A Deflating Innovation

March 31st, 2014 2 comments

Miami Masters 1000, Final

(2) Djokovic d. (1) Nadal, 6/3 6/3

Novak Djokovic today won the Miami Masters for the fourth time, a mere two weeks after winning Indian Wells, thus re-establishing his pre-eminence on hardcourts just in time for the clay season, and leaving the rest of us with almost nothing new to say. Any point made after Indian Wells remains more or less true after Miami, if not more so. The finalists in California had appeared divinely favoured as all foreseeable impediments were removed from their path. Clive Brunskill/Getty Images North AmericaIn Florida the gods left even less to chance, excising the draw of likely threats by the quarterfinals, and then striking down both semifinalists before another ball was struck.

Having both semifinals decided via walkover was a deflating innovation, one that went unappreciated by the local crowd. They booed lustily at the news of Tomas Berdych’s default, although one imagines a large portion of the disapproval can be attributed to the discovery that no tickets refunds were forthcoming. Word is Berdych had a crook gut. Nishikori is notorious for withdrawals and retirements anyway, and his default grew more or less inevitable after he posted a pair of marathon upsets over David Ferrer and Roger Federer, which proved too much for his groin. The vexing hypothetical question of what would have happened had Berdych and Nishikori been drawn to face each other and then withdrawn was duly raised. Is there a rule, and if so should it be changed? This matter was addressed by Peter Fleming with devastating practicality. He pointed out that after the first guy withdraws, the second keeps his mouth shut and takes the free passage to the next round. It’s a question of whoever blinks first. Faced with Nadal and Djokovic in rampant form, however, it was probably a pretty easy decision.

And so it came down to yet another final between this pair, the seven hundred and fourteenth overall, yet, somehow, the first of this year. The hadn’t met since the final of the World Tour Finals, a best of three hardcourt match that Djokovic won quite comfortably. Today’s best-of-three hardcourt match didn’t feel functionally very different. I can only repeat what I said last time they met. Surface homogenisation has eroded the concept of surface specialists, but not entirely. At their best, Nadal is still better on clay and Djokovic is better on a hardcourt. Today Nadal wasn’t really at his peak, but that was mostly thanks to Djokovic, who was.

The only vaguely fraught moment came early in the first set, when Djokovic fended off a break point, although it was early enough that he would have fancied his chances to break back. As it happened, he didn’t need to, and set about running the Spaniard hither and yon beneath the Miami sun. The air was presumably as thick up Djokovic’s end of the court, but he seemed to be moving more easily through it, and his shots certainly penetrated it more readily. His crosscourt backhand was particularly dangerous. Djokovic’s technical excellence is such that when he is playing this well it’s hard to believe he cannot go on playing like this indefinitely, in stark contrast to the million moving parts of Nadal’s technique, which seems mostly miraculous in that it doesn’t desynchronise more. Today even Djokovic’s rare errors looked purposeful.

Nadal was broken at the start of the second set, and thereafter the only tension seemed to accrue in his following service games, as he grimly held on to remain only one break behind. Djokovic was typically marvellous on return. Has anyone ever been so good at consistently landing returns within a foot of the baseline? Nadal won only 59% of first serve points for the match. He tried at various points to get the crowd into it, with some success, but it didn’t affect the outcome. A fine final point saw them both finish up at the net, though Djokovic was the one who collapsed in triumph. He sprang up soon enough, and shared a handshake and hug combo with Nadal that lacked many outward signs of warmth. The world number one looked like he really didn’t want to hang around.

Fortunately he didn’t have to, since the trophy ceremony was abbreviated for American television. No doubt there was some pressing commitment to broadcast amateur sport played by university students. There were the usual bubbles, confetti and crystal trophies, and that was that. Sky Sports had nowhere else to be, though. Annabel Croft asked Djokovic whether at a certain point today he could feel that he’d broken Nadal’s spirit. ‘Of course,’ responded the champion, and began to riff on the concept of confidence from a position of plenty. He was probably justified in feeling a little cocky.

