It doesn’t happen much anymore. That is, a showdown between two former Grand Slam champions. We had Roger Federer beating an overmatched Lleyton Hewitt in Australia, and today we get by my count the second such showdown of the season with Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick meeting in the semifinals at the Sony Ericsson Open Miami.
This evening, Tomas Berdych successfully backed up his massive win over Federer to arrive in his semifinal against the red-hot Robin Soderling.
First the big day match which begins at 1pm and airs on Fox Sports Net. Nadal leads the head-to-head with Roddick 5-2 and he’s won the last three enjoying straight-set victories over Andy at 2008 Queen’s (grass), 2008 Davis Cup (clay) and last year at Indian Wells (hard).
I picked Nadal over Roddick at this very stage of the tournament and from what I’ve seen thus far there’s little reason to change my mind.
Nadal has been winning but he’s still not the same player we saw a year ago or so. He’s making far too many errors and he’s not playing the big points as well as we’ve seen him do in the past. But he’s still getting the job done with tough wins over David Ferrer and JW Tsonga two days ago. His confidence seems to be growing and importantly his knee, his movement appear to be ok. After some 11 months without a title he’s now just four sets away.
While Nadal’s had his battles, Roddick been largely untested. Heck, you could make the case he’s been playing at a different event. His wins in Miami thus far have come against four guys not even ranked in the Top 35 – No. 38 Nicolas Almagro, No. 39 Benjamin Becker, No. 40 Igor Andreev and No. 72 Sergei Stahkovsky. If there has been a cushier path to a Miami Tennis Masters semifinal I haven’t seen it.
But credit to Roddick, he’s taken care of business shutting down the opposition in straight sets just as he should be doing. So Andy’s playing well, playing confident and playing in a place where he’s won before. All big plusses. Unfortunately, today’s a major step-up in class.
As I’ve been saying for the last year or so, under new coach Larry Stefanki Roddick has changed his game. Instead of playing power tennis – big serve, big forhand- nowadays he’s far more content to keep the ball in play and outrally, outlast his opponent – I asked last summer if Roddick had turned into David Ferrer – and it’s been paying off nicely against the lesser players.
But I still question the tactic against the elite. You cannot go into matches against Federer, Andy Murray, Juan Martin Del Potro and of course Nadal hoping that they will miss. They might, but more often than not you are going to come out the loser employing such a strategy.
Roddick still has his monster serve but he’s even taken some zip off of of that. More and more I see players handling that once-vaunted delivery with comfort, and to me that’s troubling. Roddick’s serve is his big weapon and for him to be effective against the top players he needs to be firing that delivery, not spinning it in at 90% pace.
A bigger issue for Roddick today will be his backhand. A year ago he was hitting a lot more backhands up the line and it was mighty productive. This year he’s seemed to have lost that ability or confidence in that shot. From what I’ve seen the last two tournaments about 98% of all Roddick backhands go crosscourt, even the passing shots. Fortunately for him the guys he’s played haven’t been that strong from the ad-side of the court with the exception being Ivan Ljubicic who prefers the backhand, and we know how that match turned out.
Against Nadal, of course, Andy’s backhand feeds right into Rafa’s vicious forehand and that’s a mismatch. How do you say “Uh Oh!” in Spanish?
But Andy’s a smart guy and I think he’ll make some adjustments. If he ups the MPH on his serve, pounds his forehand and get that backhand up-the-line working again he’s got a real chance, especially if Rafa’s donating errors (and his wisdom teeth flare up). But if Rafa’s on and he’s hitting his forehand Andy’s in for a long day. And I think Rafa will be on today.
In the second semifinal, Berdych came up big yesterday to turn away Fernando Verdasco in three long, tough sets. Today his rugged draw continues against Soderling who’s arguably been playing better than just about anyone the past month.
Robin went through some patchy tennis last night beating Mikhail Youhzny, but overall the Swede’s been on song. And he’s won five of seven (and three straight) against Berdych and I’ll say tonight he makes it six. The big Czech has to feeling some fatigue – perhaps more emotional – after Tuesday night’s epic over Federer and then the draining battle yesterday against Verdasco.
But maybe that will help take some of the pressure off Tomas and he’ll come out playing loose, carefree tennis. However, the way Robin’s been playing it’s hard to pick against him here.
As for the women, no real surprises. I think most of us thought looking at the draw it would be a Venus Williams vs. a Belgian in the final and that’s what we have. Venus eased passed Marion Bartoli in the afternoon semifinal. The question was which Belgian would oppose her on Saturday?
Kim Clijsters took that honor after beating rival Justine Henin in another third-set tiebreaker (Kim beat Justine in a third-set breaker in Brisbane also) 6-2, 6-7(3), 7-6(6). Both players were prone to errors but I thought in the breaker Clijsters really kept her emotions in check and was all business. Even after she blew that 6-3 lead (and with it three matchpoints) her demeanor and focus never wavered. Credit to her. That should be a good final tomorrow.
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