I use to watch a lot of boxing back when it was among the premier sports in the U.S. Today’s battle match between Andy Roddick and Rafael Nadal featured some of that heavyweight boxing tactical spirit.
The tactic I speak of is when a fighter holds his best shot until the very end to catch his opposition off guard and unbalanced, and in many ways that’s exactly what Roddick did to Nadal today shocking the Spaniard 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 to reach the Miami Sony Ericsson Open final.
For the first hour of the match Nadal was in complete control. I didn’t think he wasn’t playing at his top gear as errors were still creeping into his game and he just had no read on Andy’s first serve. But during the early part of the match when a rally started it looked like a televised practice session with Nadal hammering winners and moving his lamb-like practice partner around the court with ease.
Off the ground it was a total mismatch.
While Roddick was getting absolutely nowhere with his forehand/backhand attack (if you could even call it an “attack”) against Rafa, he was bombing serves like the Roddick of yesteryear. But a poor early service game gave Rafa the quick break and eventually the first set. And the way things were progressing early in the second, you got the sense that Roddick was due for another service letdown. Except it never came. Instead, Roddick released the forehand.
As if almost by some diabolical, high risk design, with Rafa feeling safe, secure and comfortable and serving 3-4 in the second set, Roddick went into his warchest and started dropping forehand bomb after forehand bomb on Rafa.
A beleaguered and baffled Rafa had no time to adjust or react to Roddick’s newfound strength. And in a blink he was broken at love and moments later the set went to Roddick.
Amazingly, we were level.
Nadal got back up early in the third and had break chances but that would be as close as he’d get again in the match. Roddick continued to pound his serve, pound his forehand harder and harder and keep the points short. The 2003 version of Roddick was back.
A visibly rattled Rafa dropped serve not once but twice and the when the smoke cleared Roddick coasted to an improbable victory.
I think it was a year ago on this very day – Good Friday – that Roger Federer had that infamous meltdown against Novak Djokovic. Strange that a year to the day it’s Nadal’s turn. So much for Good Friday if you are tennis legend in the waiting. Nadal was seen virtually beating himself up on a changeover, and then he “tanked” a forehand that still may not have landed.
But credit Roddick. As I commented it was almost as if he was playing possum and waiting until the very latest minute to break out the heavy artillery.
I wonder that because he’s a smart guy and he knows that he could not out rally Nadal. That strategy wasn’t going to work. He knows it. We all know it. Yet he used it exclusively for the early part of the match. Perhaps he felt once Nadal got that early break in the first there was no need to show the flatter forehand since the set was already Rafa’s?
Since Roddick was serving so well he could pull out the big forehand at anytime on Rafa’s serve. However, do it too early and Rafa has time to adjust. Strike too late and maybe Rafa sneaks another service break in and the match is over. So possibly Roddick waited and waited and waited until that very 3-4 game to finally show his real hand, his true plan.
Whether that was the pre-game strategy or not, or he just went on pure impulse, I don’t know but it worked. He literally hit Rafa in the gut, knocked him down and won himself a big match.
I can’t recall seeing anything like that.
“Anytime we got neutral he was pushing me around,” Roddick said. “I knew I had to be more aggressive. My heavy forehand doesn’t work against him, so I had to hit it flatter, which is higher risk.”
Said Nadal, “I started the match playing pretty well in the beginning. Later in the second set Andy was serving well; I didn’t have a lot of chances on the return. He started to play more aggressive in the game where he broke me. It was a change, and it was surprise for me.”
“Two semi-finals in a row, first two Masters 1000 of the season for me is positive,” Nadal added. “Positive American hard court season, first part. So, yeah, happy for that.”
Happy for that? He’s just happy the clay season is here and I’m betting he’s pissed. I’m going to say right now he’s not going to lose on clay this year. There, I said it. Federer gave notice that he was practicing the dirt the day after he lost to Berdych. Well, I have a feeling Nadal may be on the clay later today to get over the pain of that American truck that just ran over him.
For Roddick, to the disbelievers (and I became one during that match – I thought he still had it in him but after an hour or so he had me fooled that the power forehand was officially gone) he proved again that he still has the power game off the ground to match the power serve. And that’s scary when you complement the power with a reliable passive clay-like game which Roddick now fronts. All he needs to do now is choose the right tactic for the right occasion. Just like he did today.
One more semifinal to finish. Tonight, Robin Soderling and Tomas Berdych will fight for the right to play Roddick on Easter Sunday. It’s clear that anything can happen in tennis these days, but I still think Soderling’s the guy.
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