Friday, May 11, 2007

Filippo Volandri's Excellence Continues

by Craig Hickman

Filippo Volandri made history today. With his 6-2, 6-3 dismantling of Tomas Berdych in the semifinals at the Foro Italico this afternoon, Pippo became the first Italian since Adriano Panatta in 1978 to make the final four at the Italian Open. Surely, the tournament director couldn't feel better about giving Volandri a wildcard into the main draw.

Another day, another upset. Suffering no letdown after yesterday's shock victory over Roger Federer, Pippo never gave Berydch, who'd won their last 3 claycourt encounters, an opportunity to breathe. Using acute angles to stretch the big Czech wide in both courts, a tactic that made Roger's movement look pedestrian, Volandri drew errors or short replies that he could put away with his trademark backhand.

What I like most about Volandri, who relishes the atmosphere of playing in front of his home crowd, is his upright carriage. Here is a man who believes, against all odds, that he can win this title. Whether he does or not is beside the point. His belief has allowed him to dismiss the when-is-he-going-to-realize-his-potential French hope Richard Gasquet; humiliate the world's best player with ease; and force the No. 12 seed to look up with resignation to his camp after almost every point.

Volandri didn't face a single break point.

"It's another decisive result, which means opponents are having trouble against me because I'm playing at such a high level," he said. "I had a little bit more pressure than yesterday, but I played another perfect match."

This is the stuff of everyday legend. While the rest of the tennis world is reeling, still trying to figure out how the Greatest could have lost (afterall, he's got that Roland Garros crown to win so he can finally prove worthy of the Greatest of All Time label that has been yelled at him by so many, so loudly, for so long that his ears are bleeding), his vanquisher has gone about his business and backed up his victory, letting those who haven't given Volandri enough (or any) credit know that excellence doesn't just come in overhyped packages.

And speaking of overhyped packages. Novak Djokovic was no match for Rafael Nadal whose comfortable 6-2, 6-3 victory extended his winning streak on clay to 75 matches, tying John McEnroe's streak on indoor carpet, the longest on any single surface in the Open Era.

And speaking of John McEnroe. He sat courtside to witness Rafa tie his streak. Apparently, the Djoke has asked JMac to consider coaching him. But that's a discussion for another time.

In the other quarterfinals, No. 3 seed Nikolay Davydenko outlasted Tommy Robredo 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 and Fernando Gonzalez was too much power and slice for Juan Ignacio Chela, winning their match 6-3, 6-4. Gonzo will face the Italian dream in one semifinal; Davydenko will try to slay the giant in the other. I may do a semifinal preview when I return from dinner later. I may not.

Meantime, enjoy Pippo's historic day.


edma1022 said...

Harsh words on Federer (or his fans) Craig. Very harsh. I also noted your unusually expansive comments on the ESPN boards. All of them. Harsh indeed.

c'est la vie, monsieur.


Dan Scarlett said...

Thank you , Craig, for giving Volandri his full due. I just read an araticle stating" he is at best a Tier II clay courter."
Your comments are the most incisive and thoughtful of ALL the commentators out there--and that includes the 'big names', who shal remain nameles!
People keep referrig to your comments on ESPN boards----where can I find it?
Thanks, Dan.

Craig Hickman said...

Everything that I've written about Roger Federer is the way I see it. I don't think it's harsh at all. I've talked about match dynamics and speculated about the internal workings of the characters in the drama. What words were harsh? That Roger presents entitlement? That he's trying too hard to win Roland Garros? As for his fans, I don't believe I've attacked a single one of them, ed.

Federer is a talented tennis player who is also, much to his detriment, the creation of something quite common in modern culture: Hype. Just because he's a great player with a great resume doesn't mean that he's not overhyped. As it is, he's become a sacred cow that no one can criticize or cast in a light that goes against the party line.

But when he loses matches in the way that he's lost his last four matches, especially in light of the above, well, that is an unusual set of circumstaces that warrants unusually expansive comments.

It's unfortunate that you think I've written harsh words. But indeed, sir, that's life.

We press on.

Craig Hickman said...

Dan, appreciate very much your kind words. I just call it like I see it.

The ESPN tennis forum, which is sometimes more like a war zone, can be found here:

MadProfessah said...

yeah I have been wondering about these mysterious bulletin board comments...

Craig Hickman said...

Mad, there really isn't much to them. I haven't said anything over there that I haven't said (or won't say) over here.

Ed is someone I respect. Perhaps if he comes back and reads these comments, he might consider finding and pasting my harsh words right here so this readership doesn't have to go searching for them on a forum that's a bit complicated to navigate even for a regular visitor.

