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Moment of Truth: Monte Carlo Final Preview (+ Charleston Final Preview)

Banishing an oddly listless Djokovic from the playground of princes, Verdasco reached his first career Masters 1000 final in impressive fashion. He’ll need to produce a career highlight in order to overcome the intent Nadal, who increasingly resembles the four-time French Open champion long invincible on this surface. Yet Rafa hasn’t won a title since Rome nearly a year ago, so this championship match represents a moment of truth for him in a sense. The only player to whom he could respectably lose here was Djokovic; if he wavers against Verdasco, we’ll know that his much-coveted “calm” hasn’t yet returned and that he’s still a bit edgy in the crucial moments. If he delivers another confident, suffocating performance, however, he could put himself in position for another blazing clay season. We’ll take a look at the Monte Carlo final and a briefer look at the Charleston final:

Head-to-head: The statistics are staggering. Nadal not only leads the overall series 9-0 but has lost just 3 of 23 total sets and has won all nine sets that they’ve played on clay. Only one occasion did the second-best Spanish lefty challenge Rafa: their 2009 Australian Open semifinal, during which Verdasco came within six points of victory before falling just short. Probably more relevant to this match, however, are their two clay quarterfinals last year in Rome and Madrid, both won in straight sets by Nadal.

Recent form: A little shaky at the start of 2010, Nadal steadily raised his level on the North American hard courts and has raced through the draw here without dropping a set. (However, to be frank, his draw wouldn’t have been much friendlier had Uncle Toni personally designed it.) Thumped by Berdych in Indian Wells, Verdasco scored an impressive win over Cilic in Miami before his breakthrough run here. It’s worth noting that he has toppled more imposing opponents (including Berdych and Djokovic) than has Nadal, so his arrival here is no accident.

Two pieces of advice for Verdasco:

1) Relax. All of the pressure in this match rests squarely on Nadal’s shoulders, for whom anything less than a win would be inexcusable. Few would have expected Verdasco to reach this point, so he has nothing at all to prove on Sunday and can swing freely, knowing that he has overachieved here regardless of what happens.

2) Sit on the power button. As Soderling, Del Potro and to a lesser extent Djokovic have shown, the way to tackle Nadal is to bury him under a barrage of flat, deep baseline bombs. Verdasco’s forehand-centric style differs from the symmetrical groundstroke game of those players, but he’ll want to take massive swings whenever possible. Cleverness and subtlety play straight into Rafa’s hands.

Two pieces of advice for Nadal:

1) Stay focused. Mental lapses cost Rafa dearly at both of the first two Masters 1000 events this year; neither Ljubicic nor Roddick seemed to have a chance until the Spaniard handed one to them. Although he might well recover from a donation or two against Verdasco (generally rather charitable himself), this habit needs to die a swift death before he settles into such a routine regularly. This match offers an excellent opportunity for him to prove–not to us, but to himself and to his opponents–that he can maintain his intensity through an entire match against a top player.

2) Pin Verdasco behind the baseline. If this match turns into a war of attrition and stamina, Nadal will have a distinct edge, since he’s far more consistent and arguably more fit than his compatriot. He doesn’t need to do anything extraordinary to win, just to make sure that Verdasco doesn’t do anything extraordinary. The best means to pre-empt a flashy string of winners is to keep Fernando at a distance from which he can’t hit winners with margin and will become reckless in frustrated impatience.

Shot-by-shot breakdown:

Serve: Verdasco

Return: Nadal, slightly (although Verdasco is more aggressive, Nadal makes fewer errors on it, which better suits clay)

Forehand: Nadal, slightly (Nadal’s greater versatility trumps Verdasco’s greater power on clay)

Backhand: Nadal

Volleys: Both

Movement: Nadal

Mental: Nadal

Pic(k):

***

Shifting back to Charleston across the volcanic plume, here’s a briefer preview of the final there between Zvonareva and Stosur:

Head-to-head: Stosur has won their last four meetings, while Zvonareva hasn’t defeated her since 2004, but they’ve never played on clay. Probably the only meaningful meeting occurred last month in Indian Wells, when the Australian halted Vera’s title defense in straight sets. Injuries and illness have played significant roles in both of their careers, and it’s hard to recall which one was ailing at any given moment in their earlier matches. Even when Stosur was the lower-ranked player, though, she enjoyed success against Zvonareva.