The imperious manner in which Djokovic smothers and thereby neutralises those parts of Nadal’s game that have tormented the tour for a decade have been amply catalogued, although there have been few occasions in which the Serb has showcased it better. One such was the first set of last year’s Monte Carlo final, which Sky Sports handily demonstrated by showing highlights of after today’s final. Network programmers have learned to set aside at least four hours for any best-of-three match between Nadal and Djokovic. When today’s final concluded in a mere 83 minutes, there was time to kill, and Greg Rusedski – mercifully – can only go on for so long.

Djokovic and Nadal between them now hold all nine Masters 1000 events, as well at the World Tour Finals and two of the four Majors. If this isn’t unprecedented, it’s awfully close. (In 2006 Federer and Nadal held all four Majors, the Tennis Masters Cup and six of the nine Masters. I’ll leave it to others to rank these achievements.) Six of the nine Masters 1000 events are played back-to-back, in three groups of two. It has almost grown commonplace for a single player to grab a pair. Last year Nadal won Madrid and Rome in consecutive weeks, and Canada and Cincinnati. In 2011 Djokovic won Indian Wells and Miami consecutively, as well as Madrid-Rome. This doesn’t speak to the modesty of the achievement, but to the high quality of the players achieving it. Winning two of these things in a row – especially Indian Wells and Miami with their absurd 96 draws, abrupt shift from desert to swamp, and over-reliance on Kiss-Cam – is still a mighty accomplishment.

Overall, it is Djokovic’s eighteenth Masters title, which puts him one clear of Andre Agassi at third on the all-time winner list, trailing only Nadal and Federer. Speaking of Federer, the Swiss has returned to the top four, while David Ferrer by failing to defend his runner-up points has fallen to number six, which should hopefully ensure a few more balanced draws in the coming months. Andy Murray, who was defending champion but lost early, has fallen to number eight. Nadal remains at number one, though his margin has been more than halved in recent weeks. Djokovic, champion in Indian Wells and now Miami, is right on his heels.

Categories: ATP Tour Tags: ,

A Picture of Equanimity

March 17th, 2014 6 comments

Indian Wells Masters 1000, Final

(2) Djokovic d. (7) Federer, 3/6 6/3 7/6

Novak Djokovic has won the 2014 Indian Wells Masters, embedding himself even more firmly in that group of men who’re able to generate endless copy thanks to their records alone. With the great champions, it gets to a point where you can find yourself just going on about the numbers. Arguably the greatest of these was across the net for today’s final, and looked for a time as though he would be the man to triumph again, thus incrementally improving many of the various records he already owns. In the end, but only in the end, Djokovic held off the resurgent Roger Federer to claim his third consecutive Masters 1000 title, going back through the Paris Indoors and Shanghai last year.Djokovic Federer IW 2014 -1 It is also his third Indian Wells title, and seventeenth Masters title overall, and places him equal-third with Andre Agassi on the all-time leader board. As I say, eventually the numbers speak for themselves.

Aside from the final, the story of the tournament was surely Alexandr Dolgopolov. He startled everyone by beating Rafael Nadal in a third set tiebreaker, then delivered an arguably more profound shock by not going down meekly in the following round. I have no statistics to hand, but it has become standard practice to follow up a stunning upset with a dismal loss. Ever the iconoclast, Dolgopolov continued to outpace custom by handily upending Fabio Fognini and Milos Raonic, both in straight sets. Custom finally caught up with him in his first Masters semifinal, when the shreds he was blown to by Federer’s artillery whipped fitfully in the insistent breeze. Nevertheless, the Ukrainian’s ranking has risen from No.31 to No.23, with almost nothing to defend for the foreseeable future. Higher seedings beckon, but he’ll always be a dangerous floater. Being Dolgopolov, there’s no sound reason to believe that three strong tournaments in a row and a win over Nadal necessarily means anything has changed. All in all, enjoy him for what he is worth, for you’ll rarely see his like.