Ed, would you mind? It would help to let those who are curious know for what you scold me.

Anonymous said...

I have no idea what edma might mean by his comments, but I might say your pointed quote by Tony Nadal strays a bit out of the "fair criticism" zone. I have no idea (again!) by what standards you measure Federer but I dare you to point to a player who can be losing so badly and look unconcerned. If you are going to say Rafa (whose ability to keep his body language positive is surely overhyped by the commentators, wouldn't you say?) than may I point to July 2006-Dec 2006 stretch, when the wind had been knocked out of him briefly by Wimbledon. And Rafa was losing in QF/SF not in the 3rd round of another tournament.

- Sher (i should prolly create an account)

Craig Hickman said...

Hi Sher, thanks again for stopping by.

Even though this post is about Volandri, it is interesting that we are compelled to discuss Federer in it. He's the world's best player, an International star. It is never unfair to criticize him, provided those critiques come from an honest place.

Mine do. I think Toni Nadal's quote is interesting. It is only his opinion, of course, and just because I juxtaposed it under Federer's "long face" doesn't mean I'm slamming Roger. I certainly wear my heart on my sleeves, and if I were getting picked apart, I'd probably have a long face too.

It is, however, an interesting perspective that a player can't learn with a long face. That he might never believe he's too good to still learn (the real crux of the matter as far as I'm concerned) so wearing long face can go against that learnnig.

Roger has been wearing a long face since March. I've said he's been in an ornery mood. Same thing, really. Some of Federer's many fans have suggested he's become too stubborn, refusing to consistently attack the net of slice his backhand. One even suggested that he's expecting his opponents to continue to be dazzled by his magic shots and when they aren't, he gets uncomfortable, makes more errors, and doesn't try to adjust.

Federer said that he had been practicing 4 ad 5 hours a day and got to Rome a week early to do so. He even played doubles to get in some more match play before starting singles.

So why the moody "uncharacterstic" performances? Why isn't he executing whatever game plan he has learned from all the information he has gathered (his words, not mine) playing Nadal so much on clay over the last year? I haven't a clue, really, accept to suggest that his Canas losses cut deeper than we might realize or want to admit and he's suffering a crisis of confidence because of it.

I like Toni's quote. It is food for thought. Perhaps Roger and many other players who step onto or walk off of courts with long faces might be able to take something from it.

As for holding Roger to a standard: it's not my place to hold him to any standard. I may like or dislike something about him, but I don't hold him to anything. He's free to be who he is, to present himself however he sees fit. I simply state opinions about what I see; no more, no less. I do that for every single player I follow, including my favorites, who I have no trouble criticizing when I feel it's warranted.

Craig Hickman said...

One last observation: Criticizing a player isn't the same as attacking that player. I've attacked one player on this blog and when I realized how inappropriate that was I removed the text of the attack.

But no tennis player is immune to criticism. Not Roger or Rafa, not Serena or Justine, not anyone.

I've praised Roger as much as I've criticized him. I will continue to do both when it's warranted.

Filippo Volandri deserves his praise. That was the primary focus of this entry. And only one reader seems to agree.

So be it.

7:54 AM

edma1022 said...

Craig, sorry for taking too long to respond. I read thru all the exchanges you had with Maindraw @ ESPN, and of course this blog (my first stop when I open my browser for tennis). Some takeaways:
- "expansive" meant you were unusually wordy on the board.
- hype is relative. you mention Roger's hype, but I say hype backed up by real solid numbers is warranted hype - something Fed deserves (no more no less).
- hype for Djoko you detest, yet you're doing the same thing for Volandri (hell, everyone who comes up against Roger these days are "hyped" naturally). we both know what happened to Volandri today. I still subscribe to the excessive attention ROger's failure got instead of the lights-out tennis Volandri displayed (also against Berdych). I posted that comment.
- Toni's comment juxtaposed on Roger's downcast picture is tacky. to Fed fans the word is "harsh" but to normal fans (see Sher's comment) is tacky. nuff said.

I still respect your opinion more than anybody else's, Craig. You gotta believe that. But sometimes you try too hard to deflect attention away from Roddick as if Roger deserves the same vilification. Each player is unique, as well as each match is unique. Rationalizing them on single seasons, clutch of matches, a single match is faulty. Your words carry weight since you publish them on a public blog. But sensibilities are also triggered. That's what happened. I apologize for the comment and I will still hold your hand as we go through this tennis ride of a season.


Craig Hickman said...