Recent form: Dropping just 14 games in the entire tournament, Zvonareva should feel quite fresh following Wozniacki’s semifinal retirement. In only one of her seven sets this week did the Russian lose more than two games, suggesting that she may be back on track after recent hard-court disappointments. The event’s informal atmosphere suits her relaxed personality, enabling her to play without the pressure that so often cripples her at major tournaments. Meanwhile, Stosur saved two set points and rallied impressively from a 2-5 deficit in the second set of her semifinal against Hantuchova, but she hasn’t lost a set this week either. All three of her losses in Melbourne, Indian Wells, and Miami came against the eventual champions in those events, so a superb performance is required to navigate past her. It’s clear that (bar injury) she’ll remain near the top of the women’s game for the foreseeable future.

Two pieces of advice for Stosur:

1) Vary rhythm and pace. A sturdy, consistent baseliner, Zvonareva would settle into a comfortable rhythm if she can trade flat, crisp groundstrokes from a respectable distance. Stosur needs to find ways to disrupt the Russian’s timing and footwork, both among her greatest strengths; backhand slices, chipped returns, and heavy topspin forehands are a few of the weapons that she could deploy.

2) Finish points at the net. Another way in which Stosur can ruffle the fragile Zvonareva is by cutting points short and charging the net whenever she has an opening to exploit her excellent volleying skills. This arhythmic style flustered Hantuchova at crucial moments in the semifinal by rushing her out of her comfort zone. Less leisurely than the Slovak, Zvonareva nevertheless prefers a more flowing style of rally.

Two pieces of advice for Zvonareva:

1) Extend the rallies. Far more consistent than the Australian, the Russian has a significant advantage in the longer points. She won’t want to go for too much too soon and definitely will want to target Stosur’s unimposing backhand; crosscourt backhand-to-backhand exchanges will reap rewards for her. As long as the points are played in a conventional manner from the baseline, Zvonareva should be able to wear down Stosur and expose her asymmetrical groundstroke game as well as her questionable movement. Here, the green clay will serve Vera’s purpose much better than did the hard courts on which she previously has played Stosur.

2) Stay positive. Notorious for tearful tantrums, Zvonareva rarely has responded well to adversity and repeatedly has allowed minor setbacks to permanently derail her concentration (cf. her US Open loss to Pennetta last year). When she’s achieved her best results (cf. her Indian Wells title run last year), her calm demeanor mirrors her crisp, precisely measured groundstrokes. The Australian’s fast-paced game encourages momentum to mushroom in either direction, so Vera will need to stay as composed and self-assured as she has for most of the week. There will be stretches when Stosur’s serve is clicking relentlessly, but there also will be stretches when her game unravels wildly. Zvonareva should accept the inevitability of the former situations, steel herself to survive them, remind herself that opportunities inevitably will arise, and concentrate on exploiting them when they do.

Shot-by-shot breakdown:

Serve: Stosur

Return: Zvonareva (less powerful but more reliable = better on clay)

Forehand: Stosur

Backhand: Zvonareva

Volleys: Stosur

Movement: Zvonareva

Mental: Neither (Stosur historically is a dismal performer in finals, but Zvonareva has the reputation sketched above)

As you can tell from this dissection, the matchup is quite difficult to call. It’s our job, though, so…

Pic(k):

We’re nominating Vera for the most beautiful eyes in women’s tennis. Here’s a glimpse of her greatest triumph, by the way:

We’re so sorry that someone else happens to be in the picture. ;)

As they say in Monte Carlo, a bientot…

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