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Andy Murray - 2011 Shanghai Rolex Masters - Day 6

Overshadowed by plotlines like the ascendancy of Djokovic and the decline of Federer is the singular season of contradictions alternately enjoyed and suffered by Andy Murray.   Sometimes heroic and sometimes humiliated, Murray reached semifinals at all of the year’s last three majors consecutively for the first time in his career—yet fell more or less routinely to the same player at all of them.  The Scot inflicted one of the only two blemishes on Djokovic’s 2011 record—yet absorbed an ignominious annihilation in their most significant meeting, at the Australian Open.  But the starkest and strangest dichotomy of all springs from his record at hard-court Masters 1000 tournaments, which will stand at two titles and three opening-round losses if he wins on Sunday.  The defending champion in Shanghai, Murray seeks to sweep the ATP Asian season with a third consecutive hard-court title in a season during which he lost five consecutive hard-court matches.

Since Madrid eleven tournaments ago, though, the world #4 has lost only one match to an opponent other than Djokovic or Nadal, whose rivalry may now have paused until the Australian Open.  Instead of a top-two opponent, the ambitious David Ferrer now positions himself between Murray and not only an eighth Masters shield but the #3 ranking.  The Scot has won all of their hard-court meetings and thrashed Ferrer comprehensively in a Tokyo semifinal just eight days ago, when he stayed more consistent and intelligent in the extended rallies.  More impressive this week, the third seed has rallied from one-set deficits in three consecutive matches to reach his second Masters 1000 final of the season, so he will not falter mentally under early adversity.  In a statistic from which Isner could take pride, Ferrer has not lost his serve for eight consecutive sets while registering 37 consecutive holds.  In Tokyo, a key reason behind Murray’s dominance lay in the disparity between their serves, an advantage that may not hold on Sunday against the suddenly serve-slashing Spaniard.  On the other hand, the puny returns of Roddick and Lopez often transform average servers into leviathans at the notch.  Also uncharacteristic of the clay-based grinder whom we know as Ferrer was his surprisingly effective movement into the forecourt and generally efficient volleys, although he did miss a key volley when facing set point against Lopez.  Adjusting to the slick DecoTurf surface with creditable aplomb, the world #5 showed that his game may conceal more variety than we associate with it.  This thought begs the question of why Ferrer has settled into a relatively passive playing style, which has crippled him against the ATP elite, but this self-deprecating figure may lack the inner confidence necessary to execute more aggressive tennis under pressure.

Often critiqued for similar reasons, Murray generally has stayed content in Shanghai to unfold his trademark brand of high-percentage, low-risk tennis.  Facing no opponent more notable than Wawrinka, he enjoyed the rare gift of facing two opponents outside the top 30 in the quarterfinal and semifinal of a Masters 1000 event.  Unlike Ferrer, who may arrive a little jaded from three straight three-setters, Murray should bring ample reserves of energy to their clash.  He needed a set to summon the willpower to leave his comfort zone in the Tokyo final against Nadal, and he may need a lesser leap of faith in himself here if Nadal’s compatriot continues to shine even in the traditionally weaker areas of his game.  Far different from their Tokyo meeting was an Australian Open semifinal in which the Spaniard came within a point of a two-set lead over the Scot, trumpeting his danger

Winless in Slam finals and thoroughly feckless on those stages, Murray has compiled quite the opposite sort of record in Masters 1000 finals:  7-1, with his only loss to Nadal.  Determined to attain the #3 ranking this year, he has extracted vital motivation from that mission throughout the last few weeks, when his rivals have not found any such goal to grasp.  The defending champion of Shanghai surpassed Federer on the court in last year’s final and likely will surpass him in the rankings after this year’s final, squeezing all of the juice that he can from the meager fruits of fall.

