Tennis

For Almagro, it's all mental now

Will Nicolas Almagro (right) ever beat David Ferrer?
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Richard Evans

Richard Evans has covered tennis since the 1960s, reporting on more than 150 Grand Slams. He is author of 15 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in "Open Tennis." Follow him on Twitter.

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MELBOURNE, Australia

Serving for the match three times and failing three times has nothing to do with backhands and forehands. It is mental. And even though Nicolas Almagro would say that he felt pain in his ankle and abductor muscle later in the match, it was the mental aspect that kept him from his first Grand Slam semifinal and why fellow Spaniard David Ferrer is still unbeaten against him — now 13-0 following Tuesday’s Australian Open quarterfinal.

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In an extraordinary contest, full of missed chances and occasional moments of brilliance, Ferrer came through in the end 4-6, 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4), 6-2 to reach the semifinal for the third time in his last four Slams. But, in truth, he was lucky to survive.

Ferrer was strangely tentative and inaccurate during the first two sets, missing on his backhand far more often than usual while Almagro used his one-handed backhand to brilliant effect, hitting great winners down the line, time after time.

But in a good call, Jim Courier, commentating for Australia’s Channel 7, warned of what might happen when Almagro stepped up to serve at 5-3 in the third set. “He has two big mountains to climb,” said Courier, who won this tournament in 1992 and ’93. “He has never been in a Grand Slam semifinal and he has never beaten Ferrer.”

Those mountains proved too steep for the powerfully built 27-year-old Spaniard who is just as good a player technically as Ferrer and can hit the ball harder than his 30-year-old compatriot. But that three-year difference counts as it so often does when players find themselves competing against older compatriots. The respect and feeling of seniority is hard to dispel. Almagro recalled the first time they met on the pro tour in Cincinnati back in 2006. “I was a set and 6-5 up and had three or four match points,” he said without adding that he lost the ensuing tie break 7-1 and the third set 6-0.

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That set a pattern which has continued all over the world. Afterwards, after telling us of his injury problem, Almagro added, “I don’t want to think it’s a mentality problem. If I have a mentality problem, I think I wouldn’t win the first two sets.”

But it was a best-of-five-set match, Nicolas, and you need to finish what former Pepperdine coach Dr. Allen Fox calls “the dirty business of winning.” Fox likened it to “going in over the horns for the kill” — something that at crucial moments in his career, Almagro has not proved himself able to do.

Earlier in the day, Li Na kept her vast Chinese fan base happy by upsetting the No. 4 seed Agnieszka Radwanska 7-5, 6-3. The pair had met in Sydney 10 days before with the then-unbeaten Polish star winning 6-3, 6-4. But on this occasion, Radwanska appeared to be a step slower and went down to her first defeat of the year.

After a long first set, Li Na seemed to have lost momentum when she dropped more than half dozen successive points at the start of the second. “I was feeling my legs couldn’t move,” she said. “I was feeling (like I was) totally dying. But after two games (I was) getting better. You know, she’s a tough player. She can hit it everywhere but without mistake. You have to focus on every shot. Not every point, every shot.”

Despite “totally dying”, Li was probably helped by the training routine she has been put through by her new coach Carlos Rodriguez who looked after Justin Henin throughout her career. “Carlos, you know is a very nice guy but also tough. Three days after we started, I am calling my husband (her former coach) and saying, ‘Please come, Carlos is crazy.’”

She stuck it out, however, and the 2011 French Open champion is now in the second Australian Open semifinal of her career. She will play Maria Sharapova, who defeated fellow Russian Ekaterina Makarova 6-2, 6-2.

It was another hugely impressive performance from Sharapova, who has now reached the last four having dropped just nine games in the Open. Maria may find it a little more difficult against Li, who beat her in the semifinals in Paris in 2011 — Li’s only Grand Slam title.

In the night match, Novak Djokovic scored his 12th victory in 13 meetings against the Czech, Tomas Berdych, by 6-1, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4. If anyone was expecting Djokovic to show signs of his grueling five hour battle against Stan Wawrinka two nights before, they were disappointed.

Berdych called the world No. 1 'the fittest man of the tour' and he certainly looked like it as he struck back in devastating style after the No. 5 seed had grabbed the second set.

Djokovic was coy about his recovery procedures but it was pretty clear from what Lleyton Hewitt had been saying that they included several ice baths to get the blood circulating through the muscles. Djokovic credited his team for helping him bounce back.

"We have certain kind of things that we do to make me feel ready physically, mentally, emotionally for every match, every challenge. Even though it's an individual sport, the importance of a team effort is essential in this case."

Reminded of the problems he used have with his breathing in the heat in his younger days, Djokovic replied, "Everybody makes mistakes. I was aware of the fact that I needed to improve, because I wasn't feeling well, especially in the heat. I had lots of health issues. That's one of the reasons why I am so cautious now because I have had those bad experiences before in my career and I know what it feels like. I don't want to go through it again."

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