Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Tennis [Print without images]

Monday, May 25, 2009
Draining clay season could take its toll

By Greg Garber
Special to ESPN.com

The grueling grind

PARIS -- Forty-four minutes into the seven-part mini-series that would be his coronation, Rafael Nadal found himself dead even with a qualifier named Marcos Daniel.

It was 5-all in the first set, and the surprised crowd at Court Philippe Chatrier was openly supporting the 30-year-old Brazilian. When Nadal finally pushed ahead in the 11th game, with a running cross-court forehand, he celebrated with a restrained, stationary fist. After another big forehand, which secured the first set, Nadal displayed no emotion at all. He walked briskly to his changeover chair, a scowl on his face.

Later, after grinding for 2 hours, 23 minutes, Nadal finally locked down a sluggish 7-5, 6-4, 6-3 victory.

"It's not a very good start," he told Spanish journalists afterward. "I'm not going to say it's positive. My leg game was not that good. In sports, in a 10th of a second you have to catch the ball. You need to be present there, on time.

"If you play well, you have the feeling you'll be on top of the next ball. But today I was a bit short in my shots. I was not very precise."

Though he started slowly last year here against Thomaz Bellucci in the first round, Nadal never dropped a set and never lost more than a dozen games; Novak Djokovic achieved that number in the semifinals. But Daniel, ranked No. 97 among ATP World Tour players, is no Djokovic.

Jacques Demarthon/Getty Images

At what point will the physical grind of all the tennis Rafael Nadal has played catch up to him?

While probing Roger Federer's recently fragile psyche has been an entertaining parlor game this season, the major questions surrounding Nadal concern his physical condition.

"Rafatigue" (an oxymoron?) will be a leading storyline as the leg-weary Nadal works toward his record fifth consecutive title here at Roland Garros.

After his draining semifinal win over Djokovic in Madrid that required four hours and two minutes, Nadal looked spent in dropping the straight-sets final to Roger Federer. Inevitably, he was asked in his first press conference at Roland Garros about playing too much.

"I would love always to play too much, no?" he said last Friday. "If you play too much, it's because you are winning a lot of matches. I don't know I don't know if I play too much."

"Maybe too much?" his questioner repeated.

"Always is the same," Nadal said. "Always the same questions, and always is the same answer: too much. I think it's too much, but we don't have election."

In other words, Rafa will play until he drops.

After a few days off following Madrid, Nadal hit the red clay here with a vengeance. On Saturday, he spent close to three hours banging balls, with two practice sessions framing an exhibition set with Argentina's Brian Dabul.

Nadal is still a kid -- he turns 23 next week -- but he has accumulated some uncommon mileage on his occasionally balky knees. He played an ATP World Tour-high 93 matches last year and has already produced 45 results in 2009, second only to Djokovic's 48 matches.

In the clay-court gauntlet that is Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome and Madrid, Nadal played an astounding 20 matches in 33 days -- on clay. The accumulated court time, despite two walkovers, was 31 hours and 22 minutes.

And while much has been made of Nadal's loss to Federer, which ended a 33-match win streak on clay, it may not be a significant factor in this championship. In 2007, Federer ended Nadal's record of 81 consecutive wins on clay in the final at Hamburg. Nadal dispatched Federer in the French final a month later.

"I didn't start to play my best here the last four years," Nadal said. "But the important thing is be positive mentally and try to win, no? I won in three sets.

"I hope this tournament is going to be long enough for me to give me time to adapt and improve and get good feelings all along the tournament."

Five things we learned on Day 2

1. Roger Federer … uh, he's good: Fresh (remarkably fresh) off his victory over Rafael Nadal in Madrid, the world No. 2 needed 1 hour, 43 minutes to dispatch Alberto Martin of Spain 6-4, 6-3, 6-2.

Federer was reminded afterward that the last time he played on Court Philippe Chatrier was nearly a year ago -- when he scored only four games off Rafael Nadal.

"I didn't even think about last year's match because I was so much concentrated," Federer said. "I didn't want to lose my first match. Maybe you wouldn't believe me, but now that you [ask] it, I realize that was true."

2. It's getting' hot in here: For the second straight day, temperatures soared past 80 degrees at Roland Garros, making conditions feel more like the Australian Open. Against all cultural odds, the red wine served in the media cafeteria at Suzanne Lenglen seemed to be the second choice on Monday -- behind Carlsberg beer.

3. Roland Garros, like TNT, knows drama: Stanislas Wawrinka, Federer's doubles partner, went five nasty sets with Nicolas Devilder for 3 hours, 59 minutes -- and lived to tell about it.

"Having a red nose afterwards? Well, trust me, I know if I play for four hours in the sun, I know that I walk out with a red nose -- whether I put on some sunscreen, or not. It's not a big problem. I'm used to it."

4. The glass, for Europeans at least, is half full: When Kirsten Flipkens (sunglasses) met Stephanie Foretz (prescription glasses) in the first round they were both wearing stylish eyewear. Maybe they were just coming back from the Cannes Film Festival.

