<Steve's Weblog>

Steve's Weblog

An incurable tennis addict, Steve Flink has been following the game since 1965, the year he first went to Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships. Flink is a Senior Correspondent for Tennis Week Magazine, a publication he joined in 1992. From 1972-82, he put his photographic memory to use as a statistician for CBS, NBC and ABC. He has been a consultant and writer for the International Tennis Hall of Fame since 1994 and is a member of their Nominating Committee. Steve is the author of The Greatest Tennis Matches of the 20th Century. Flink's recall of match history is unsurpassed.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

2006 Men's Season in Review

All in all, the closing week of the 2006 ATP Season was captivating in many ways. At the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai, Roger Federer put the finishing touches on his finest year. Having already secured three Grand Slam championships across the year, he came through to win his third Masters Cup crown without losing a match. With sweeping assurance, the maestro extended his winning streak to 29 consecutive matches. His last loss of the season was in Cincinnati against Andy Murray; thereafter he won his final five tournaments of 2006 and underlined his supremacy in the process. His 92-5 record was stupendous. His numbers for the past three years are astonishing and unprecedented for that time frame in the modern era. He has won 34 of the 49 tournaments he played in that span, capturing 247 of 262 matches. Most remarkable of all, he triumphed in 8 of 12 Grand Slam events over that stretch, becoming the first man in the history of tennis to take the Wimbledon and U.S. Open singles titles three years in a row. And in 2006 he established himself as the first man since Rod Laver achieved his second Grand Slam in 1969 to appear in all four Grand Slam tournament singles finals.

Now only a few questions remain about this supremely gifted and deeply driven 25-year-old. Can he move past Pete Sampras as the all-time leader for men’s Grand Slam titles, and will he equal or surpass the great American’s modern record of six straight years at No. 1 in the world? Moreover, is Federer poised to become the first man since Laver to record a Grand Slam?

Federer has nine majors in his collection, and needs six more to break the Sampras record. That could well happen over the next three years. Barring injuries, it probably will. As for the Grand Slam, that is less likely but far from out of his reach. Federer has already ruled "Down Under" at the Australian Open twice, capturing the U.S. Open thrice, and winning Wimbledon the last four years. Meanwhile, he has been closing in at Roland Garros. In the last two years, only Rafael Nadal has beaten Federer at the French Open, prevailing in the semifinals in 2005 and in the championship match of 2006. Nadal has been unstoppable on clay for the past two years, winning a record 62 straight matches on that surface, defeating Federer no fewer than four times in that span. Federer can clearly beat anyone else on the slow red clay. And he had two match points against his Spanish adversary in the finals of the Italian Open in May.

He will have his work cut out for him to win at the French Open, and would be hard pressed to upend Nadal on that stage. But if anyone else accounted for the Spaniard, Federer would fully exploit the situation. If he manages to take the first two majors next year, he could well win a Grand Slam in 2007. But the hurdle in Paris will undoubtedly be hard. And while very few people could conceivably stop him at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open, he could be ripe for an upset at those venues. He has an incredible big match temperament and seems immune to pressure, but even Federer is human. So, in the last analysis, I don’t see him winning a Grand Slam despite his abundance of talent and his lofty goals.

Nadal had a brilliant first half of 2006 and a highly disappointing second half. In that first half, he beat Federer four times in a row, adding an impressive come from behind win over the Swiss in the final of Dubai on hard courts to his three clay court head-to-head triumphs. By the end of Roland Garros, Nadal had already secured five tournament titles. He did not win another for the rest of the year, and never advanced past the semifinals of any event after making it to the final of Wimbledon in only his third appearance on the grass courts of the All England Club. In the final, he gave Federer a scare after losing the first set at love. Nadal served for the second set at 5-4 and had a 301 lead in the tie-break before surrendering that set, eventually bowing in four well played sets. That was no disgrace.

But he was never the same player after that. On the hard courts over the summer, Tomas Berdych crushed him in Canada before Juan Carlos Ferrero surprised him in Cincinnati. At the U.S. Open he fell in the quarterfinals unexpectedly against Mikhail Youzhny, wasting a triple set point opportunity to take two sets to one lead and then falling in four sets.

In the fall, he lost again to Berdych in Madrid in the quarters, and at Shanghai he lost for the third straight time to James Blake in the round robin. He recouped to beat Tommy Robredo and Nikolay Davydenko to reach the semifinals. Despite losing 6-4, 7-5 to Federer, he played his best tennis of the second half of the year. The score does not do justice to that match. For sustained quality, it may have been the finest Federer-Nadal match of the entire season. It was a shame that the rivalry had fizzled after Wimbledon and that Nadal could not lift his game on hard courts to a higher level, but he was terrific against Federer in their Shanghai showdown on a relatively quick court that did not entirely suit his game. The last game of the match was breathtaking from both sides of the net as both men released one dazzling winner after another and kept the crowd gasping. This was scintillating tennis. Federer served prodigiously throughout the match and was broken only once in two sets. On top of that, his ground game was unrelenting and he picked all the right times to come forward and volley.

