The final at the first ATP Masters 1000 event of the decade fell a little flat after the untimely exit of the Spaniard pictured above,  but the thunderous string of upsets has opened the door for two of the Tour’s long-overshadowed citizens.  Ljubicic has never won a title of this magnitude, while Roddick has spent the past several years in the shadow of Federer and Nadal after his initial breakthrough.  Neither player is likely to see many more of these opportunities as their careers wane, so the final should be laden with a sense of urgency that could compensate for the absence of top-5 global icons.  We’ll go through the same procedure as for the WTA final:  head-to-head, recent form, three pieces of advice, shot-by-shot, and then the prediction in pictorial mode.

Head-to-head:  Roddick leads 7-3 (5-2 on hard courts)

They haven’t met since their quarterfinal here three years ago, which Roddick claimed in two tiebreaks.  Their 10 meetings have featured 12 tiebreaks, so don’t be surprised to see one or two more tomorrow.  Although the American and the Croat split their last four meetings, Roddick has consistently held the advantage on this surface.  The one eye-opener in their head-to-head is Ljubicic’s five-set Davis Cup win in California, a match that showed his ability to conquer the home favorite in the most adverse conditions.

Recent form:

Roddick:  Solid and occasionally excellent.  The top-ranked American started 2010 positively by seizing the Brisbane title but faltered against Cilic in Australia, partly because of a nagging shoulder injury.  He sustained a slightly disappointing loss to Verdasco in the San Jose final before falling to the up-and-coming Querrey in Memphis.  His decision to skip the recent Belgrade Davis Cup tie has been vindicated by his performance here, where he eased past several overmatched opponents before navigating through a scratchy semifinal against Soderling. 

Ljubicic:  Dormant until suddenly spectacular.  Once the third-ranked player and a four-time Masters Series finalist, the mild-mannered Croat had compiled a modest 5-4 record this year prior to the event and seemed drifting towards a placid retirement.  Suddenly, he stunned a weary Djokovic in straight sets and celebrated his 31st birthday by rallying from a one-set deficit against Nadal.  This tournament has had a history of surprises, and a debut Masters 1000 title for Ljubicic certainly would preserve the pattern.

Three tips for Roddick:

1)  Take chances on Ljubicic’s serve, especially the second serve.  Roddick should be holding serve comfortably and quickly on most occasions, so he should try to punish any soft second serves in order to put Ljubicic on the back foot.  Once Roddick takes the initiative in a point, the slow-footed Croat will struggle to recover.  Moreover, second-serve pressure will add pressure to Ljubicic’s first serve and perhaps convince him to sacrifice pace for a higher percentage, which ultimately would play into Roddick’s hands.

2)  Keep it simple.  The American is at his best when he plays by instinct; despite recent additions to his game, he still relies on power rather than finesse.  Solid and steady should get the job done on this occasion.  Unlike in his matches against Federer, Nadal, Del Potro, or Murray, he won’t need to do anything unexpected, risky, or extraordinary in order to win. 

3)  Use the home-court advantage.  Except for Ljubicic’s support group and a small cluster of Croatian diehards, almost the entire stadium will be in Roddick’s corner tomorrow.  It always seems as though his serve has a little extra sting and his groundstrokes have a little extra zip with an enthusiastic crowd on his side, as has been demonstrated in Davis Cup.  That said, he’ll want to stay relatively calm if and when he reaches an opportunity to close it out.

Three tips for Ljubicic:

1)  Conserve energy.  He’s probably a little physically, mentally, and emotionally drained after his nail-biting win over Nadal, so he won’t be at his freshest in the final.  Therefore, he’ll want to focus his energy on his own service games rather than exerting himself in the effort to win a meaningless point or two on Roddick’s serve.  His only real chance in this match is to keep holding serve, squeeze his way into a couple of tiebreaks, and hope that Roddick blinks.

2) Maximize the first serve.  Once the rally gets started on equal terms, Roddick is the more consistent and versatile player; he’ll win the majority of the extended, neutral points.  Consequently, Ljubicic must gain the upper hand immediately with an overwhelming serve that sets up a weak reply.  Yet a low first-serve percentage will regulary expose his much weaker second serve.  It’ll be intriguing to see how the Croat balances aggression with consistency on this vital shot.

3)  Pull the trigger early and often.  Ljubicic can’t wear down Roddick from the baseline, and a war of attrition is a war that he will inevitably lose.  As soon as he finds an opening, he needs to rip a groundstroke towards it and try to take over the point.  His 100-mph backhand bullet at 1-2 in the third-set tiebreak today was a perfect example of how one bold, unexpected winner can set the tone for the next several minutes, especially at a crucial stage.  If he’s successful with this tactic early in the match, he may plant some doubt in Roddick’s mind. 

Who has the edge?  Shot-by-shot breakdown:

Serve:  Roddick

Return:  Roddick

Forehand:  Roddick

Backhand:  Ljubicic

Volleys:  Ljubicic

Movement:  Roddick

Mental:  Roddick

And finally…who will win?

Enjoy the finals!  🙂  We’ll be back tomorrow with a tournament wrap before moving on to Miami next week!