The record books will show that defending champion and number one ranked male, Novak Djokovic, successfuly reached the finals in the 2012 version of the BNL d’Italia tournament in Rome by beating Roger Federer.
As has become the norm, Djokovic played a high quality match, one sufficient enough to land him a spot in the finals. However, the win may have been less about Djokovic’s dominance than a somewhat lackluster performance from Federer who had an uncharacteristically high number of unforced errors.
Many of those errors were generated with his forehand, which arguably is the best in the game. Whats more, he didn’t appear overly perturbed by his multiple misfires.
My analysis is in no way intended to diminish the win by Djokovic. A win is a win regardless.
Federer has been playing solid ball for the last several events culminating with his tournament win over Berdych on the dreaded blue clay at Madrid. His movement has been scintillating as has been his shot making. He even unveiled a distinctly different shot. I’ve now seen him do it twice.
What makes this shot magnificent is it’s utter simplicity but remarkable disguise.
The circumstances surrounding the performance, and a performance it was, were nearly identical but against two different opponents.
In both cases a substantive rally was in progress, one of those breathtakingly physical exchanges, when suddenly a ball hit to Federer landed short (between net and service line) on Federer’s left.
From the moment he ran forward and around the ball to take it with his forehand, based on the distance behind the baseline his opponent was and the manner in which Federer raised his racket and switched to the continental grip, it was apparent to all that he was about to hit a deadly drop shot.
We all saw it coming, including the adversary who had already begun a mad dash towards his right side of the court closest the net, the obvious area in which the ball would be dropped. But as he got closer and the commentator simultaneously said something to the effect of, “Oh that’s a winner,” at that instant, The Fed niftily flicked his wrist as though cutting underneath the ball but actually sliced it deep right on or just inside the baseline well behind the onrushing rival.
The opponent looked baffled as he and the ball passed each other. The thing was easily within striking distance. But the disguise had been so masterful that stopping or lunging was not even an option. The deceit was just too complete.
He, the commentator, everyone sitting in the stadium and all of us watching on television had been duped.
The Fed was the only guy in the know of the fraud that had just been perpetrated. He tricked us all…flawlessly.
If I remember correctly, in the semis Seppi became the first victim and Berdych the second in the finals. What I do recall perfectly is the same perplexed look they both had, you know, the “What the hell just happened” look.
On both occasions I sat bolt upright in my chair waiting to see the slow mo replay. Surprisingly, it looked sort of ordinary but I can assure you, it was anything but that.
In horse racing parlance you’ll often here of giving a horse “a tightener.” That’s a race in which the main objective is not necessarily to win but to enhance the animal’s fitness level for a future event of greater significance.
It doesn’t mean that the trainer is intentionally losing the race. It simply means that the horse will not be pushed to an exhaustive point to win. If he happens to cross the finish line first, well that’s fine too.
Horatio Luro, a famous Thoroughbred horse trainer coined the phrase, “Never squeeze the lemon dry.” He meant never over train a horse to the point that he is not at his very best on the day you are seeking the greatest prize.
My point here is, that’s what I think Federer was doing in this semifinal, giving himself “a tightener,” not squeezing the lemon dry. If he won, okay, but I think he was reserving his best for a larger prize.
The French Open begins in a week. That’s a slam. That’s what I think most appeals to Federer, to win another slam. I’m convinced that’s his primary focus. I strongly suspect we will see a much tighter performance from him at Roland Garros.
To further support this idea, Serena Williams has been stellar on clay this season but withdrew from the Rome tournament just prior to her semifinal with Li Na citing a slightly tight lower back. She also said she felt she would be 100% for the French.
Undoubtedly, considering her present form, she would have easily beaten Li Na and finally Sharapova. In short, she was almost a lock to win the tournament. But she chose to forfeit that opportunity in order to be as fit as possible for the French.
Another instance of, “Not squeezing the lemon dry.” Like Federer, she too is most concerned with the possibility of adding another slam to her already extensive collection.
So, did Djokovic win that semifinal match over Federer? Of course he did. But in my book, I’m noting it like this; W*, the W indicating a win for Djokovic but the asterisk indicating, for me, “won while foe judiciously squeezing the lemon.”