Nadal undeniably faded in 2006. He lost too much intensity and his confidence evaporated. But the feeling grows that his last match of the year could carry him into 2007 with renewed vigor and purpose. He won 11 tournaments in 2005 but played too much taxing tennis. In 2006, he played a more sensible, less stressful schedule but still looked worn down after Wimbledon. He battled an ongoing problem with his foot and still had trouble with his knee. He needs to stay healthy and fresh in 2007 to play the kind of tennis he should from the beginning to the end of the season.

Who would have believed that Davydenko would finish 2006 at the No. 3 player in the world? What an accomplishment that was for this earnest, dedicated, underrated Russian with the fast hands, swift reactions and sound ball striking off both sides. In Shanghai, he was unlucky to lose against both Blake and Nadal. He was up a set and 4-2 in his duel with Blake before the American stormed back for a three set win. Davydenko took a long first set from Nadal before losing 5-7, 6-4, 6-4. He played a first rate match. I doubt he will finish 2007 among the top five again but he should hold on to a top ten standing. The primary reason is his ability to return serve effectively. In 2006, he finished second behind Federer on points won returning first serves at 35%. He was the ATP Tour leader for points won returning second serves at 56%. He finished second on break points converted at 47%, and won more return games than anyone else at 35%. Those statistics are very telling.

What should we make of the Americans James Blake and Andy Roddick in 2006? Blake clearly had his best year as a professional, soaring to No. 4 in the world from his No. 24 status at the conclusion of 2005. He won five tournaments, which was no mean feat. Moreover, Blake, who had been fortunate to qualify in the No. 8 and last spot for Shanghai, managed to reach the final of the season-ending event in his first appearance on that elite stage. His wins over Nadal, Davydenko and 2005 champion David Nalbandian were well deserved, but the drubbing he took from Federer in the final--- Blake bowed 6-0, 6-3, 6-4--- was a shame. It was the worst match he has ever played in six meetings with the world No. 1. He looked way out of sorts and his shot selection left a lot to be desired.

But the fact remains that he made substantial strides in 2006. He finished the year as the top-ranked American in tennis and played better tennis than he ever had before. Next year he needs to finally make his mark at a major and move past the quarterfinals for the first time, and he should be looking for more dependable results at Masters Series events as well.

Roddick had a terrible first half of 2006 but salvaged a lot over the second half by winning the Masters Series event in Cincinnati and reaching the final of the U.S. Open. In Shanghai, however, he let himself down by squandering a great opportunity to beat Federer in the round robin. Attacking purposefully, serving-and-volleying with consistency, Roddick took the first set from Federer. Then he served with a 4-1 lead in the second set tie-break, and later had three match points. On the first of those match points at 6-4, Roddick approached the net on the Federer backhand. Federer played a safe pass down the line. Roddick should have "stuck" that volley deep crosscourt or perhaps he could have angled it away; instead he dumped it crosscourt with nothing on it, and Federer passed him easily down the line off the forehand. Roddick went down in three sets, and then was knocked out of the event by Nalbandian in his last robin match. He had opened his campaign in Shanghai by defeating Ivan Ljubicic.

The Federer setback was considerable. Had Roddick lost a routine contest, it would have been bruising enough. But the sting was much worse after coming so close to a big triumph only to fail. Had he beaten Federer for only the second time in his career, he would have given himself the best possible boost. He could then have conceivably earned another meeting with Federer in the final; instead; he did not even make it to the penultimate round.

Roddick surely should be commended for reasserting himself in 2006 and finishing the year at No. 6 in the world, but he will be hard pressed to do much better in 2007. His willingness to alter his game has always been admirable, and he clearly respects and listens closely to the advice of his coach Jimmy Connors. Furthermore, Roddick is a spirited competitor. But will he ever rediscover the winning mentality he had in 2003 when he was No. 1 in the world? That will be a tough task. Federer won Wimbledon that year while Roddick took the U.S. Open, but by the following year Federer had soared to another level and has kept on progressing since. Roddick was at his best as a match player back then, recording five victories from match point down over the course of the season. He seemed oblivious to pressure, and relished the hard challenges. He remains a tenacious fighter but is not as sure of himself in the crunch.

His game has changed, too. His forehand may be less of a weapon these days. There are times when he smothers it with too much unintentional topspin. But his two-handed backhand has improved. He remains sporadically vulnerable at the net but his volley has improved, particularly off the backhand side. And, of course, his serve remains one of the game’s greatest. The key to his 2007 season will be his showings at the Australian Open and Wimbledon. He needs to build on what he did at the U.S. Open and make a habit again out of being around for the latter stages of majors.

It is to be hoped that more of the leading players will step up considerably in 2007. The only player other than Nadal to beat Federer in 2006 was Murray in Cincinnati. Too many players are beaten by the world No. 1 before they even walk on the court. Why can’t they realize that they have absolutely nothing to lose when they confront this all time great? What will it take for the likes of Richard Gasquet, Berdych and others to rise to the challenge and at least pull off the occasional win over this towering individual? We will find out in 2007.


At November 28, 2006 6:46 PM, Blogger wcurry said...

I know Federer's 3 year stretch is the best in the open era, but did Laver, Connors, Borg ever withdraw from big events during their prime years due to fatigue like Roger has done twice this year? His record is amazing, but he seems a bit more protective of his win-loss % than past greats & is very selective with his scheduling.


Post a Comment

<< Home