Nadal gets well, Federer falls on clay


We're almost halfway through the short clay-court season and, to no one's surprise, Rafael Nadal is relishing his return to dirt, having finally ended his title drought in Monte Carlo. The same can't be said for Roger Federer. The women are contesting their first hefty European tournament on clay this week in Stuttgart, Germany. Both Williams sisters were no-shows, but Dinara Safina is back.

A few thoughts so far:

Stiffer tests await Rafa

When Nadal blitzed Thiemo de Bakker 6-1, 6-0 in his Monte Carlo opener two weeks ago, it sparked a slew of "He's back" headlines. Anyone who saw the match, however, knows Rafa didn't need to do much against the promising Dutchman, whose big serve let him down. De Bakker just couldn't get one in play, the rest of his game deteriorated as a result, and Nadal simply needed to be steady.

Nadal's next opponent, Michael Berrer, won only one game, too. You could count on one hand the number of times Berrer's ground strokes landed past the service line. Too easy for the Spaniard.

Nadal's victories over Juan Carlos Ferrero and David Ferrer were solid enough, although Fernando Verdasco might have been hurting in the final.

A better indication of Nadal's game will come this week in Rome. Unlike in Monte Carlo, he has a pretty tough draw, starting with Philipp Kohlschreiber in the second round.

Guess who shows up in the quarters? Probably Robin Soderling. Soderling's win over Nadal in Paris was no fluke. The Swede won't be intimidated, he has honed his massive game impressively since Roland Garros, and he reached the final in Barcelona last weekend.

One more thing: Rafa, we know you despise the clay-court schedule. No need to keep repeating it. You are on the player council, aren't you?

Strange days for Roger

Ernests Gulbis is having a fine season, and beating Federer 2-6, 6-1, 7-5 on Tuesday in Rome enhanced it further. Whether the dapper Latvian with the big weapons turns into a solid top-10 player remains to be seen, because he despises practice.

But the manner in which Federer collapsed in the second and third sets has to be worrying.

As poorly as Federer played, the slumping world No. 1 had chances to prevail when Gulbis choked on six match points to allow the Swiss to make it 5-5 in the third. Instead of staying solid and giving Gulbis more opportunities to miss, Federer made four unforced errors to immediately get broken. Gulbis then hung on.

Mono threw Federer off in 2008. Could the lung infection he suffered post-Melbourne this year be having the same effect?

Good for Federer that he's playing in Estoril next week.

His head is in the clouds

Novak Djokovic's comments prior to Monte Carlo were reminiscent of the French Open quarterfinals in 2006, when the Serb insisted he was in control against Nadal after retiring in the third set … down two sets. Just silly.

Why Djokovic would say this about Nadal last month is puzzling: "He's been so dominant for so long on clay, but everyone knew that just couldn't last. His level is now down just a bit and others are starting to get confidence and the belief that they have a chance to beat him."

Those big words needed backing up. Djokovic hasn't backed them up, not even including Monte Carlo. His own level is down -- and not a bit, but way, way down from the end of 2007 or early 2008 -- and he is clearly lost on serve, new or old motion. He struggles in nearly every match he plays now. And unlike Nadal, he has been relatively injury-free.

Her head remains in the clouds

Another chatty Serb, Jelena Jankovic, hasn't taken off since winning Indian Wells and continues to lament injuries. Apart from letting the whole world know -- again -- that she's hurt, Jankovic needs to find out why her body persists in shutting down.

Well, actually, this is what the former world No. 1 hypothesized after falling to Daniela Hantuchova in the Charleston quarterfinals, a left wrist being the culprit: "I'm getting lots of injuries in the past few months because I started to work much more and differently, in order to lift my game to the best possible level," she said on her website.

Still, hand it to Jankovic for showing up last weekend in the Federation Cup playoffs against Hantuchova's Slovakia while a healthy Ana Ivanovic bailed.

He's a good hubby

As one of the tour veterans, Andy Roddick had every right to pull out of the Rome Masters without getting fined (and doing any extra media stuff).

Was it the right move?

Of course. Roddick is never going to win the French Open -- he knows it, and he surely wants to make sure his body is in top shape for the grass-court campaign, specifically Wimbledon. A few injuries have hampered Roddick in the last year or so.

He'll get enough match practice by competing at the Madrid Masters, Roland Garros and the AEGON Championships, prior to Wimbledon.

Roddick cited personal reasons for pulling out of Rome. Apparently, that means spending time with wife Brooklyn Decker in Hawaii -- and training -- as she makes the move from swimsuit model to actress, working on a flick with Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston. (What else? Another romantic comedy.)

What are the odds of Roddick pulling an Andre Agassi and storming out during filming?

The joys of dirt

Reflect on these match stats between comeback Italian Filippo Volandri and Aussie journeyman Peter Luczak from Rome on Monday, a 6-4, 6-3 result: It lasted nearly 2&frac12; hours; Volandri went 3-for-20 on break points, Luczak 0-for-12; the opening game of the second set lasted more than 22 minutes, going to 10 deuces; and 12 of the final 13 games went to deuce.

Only on clay.