Reaching the final guaranteed Federer’s re-ascent to the top five, while a victory in the final would have enabled him to leap over David Ferrer into the top four. Alas, he lost, and languishes about a hundred points adrift. The odds are strong that he will return sooner rather than later, however, a point Barry Cowan laboured exhaustively. Ferrer has finalist points to defend in Miami next week, and one doubts, given his injuries, whether his defence will be sufficiently stout to prevent a tumble from the elite group. Federer didn’t play Miami last year, and thus would likely return to the top four even if he skipped it again this year, an amusing yet not especially significant quirk of the fifty-two week ranking system.

Andy Murray, currently ranked at number six, will seek to defend the Miami title. After yet another disappointing performance at Indian Wells – he fell to Raonic with all due fuss – it would be easy enough to insist the Scot won’t fare any better in Miami than Ferrer. But there’s just no knowing what Murray will do at the moment. At least his perennially execrable level in California no longer presages similar form in Florida. All that is certain is that his return from surgery has been less smooth than had been anticipated. With the clay season about to commence, now would be a good time to give up expecting too much for a while. Let any strong results be a pleasant surprise. Come Wimbledon there’ll be ample opportunity to pile the pressure back on.

There was a time when John Isner was considered to be his nation’s sturdiest hope on clay, based largely on a few strong Davis Cup performances and once taking Nadal to five sets at Roland Garros. This probably revealed more about America’s bleak chances on dirt than anything about Isner’s actually prowess (as an Australian I’m hardly crowing from the high ground). Indian Wells, however, seems to suit him well. Mechanically, it’s no stretch to see why. The thin air and grippy surface combine to render one of the sport’s mightiest weapons if anything more potent: it cuts through the air faster, and explodes off the surface. The desperate home crowd support certainly doesn’t hurt, as opposed to Miami, where North American players come a distant second to South American ones. Nor does the best-of-three format hurt, which limits the opportunities for Isner to indulge in his self-defeating passion for endless exertion.

Still, the stark spectre of impending national irrelevance haunts the US men at every home tournament these days. They (and therefore we) are constantly reminded that for the first time no US male might, say, make it to the third round, or be seeded, or ranked in the top twenty. (Again, it’s a wide trail the Australian men blazed years ago.) It usually falls to Isner to save the day, and often he does. Once the smoke has cleared, and Ryan Harrison has provided a meticulous explanation for his latest early round loss, Isner is generally the last one towering, toiling away, interleaving all-American service games with a return style so passive it induces Gilles Simon to yawn. He’s a mystery. Sometimes he perks up and blasts a few big forehand returns, but never for long. Djokovic was less than thrilled when Isner pulled this trick several times as the Serb tried to serve out their semifinal yesterday. Isner then tore through the second set tiebreak, briefly twitterpating the locals. Djokovic only had himself to blame. Once he’d finished admonishing himself he pushed through the third set without hassle. Djokovic hasn’t played well all week, but he has been very good at maintaining his equilibrium. This more than anything is probably why he’s the one hoisting the trophy.

Calmness was fundamental again today in the key moments. There were the usual assortment of bellows, exultant or frustrated as the situation allowed, but when the match coiled tightest he was a picture of equanimity. After a patchy first set, in which Federer played all over him, Djokovic tightened his game up considerably in the second set, doubtless in the hope that if he hung around long enough something fruitful might eventuate. He was rewarded by a poor service game from Federer at 3/4, broke, and then served out the set. He broke early in the third set when Federer’s forehand went momentarily haywire, and rode that almost until the end. As with Isner in the semifinal, however, Djokovic was broken while serving for the match, this time at 5/4. If he erred in this case, though, it was only in attempting greater margin. Federer put together his finest return game of the match, broke lustily to 15, and then held once more to love. From 3/5, he’d won fifteen of sixteen points. Djokovic must have been at least a little rattled, but maintained his composure beautifully, and, vitally, held comfortably for the tiebreak.

