Lindsay: Last week two incredibly naturally talented yet unpredictable tennis players, Xavier Malisse and David Nalbandian, called it quits. It got me thinking about all the “what-ifs” that have happened in tennis.
I mean, what if David Nalbandian had converted his match point against Andy Roddick in the 2003 US Open semifinal–would he have beaten Ferrero in the final? If he had, what impact, if any, would that have had on that generation of tennis?
I think looking at every player’s career, there are a lot of “what-ifs,” ranging from the big picture (fitness and focus) to the small scale (strokes and points within individual matches). Since we’re in the post-US Open time, I thought it would be fun to enter fantasy land a little bit and talk about some of the biggest “what-ifs” in tennis history.
Juan José: Nalby is a great way to start, Linz. I still wonder what would have happened if he had beaten Baghdatis in the 2006 Australian Open semi, where he was up two sets to love, and then up a break 4-2 in the fifth.
Yes, Federer was waiting in the final, but Roger had some struggles throughout the two weeks. Both Haas and Davydenko pushed him, and Kiefer even took a set off him in the semifinals. And let’s not forget that Nalbandián had beaten Federer in the World Tour Finals final in 2005, which was a best-of-5 match.
The thing to remember is that Federer really shouldn’t have played those World Tour Finals – he was recovering from a serious foot injury that saw him miss almost two months of the season.
Lindsay: Well, in that case, Baghdatis definitely wouldn’t have a Grand Slam final on his resume, because he hasn’t been close since. And you have to think that getting back to a Grand Slam final for the second time in his career would have been a huge confidence boost for Nalby–possibly a game-changer.
Juan José: And he had a huge chance to actually win a big one – even Baghdatis, who was running on fumes, was up a set on Federer in that final.
Lindsay: As we discussed in a recent podcast, for a long time, Nalbandian was the best player on tour to not have a slam. That Australian Open, or the 2003 US Open, was likely his best shot. I mean, he would have played Ferrero in the 2003 US Open final! Of course, people forget how great Ferrero was that year, even on hard courts, but Nalby would have had a great shot for sure.
Juan José: I remember Ferrero in that US Open – I saw him beat Agassi and thought he’d win the title for sure. I was actually shocked that Roddick beat him.
Lindsay: Yeah, Roddick dismantled him. It was a really underrated match from Roddick–people just don’t think about it since Ferrero faded so quickly.
Juan José: Last Nalbandián what if – what if he doesn’t tear his stomach muscle in the 2006 French Open semi vs. Federer? He was wiping the court with him before the injury hit. And given what Nalby did to Nadal in 2007, that hypothetical final would’ve been a lot of fun.
Amy: A lot of what-ifs with Nalby. As for Federer, I often wonder about what would’ve happened if he hadn’t won Roland Garros. Because really that title cemented Federer’s legacy. I think things would be very different.
Lindsay: That’s a good question, Amy–what if Soderling hadn’t beaten Nadal in 2009? Or what if Haas had pulled off that upset over Federer in the first week? How differently would we view Federer’s career if he hadn’t won that French Open?
Amy: Not only Tommy Haas, but also Juan Martin del Potro was very close to taking out Federer in that tournament.
Lindsay: Right. Those days the aura was very much in place =)
Juan José: Heck – Acasuso even had a chance! Haas was the big choke there – Delpo hadn’t really done anything at a Slam ahead of that semifinal. Let’s remember that just months before in Australia Federer beat him 3, 0 and 0.
Amy: But let’s also remember that just months later, Delpo won the US Open, beating Fed in the final. At RG, Fed was down down two sets to one against Delpo, and actually was only alive because he took the second set in a tiebreak. I re-watched that match recently, and was surprised at how close Fed was to going out, because nobody really talks about that match.
Lindsay: Things definitely lined up for Federer that year–and ultimately, I’m glad. He was certainly the second-best clay courter for a very long time.
Juan José: Speaking of Federer and clay, Andrew Burton has mentioned a huge what if: what if Federer actually converts one of the two match points he had in the 2006 Rome final against Nadal?
Background info: Back then, Nadal was up 3-1 in the series, and their rivalry was definitely in its early stages. Nadal had just beaten Federer in a very tight match in Monte-Carlo, but in Rome the guys put on a classic. One of the best matches of the decade, surely. Federer had two match points in the fifth set. One of them was a forehand that barely went long. Nadal ended up winning the title in a fifth set breaker, and a few weeks later won his third match in a row against Federer at the French Open.
Like Andrew, I wonder what would’ve happened if that Federer forehand had gone in – he would’ve vanquished Nadal at one of the huge clay events, and over five sets. Seven years have gone by, and Federer hasn’t made it back to a fifth set against Nadal on clay (out of 3 tries).
Lindsay: I feel like it wouldn’t have changed things in the long run–nobody got into Nadal’s head in those early days, he was way too young for such a thing. And Federer really didn’t need a confidence boost back in 2006.
Amy: Yeah, I tend to agree. Nadal is far more a tennis match-up problem for Federer than a mental problem.
Juan José: Federer was very tactically disciplined in that match. I still think it’s the best he’s ever played against Nadal on clay. Unfortunately, the only other time he replicated that type of effort and tactical discipline against Nadal in a best of five was at the 2011 Roland Garros final.
I’ll go back to something that happened earlier in 2009: what if Nadal had done what seemed like a common sense decision and retired early in the second set of his semifinal in Madrid vs. Djokovic?
For background: Djokovic started that match on fire, and Nadal seemed visibly hobbled. A retirement looked likely, and it wouldn’t have been a surprise – Nadal’s knees had suffered quite a bit since his epic Australian Open win. I remember he called the trainer, and things looked bleak. But instead of retiring, Nadal dug deep, and played 3.5 more hours of one of the best three-set matches we’ve ever seen.