5. Land of the midnight sun: It's light really late over here. Vera Dushevina and Caroline Wozniacki were out on Chatrier, banging balls past 9 p.m. local time. Wozniacki, who is still only 18, must have been up after her bedtime. Dushevina won the first set and Wozniacki didn't look like she wanted to be there. They'll play a deciding third set on Tuesday.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Small steps

Sharapova

A year ago, Maria Sharapova stepped onto the grounds here at Roland Garros as the No. 1-ranked player in the world with every expectation of winning.

On Monday, after a nine-month layoff due to an injured right shoulder, she was the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour's No. 102-ranked player.

"I don't really have expectations, to be honest," Sharapova said. "I think this is the first time in my career where I can say I don't have any expectations.

"I don't know how things are going to work out."

Her 3-6, 6-1, 6-2 first-round victory over Anastasiya Yakimova, Sharapova fell well short of offering any definitive answers.

"I started pretty lousy," Sharapova said of her nearly two-hour match. "She made me hit a lot of balls. I was just a little sloppy."

But after the wakeup call that was the first set, Sharapova rallied famously. Her surgically repaired shoulder held up, even if her serving motion looks a little different.

"I did have an opportunity to have a normal life, and I think when you're traveling 11 months out of the year, always on the go, you never have the time to settle down and appreciate the little things," she said.

"You sit back and you miss it, you want to be out there -- who doesn't? It's from the hour in the locker room and putting on your dress, to the 15 minutes before your match where you're warming up and you're pumping yourself up and you're going to get out there in front of 20,00 people. You miss that.

"I certainly missed that."

--Greg Garber

Auspicious American

Glatch

Few would have given 19-year-old Californian Alexa Glatch much of a chance against Italy's 14th-seeded Flavia Pennetta, who reached the fourth round at Roland Garros last year. The match was indeed swift, but Glatch played the role of the windshield rather than the bug, crushing Pennetta 6-1, 6-1 in -- aptly -- 61 minutes. Pennetta was hampered by a strained groin muscle suffered in Madrid, but the young American's composure and performance were still impressive in her first Grand Slam appearance outside the U.S. Open.

Glatch's promising career was derailed in 2005 when injuries suffered in a motor scooter accident sidelined her for eight months, but she said she's stronger than she was before. She backed that up last month, carrying the U.S. Fed Cup team on her shoulders by winning both her singles matches against the Czech Republic and propelling the Americans into this fall's final against none other than Italy.

"I just kind of learned that I can play with these players and I can beat these players out here,'' said the rangy, 6-foot-tall Glatch of her Fed Cup experience. "[The upcoming final] was a little extra incentive. When I saw the draw come out. … I got a little more excited than I do normally.''

Glatch's clay-court preparation was interrupted by the Fed Cup trip (the host Czechs elected to play on indoor hard court), and she was 4-3 on the surface this season coming into Roland Garros. This is her first victory on European clay. Spain's Lourdes Dominguez Lino awaits her in the second round.

Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez has said she will try to persuade the Williams sisters to play in the final, but Glatch, ranked 116th, made a statement by beating Italy's top player on the surface where the championship will almost certainly be played.

--Bonnie D. Ford

Work to be done?

Safina

Dinara Safina was feeling pretty good Monday after her first-round match with Anne Keothavong. But her coach, Zeljko Krajan, was unhappy. Worse, actually.

"When I pushed a few shots, he was angry," Safina said. "I guess I could serve a little better and, I don't know, hitting balls a little harder.

"I'm going to go and hit some balls."

This after Safina's 6-0, 6-0 double-bageling of Keothavong -- the first British woman to penetrate top-50 airspace in 16 years. What would the punishment have been if she had lost a game?

"After I shake her hand, she said, 'At least you could give me one game,'" Safina said. "I could imagine it's not nice to feel on the court."

It's been a while since Safina felt anything less than stellar on the court. In the last year, the 23-year-old Russian has reached 12 of 20 finals. Since she rose to the No. 1 ranking last month, Safina has won 14 of 15 matches on clay, including the two major French Open warm-ups in Rome and Madrid.

That makes her the favorite.

"Actually," she said, "I'm not really paying attention to what people are saying. I play my game, day to day, match to match, and how far I get, God knows."

--Greg Garber

Comeback kid

Larcher de Brito

Sixteen-year-old Michelle Larcher de Brito proved she deserved her shot at prime time Monday, overcoming a first-set whitewash to defeat Great Britain's Melanie South, 0-6, 7-6 (5), 7-5. It was the second consecutive death-defying comeback for the Portuguese teen, who has trained at the Bollettieri Academy in Bradenton, Fla., since she was 9 years old. She marched back from an 0-6, 0-3 deficit in her final qualifying match here to earn her first berth in a Grand Slam main draw. Larcher de Brito will want to avoid digging that kind of hole against her second-round opponent, 15th seed Jie Zheng of China. After playing exclusively on clay as a youngster, Larcher de Brito, currently No. 132 in the WTA rankings, said she lost her feel for the surface during her first four or five years in the United States as she trained on hard court. She went winless on clay last year but said she is "starting to understand it better as I get older.''

--Bonnie D. Ford