There was a reasonable hope that what had thus far been a fine and dramatic final might conclude with a fine and dramatic breaker, but this turned out to be one reasonable hope too many. The game whereby Djokovic had held for 6/6 usefully snapped Federer’s momentum, and the Swiss was never to regain it. Djokovic meanwhile confined his mood to that narrow band between over-attentiveness and exuberance, and made a virtue out of simply executing the shots he was meant to. The match ended with a weak pair of Federer errors, the first of which put them level on 98 points apiece, the second of which put Djokovic ahead. Statistically it was a terrifically close match – both had even winner / error ratios, served in the mid-sixties and produced six aces – but it was Djokovic who won two sets to one.

Both spoke graciously on the dais. Federer broke new ground by praising the camera operators. Perhaps he was impressed by the new ‘FreeD’ images, although one doubts he was half as impressed as the commentators. I haven’t heard Robbie Koenig sound so enthusiastic since they began measuring the RPMs on Nadal’s forehand. Federer also admitted he was overall pretty pleased with his own form. As exciting as his third set resurgence was today, his resurgence across the first few months of 2014 has mattered more, especially given his poor 2013. Greg Rusedski suggested Federer might be intending to peak for Roland Garros and Wimbledon. It’s the kind of thing Rusedski is for some reason paid to say.

Djokovic for his part conceded that it was ‘an incredible match – an incredibly difficult match’. For all that it cleaved to the usual format – with Federer leaping out early and Djokovic gradually reeling him back – the subtleties and contrasts inherent to the match-up as ever inspired some great tennis. I find it to be the most consistently interesting of the elite rivalries (others will certainly disagree). Djokovic plays Federer differently to how he plays just about everyone else, which is a testament to his versatility, as is the fact that, despite never consistently playing at his highest level, he is once against the Indian Wells champion.

Categories: ATP Tour Tags: ,

A Day of Promise

March 11th, 2014 4 comments

Indian Wells, Third Round

In spite of Indian Wells’ remote desert location, today’s order of play promised the most fertile day’s tennis in weeks. Enticing match-ups threatened to bloom across three stadium courts, assuming they were provided with sufficient light and care. Alas, what began with promise finished up as a salutary lesson in being careful what you wish for. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images North AmericaBy and large, even those matches that did flower gave forth fetid blooms. It wasn’t the conditions, since those were perfect. It was mostly an issue of over-fertilisation.

(5) Murray d. Vesely, 6/7 6/4 6/4

Things got off to a noisome start on Stadium 2, as Andy Murray and Jiri Vesely  set about establishing the heroically excremental tone that would saturate the day. Murray generally struggles at Indian Wells, although one strives in vain to tease a common element out of his various losses. Last year provided a relatively green patch, as he reached the quarterfinals before falling to Juan Martin del Potro. Two years ago he lost his opening match to a rampant Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. The year before that he fell in the same round, losing with dismal single-mindedness to Donald Young.

Today Murray appeared less committed to losing. At times, particularly at the commencement and the conclusion of the match, it almost looked like he wanted to win. He led by a couple of breaks in the opening set, although these didn’t take root, and Vesely climbed back to take it in a tiebreak. The Czech led by a break in the second set, but found creative ways to hand it back. Much the same thing happened in the third set, thereby providing Vesely with a ‘valuable learning experience’. Being young and impetuous, he’ll probably appreciate the lesson less than a win.

Murray was through, but sounded more chagrined than elated. ‘The quality of tennis was not great,’ he remarked, echoing Portia. Indeed not: it droppeth as a gentle rain of sparrow crap from heaven, upon the place beneath, forming a slick grey film that coated the balls and got into everything. Murray showed himself to be a keen student of understatement: ‘It was an ugly match with no real rhythm – neither of us played well at the same time . . .’