I respect your words, Ed, but Andy ultimately has nothing to do with this. You've stated in the past that you don't believe that, but I stand by my honest assessment of my words. And besides, I don't think Roger is a villain, so I'm not at all trying to vilify him. Sure, there are things about him I don't like. There are things about him I do like, too.

If praising a player's stellar tennis play over three matches is hyping them, then so be it. But I don't think so. Hype doesn't just come from a single person. I missed your post about Volandri's lights out tennis. Glad you saw it.

But the hype that Roger is the GOAT is deafening. It's misplaced. The man is at the middle of his career, barring injury or disinterest, and I think it does him and the sport a huge disservice to make such proclamations. To his credit, Roger has repeatedly said as much.

I thank you for clarifying what you meant by harsh. We'll just agree to disagree about what's tacky and harsh where Roger is concerned. Though it remains my opinion that Roger isn't improving his game and given his coach's declaration that Roger hasn't even used half of his talent, it makes me wonder where the other half might be lurking. Afterall, Roche has been in the Federer camp for some time now and he was no closer to defeating Nadal in Monte Carlo than he was at the start of last year's clay-court campaign.

Much of it has to do with Nadal's improvement, but I also think Roger has plateaued, if not regressed. Time will tell, I suppose.

And just to clarify: I'm not analyzing Roger on a single match. I've been following Roger's funk for quite some time. He won Dubai, but didn't play well at all. His funk seemed to intensify after his Canas losses.

Signs of the potential end of Roger's dominance are there for all of us to see, but I certainly respect those, like maindraw, who admit that they aren't willing to accept those signifiers for what they are right now.

I think Roger might do well to get out of his own way and allow his tennis to flow again. But I still think that Nadal and Canas and Volandri have shown how a player can get into Roger's head and disallow him from working his magic. If other players take the lesson and are capable of fighting back, no matter the score, Roger will continue to struggle. Unless, of course, he's prepared to go to war against those who refuse to back down.

Thanks for replying.

Anonymous said...

IMHO, Roger hasn't been in the right frame of mind long before Canas came along. I was shocked by his negative body language during the AO, but excused it with the cold he had, and he ultimately won that Grand Slam. His troubles _continued_ for the rest of the year so far, and he lost matches he should have won against Canas. He lost a match against Nadal fair and square, although he came closest (until Davydenko today) to beating him.

If anything, it is my opinion that he is putting too much stock into practicing and training, and overthinking every point. At some point, I think he needs to let instinct take over. Have a shorter memory. He's been practicing a lot this year, but trully he was at his best last year when he had no time to breathe between winning matches.

It is my opinion that rather than not learning from his matches he takes in too much (he has always been more emotional than many top players on the tour) and that's interfearing with his ability to play calmly. Roger always plays well when he finds that edge between incredible tension and certainty of a posibility of a win.

In short, I think I'm taking something very different away from Federer's matches than you are. That's interesting to see. Anyway, that's a bit of a ramble.

(As for Volandri, I am happy for him and congratulate him in my heart, but I have no opinion on him as a tennis player until he plays well in another tournament, than another, than another...Then we'll talk.)

Anonymous said...

Oops, that above was me!
- Sher

Craig Hickman said...

Volandri only plays well in Monte-Carlo and Rome. That's it. Therefore, you can't even call him a clay-court specialist or a "Tier II clay courter" when his best results have come at TMS events. If anything, he's a two-event specialist. Everywhere else, he doesn't make any noise.

To expect him to follow-up this run anywhere else would be unwise.

But with any performer (and players are performers), even a one-off display of excellence deserves credit. That is what this entry was (initially) all about.

Thanks again, Sher.

Anonymous said...

Volandri is not a total nobody. 53 in the world and more clay matches won last year than Rafa. I want to expect something.

Thanks, Craig.

- Sher

Craig Hickman said...

If he won more clay matches than Rafa last year, then he really is a mid-level clay-courter. I wasn't aware of that stat, so thanks!

Anonymous said...

Yep, I read it in many places, here's one good quote on the subject: "Volandri is not one of those wild cards who’s ranked two or three hundred and something, he’s a pretty good clay court player. He won more clay court matches than Nadal last year and took the title at Palermo. Of course, Nadal was undefeated and Volandri lost fifteen matches but still, he’s not chopped liver."

Anyway, back to Roger (*grins*) he apparently agrees with me that he's overcoached. He ended the coaching relationship with Tony Roche.

rabbit said...

Interesting to look back at this thread and see that some people started seeing problems with Roger's game from AO 2007. There were doubts expressed here that Roger could not "go to war" against those who stand up to him, but I guess that question has now been resolved by Wimby 2008 and the Andreev match. The "uncharacteristic" play from Roger continues though...