Lindsay: I had actually forgotten about that, Juan José. Do you think that would have spared his knees enough to make it through Roland Garros?
Juan José: I don’t know. But I sure know that playing sets 2 and 3 of that epic battle against Djokovic sure didn’t help Nadal. I think Rafael would’ve probably survived the French Open, but he would’ve either crashed early or not even played Wimbledon. His knees were a mess.
Lindsay: You know one of my biggest what-ifs? What if Dementieva had converted that netcord match point against Serena in that 2009 Wimbledon semifinal? (That match pretty much killed me.) I mean, Dementieva played so, so well. She had Serena reeling. And Venus would have been beatable in that final. Could Demmy have gotten a slam?
Juan José: Maybe, Linz. That’s a really good one. That match was so very epic.
I think Dementieva would’ve found a way to choke against Venus, who kind of owned her: the H2H is 9-3 in favor of Venus, who won six of their last seven matches. Actually, by the time Dementieva would’ve played Venus in that hypothetical Wimby final, Venus would’ve been on a five-match winning streak against Dementieva.
Lindsay: You’re probably right about Dementieva in that Wimbledon final, Juan José. I think the biggest chance she lost was 2010 French Open. She lost in the first set tiebreaker to Schiavone in their semifinal, and then retired. Like… it was Dementieva, Schiavone, Jankovic, and Stosur. It really felt like Demmy’s slam. I was just in complete shock when she pulled out of that match.
Juan José: That’s sad about Dementieva. I still think that if she had had a better serve from the start of her career, things would’ve been different for her.
Lindsay: Right … like, what if Dementieva had Lisicki’s serve? Multiple slams.
Juan José: Though V@ Blacklabel Tennis made a good point about how maybe her groundstrokes maybe wouldn’t have been so good if her serve hadn’t been so craptastic.
Lindsay: Of course, I mean, I hate to go there, but speaking of 2009 Wimbledon … that overhead in the second set tiebreaker. You know the one. WHAT. IF. (In the men’s final, of course.)
Amy: Haha, no clarification needed on that one
Juan José: Yes. Andy Roddick, 2009 Wimbledon Champ. That second set tiebreaker was so very painful.
Speaking of epic chokes against Federer, one that rarely gets mentioned is Djokovic’s choke job in the 2007 US Open final. If memory serves me right, he had six set points in the first set (served for it and was up 40-0 in that game), and two in the second.
Lindsay: Yeah, but Djokovic was so young then, and he did go on to with the next slam, so the effects didn’t linger. I feel like one of the most obvious “what-ifs” is Djokovic’s “lucky” (NOT MY WORD) shot against Federer.
Amy: Ha, yes. The infamous shot.
Juan José: That Djokovic shot … that’s the one that started the Houdini myth, even if he had already escaped Federer in almost the exact same situation (two match points, albeit on his own serve) in 2010.
Amy: The thing is, Nadal would’ve rolled over Fed in the final, had he won the semifinal against Djokovic.
Juan José: I agree, Amy – Federer would’ve been the underdog against Nadal both in 2010 and in 2011.
Amy: That loss to Djokovic fueled much of Federer’s return to No. 1 and winning Wimbledon last year. The disappointment of losing that match really seemed to motivate him. I’m not sure a loss to Nadal in the final would’ve done the same.
Lindsay: That’s interesting, Amy. I do remember him saying in an interview how much that loss motivated him. And you’re right, a loss to Nadal wouldn’t have had the same effect.
Amy: Basically right after that, he started playing insanely good tennis. You could tell he really wanted another slam.
Juan José: Also, The Shot was not lucky at all. That’s a bizarre narrative that got spun around for some reason. Federer’s serve was mediocre – right in the middle of the box. Djokovic barely had to move to blast that return. It didn’t have a great degree of difficulty. Actually, the body serve on the second match point was a heck of a lot more difficult to return that the one that ended setting up The Shot.
Amy: I’m not sure I necessarily agree with that. Nevertheless, being good usually leads to getting “lucky,” and Djokovic was really good.
Juan José: Here’s another WTA one: what if Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters had stuck around in the same way as Serena? We’d have quite the rivalries going on, eh?
Lindsay: Sigh. There are so many what-ifs for the WTA in the past decade. If Henin, Hingis, and Clijsters had all hung around longer, Sharapova’s shoulder had never given out, and Serena had stayed healthy throughout the middle part of her career, then we’d be talking about another Golden Era.
Juan José: I agree – the WTA really had all the talent necessary for a Golden Era of their own. Instead, a few of them retired and then unretired, only to retire again, others got injured, and well, things didn’t really pan out.
Lindsay: And when you think about it in those terms, the ATP got lucky that the Big Four all stayed relatively healthy for long stretches of time, and have all been so committed–that wasn’t always the case for the ATP in the past.
Juan José: Exactly. People really forget that from 2003 until 2005, Federer was completely unopposed in the ATP. The tour wasn’t ready for the kind of tennis he was playing. Then Nadal popped up, but he wasn’t a threat outside of clay until Wimby in 2006, and not a consistent threat on hard until 2008. But then Djokovic and Murray showed up, stayed relatively healthy, and together with Federer and Nadal, put together half a decade of wonderful tennis. So many things could have gone wrong, and they didn’t. The ATP should really be thankful for their good fortune. Particularly after the dark ages after Sampras and Agassi faded and before Federer arrived.
I’m sure there are a lot of “what-ifs” that we’re leaving out. If you think of some, leave them in the comments!