupertino, Calif.

• Totally with you. For all the chatter about the "celebrity coaches," it was a Swedish player from a later era who got the last word. More than once, we heard Norman described as a "journeyman." Let's be clear: He was a top player who reached a Grand Slam final.

Congratulations on writing the only headline about the men's final not mentioning an injured Nadal. You are right in every word you wrote. No question for you. Just appreciation. You saw the same match we all did.
-- Kristina Ruehli

• Thanks, but thank our tennis producer, Bette Marston. Cardinal rule of journalism: The writer of the story doesn't write the headline.

It may be premature to discuss this, but what are we to make of Serena Williams' name being on the entry list at Indian Wells? I watched the match that day in 2001 and was horrified that an American crowd could do that to one of its own, yet Serena prevailed and I could see why she and Venus never wanted to return. When I first read the headline, my first thought was "good for her". Who would be the biggest winner if she does go through with it... Serena or the tournament?
-- Tom Hickinbotham, Atlanta

• Again, we waver between premature speculation and realism. Serena could withdraw her name from the entry list tomorrow. Let's not get ahead of ourselves. Then again, given how delicately all parties have treated this issue, let's just say that it's unlikely this was a paperwork error. If she were to play, this is the proverbial win-win. Let's just leave it at that for now.

Speaking of marketing opportunities, why hasn't a maker of step stools or ladders thought to sponsor one for the champions' climb to their box for the victory hugs?
-- Sally Minneapolis

The NCAA beat tennis to it. Though, as a wise man once said: The real ladder of college sports is the backs of unpaid 19-year-olds.

Shots, miscellany

• Johnny Charles of Leeds, United Kingdom: "Just noticed that for the second of the last three Grand Slams, the women's champ hasn't had to beat a top-16 player. After some (wrongly) said Marion Bartoli's Wimbledon triumph should be asterisked because No. 17 Sloane Stephens was her highest-ranked foe, I wonder where they stand on Li Na, for whom Dominika Cibulkova at No. 20 was the best-ranked opponent?"

• Josh of Royse City, Texas: "My wife and I are totally unsurprised by Eugenie Bouchard's success. We had never heard of her when we went to see a Texas Wild World TeamTennis match last summer, but we quickly took note of her great all-court game and knack for winning points. I know she made a lot of fans in Texas that month. It's a good example of the perks of seeing some of the young players who come out to play WTT.

• Cam Bennett of Canberra, Australia: "Some tips for those folks who will one day attend Melbourne Park during a heat wave, with a few suggestions to tournament organizers thrown in."

• USTA Serves, the national charitable foundation of the USTA, announced that it has awarded $450,000 in grants to 40 organizations that provide tennis and education to underserved youth and people with disabilities.

• From the Delpo camp: Juan Martin del Potro's recurring wrist pain has worsened, prompting him to consult Dr. Richard Berger at the May Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for treatment.

Highlights from Andy Murray's Twitter Q&A.

Li Na is in the money.

• Jeff of Baltimore: "You wrote about Fabio Fognini's name in regard to his mind state. I think you were playing on the word 'fog.' His nickname is Fogna, which is Italian for 'sewer.' Which may also be a comment on his mindset, but also has to be on the short list of All-Time Worst Nicknames. Does Fognini mean 'little sewer'?!

• Ujio of Irvine, Cali.: "Magnus Norman: 1; 'superstar coaches': 0. Take that, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, Michael Chang, Goran Ivanišević, Sergi Bruguera and Ivan Lendl!"

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