Rafael Nadal - Rakuten Open - Day 6

First quarter:  In the aftermath of yet another disappointment in a final, Nadal will have reason to smile when he crosses the Sea of Japan and examines his accommodating draw.  A runner-up in Shanghai two years ago, the world #2 exited in the third round to Melzer last year and will feel determined to improve upon that result.  With Djokovic and Federer absent, the top seed would not face any opponent more formidable than Ferrer until the final.  As Nadal attempts to rebuild his confidence, he could meet last year’s Bangkok nemesis Garcia-Lopez in the second round, but the prospect of a Dodig-like debacle seems distant.  Aligned for an intriguing first-round meeting with Gulbis is Nalbandian, who competed sturdily through two tight sets against Murray in Tokyo.  The Argentine might well justify his wildcard with a win over the Latvian, the victim of three consecutive losses to players outside the top 50 as his 2011 record has slipped to 17-18.  Despite failing to win a set from Nadal at the US Open, Nalbandian stretched him deep into two sets and continued to trouble Rafa with his flat two-hander.  If he advances to the quarterfinals, the top seed should brace himself to meet Djokovic’s compatriot Tipsarevic, who has evolved into a threat in his own right following a Montreal semifinal and US Open quarterfinal.  Edging within range of the top 10, the Serbian #2 has enjoyed success against sixth-seeded Berdych that includes a US Open Series victory.  Having won his first title in three year at Beijing, however, the Czech may have gained sufficient momentum to avenge that defeat.  But Berdych has lost nine straight matches to Nadal, including 21of their last 22 sets, while Tipsarevic has lost all six sets that he has played against the Spaniard.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter:  Although the most prominent among them rests on the top line of the draw, Spaniards dominate this section in a demonstration of their nation’s depth in men’s tennis.  Bookending the quarter are Ferrer and Almagro, rarely perceived as threats during the fall season but both near or at their career-high rankings.  In Almagro’s case, though, the sheer quantity of matches that he has contested this year (especially on clay) has masked his unremarkable performances at the key hard-court tournaments.  There, he has recorded nothing more than a quarterfinal at the Rogers Cup and a fourth-round appearance in Melbourne.  On the other hand, early assignments such as a clash against his light-hitting compatriot Robredo should not trouble him unduly.  Only once has he faced Roddick, a first-round loser in Beijing who struggled to hold serve there on the same DecoTurf surface laid down in Shanghai.  In fact, the American may not escape a compelling challenge from Grigor Dimitrov if the Bulgarian can impersonate more of Federer’s game than his backhand.  Unlike Almagro, Ferrer stands in the curious position of having etched his reputation on European clay but having recorded his most notable accomplishments with semifinals at the two hard-court majors. His road looks more dangerous with an opening match against Raonic or Llodra, although he edged the Montenegrin-turned-Canadian in four sets at the Australian Open.  Potentially pitted against Ferrer two rounds later is the dark horse of this section in the ever-frustrating, ever-dangerous Verdasco.  A combined 11-6 against Ferrer and Almagro, the Spanish lefty has shown signs of life by winning two matches in each of his last three tournaments.

Semifinalist:  Verdasco

Third quarter:  Expected by many to fade after the US Open, Fish erased those suspicions with a  semifinal run in Tokyo.  If he duplicates that performance in Shanghai, he will thoroughly have earned it by navigating past a varied assemblage of streaky shot-makers.  First among them is Kevin Anderson, the South African who defeated Murray in Montreal and Roddick last week.  Or can Bernard Tomic, who thrilled at Wimbledon and fizzled in New York, build upon his Tokyo upset of Troicki to arrange a rematch with Fish?  In their quarterfinal last week, the American found himself forced to rally from a one-set deficit against the towering but nuanced Aussie.  Oscillating wildly from one tournament to the next, Dolgopolov faces dangerous doubles specialist Kubot before a probable meeting with the possibly resurgent Cilic.  A finalist in Beijing for the second time in three years, the Croat’s steady, understated personality and methodical approach to competition should serve him well during the final.  Cilic surely would relish an opportunity to avenge his loss to Dolgopolov on home soil in Umag, and he has swept his four meetings with Fish.  The #1 seed in Beijing, Tsonga has received perhaps the highest seed of his career at a Masters 1000 tournament as the top-ranked player in this section.  Few are the plausible upset threats in his vicinity, although Santiago Giraldo tested Nadal in Tokyo and Robin Haase severely threatened Murray in New York.  More athletically gifted than either of the above, Tsonga might need to solve the enigmatic Melzer, the architect of Nadal’s demise here last year.  In the event that the Frenchman does face Fish in the quarterfinals, he should gain conviction from his five-set comeback victory over the American at the US Open.

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

Fourth quarter:  With a Djokovic-like display of rifled returns, whizzing backhands, and surreal court coverage, Murray torched 2011 Slam nemesis Nadal in the Tokyo final as he collected his 19th victory in 20 matches and third title in four tournaments.  Unsatisfied with that achievement, he accompanied his brother to the doubles title afterwards in his first career singles/doubles sweep at the same tournament.  Following that hectic albeit rewarding week, Murray will need to elevate his energy once more as he prepares to defend this title more effectively than he did the Rogers Cup trophy.  One wonders whether he can sustain the level of his last match—or the last two sets of it—or whether a lull will overtake him.  Unlikely to profit such a lull are the underachievers Bellucci and Tursunov who will vie for the opportunity to confront the Scot, but third-round opponent Wawrinka might pose a sterner challenge.  The Swiss #2 defeated Murray at the 2010 US Open and may have reinvigorated his sagging fortunes with his heroic effort in winning the Davis Cup World Group playoff.  A surprise finalist in Bangkok, meanwhile, Donald Young qualified for the main draw, drew a Chinese wildcard in the first round, and will hope to repeat his New York upset over Wawrinka.  Another American of note has lain dormant for several weeks following his US Open embarrassment, but Ryan Harrison could trouble the staggering Troicki en route to the third round.  At that stage, he would face the tireless Gilles Simon, often at his best in the fall when his workmanlike attitude capitalizes upon the weary or the satiated.  Although we don’t expect Simon to defeat Murray, he might deplete the second seed’s energy for the more demanding encounters ahead this weekend.

Semifinalist:  Murray

***

We return shortly to review the WTA Premier Five / Premier Mandatory fortnight in Tokyo and Beijing.

 

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