Sky Sports, turd-polishers par excellence, again proved themselves adept at overstatement, insisting that the match had ‘had everything’, and had been a showcase for Murray’s ‘champion qualities.’ Statistics don’t always tell the full story, but sometimes they refute the wrong one. In this case they tallied well with the visual evidence, which consisted of a densely compacted trash-cube of crucial double faults, jittery errors, dozens of break points, sub-par serving and vehement self-excoriation. The soft patter of sparrow dung was soon drowned out by a downpour of clichés. The BBC had it that Murray both dug deep and survived a scare, in much the same way that a stranded hiker will excavate a foxhole to ward off exposure. Robbie Koenig chimed in to the effect that champions find a way, but failed to mention that the way in this case was a dung-slimed path paved with his opponent’s double faults. Still, lesser players have gotten lost.

(7) Federer d. (27) Tursonov, 7/6 7/6

Even as Murray and Vesely braided the clean desert air into ropes of ordure, Federer and Tursonov were providing a rather better spectacle on the main stadium, although this isn’t saying much. Federer led by a break in the first set, and served for it, but forfeited the advantage and slunk to a tiebreak, which he narrowly won. Tursonov surged into an early break in the second, then immediately reversed out of it. Another tiebreak hove into view. Both men were playing decently, and sometimes well – there will always be winners and bold moves forward with this pair – but rarely at the same time. Federer took the second tiebreak quite comfortably, and that was that. It is Federer’s eight victory in a row, and he’ll next face Tommy Haas.

(13) Fognini d. (23) Monfils, 6/2 3/6 7/5

By this time Stadium 2 had been attended to by a bio-hazard crew armed with fire hoses, although nothing could quite scour clean the noxious vibe. Into this cauldron of bad faith and broken dreams ambled Fabio Fognini and Gael Monfils, unequalled masters at the art of transfiguring beauty into dross, and then back again as fancy strikes them. (Monfils, with Gilles Simon, once rendered Hisense Arena all but unusable for weeks.) Initially it was a surprising match, in that the higher-ranked Fognini quickly set about building a commanding lead, much as a normal tennis player might. There were a few characteristic flourishes towards the end as he blew a handful of set points, but overall it was a disappointingly assured performance.

Monfils predictably roared back in the second, and maintained his momentum into the third. This was more like it. The Frenchman eventually served for the match at 5/4, threw in a double-fault on match point, and then another two points later to be broken. Fognini was now in his element. ‘Quite incredible’ remarked Koenig conversationally, for form’s sake. His uncharacteristically sedate tone suggested it was anything but incredible. If he was conserving his larynx for the tiebreak, he needn’t have bothered: Fognini held, and then, via a sequence of soft Monfils errors, broke to love to take the match. It was anticlimactic, but only if you were expecting a climax.

(3) Wawrinka d. (29) Seppi, 6/0 6/2

Dramatic matches can grow burnished with time, regardless of their actual quality. Stanislas Wawrinka and Andreas Seppi fought out a memorably awful match in Rome two years ago, with the Italian eventually saving half a dozen match points. (Venue and personnel count for a lot. Seppi was an Italian playing on Petrangeli, one of the great tennis courts of the world, before a partisan crowd always eager to give itself to frenzy. The fact that the match was a timorous, leaden-handed disaster hardly matters. Indian Wells, for all its new money and self-proclaimed status as a fifth-slam, lacks that kind of cache, and certainly lacks a local crowd as committed to lunacy.) There was little chance they’d reprise that match today; Seppi isn’t quite the same player he was, while Wawrinka is now a Major champion and playing like it. That’s pretty much how it played out. Wawrinka triumphed 6/0 6/2 in under fifty minutes, the kind of performance we’ve learned to expect from a Swiss number one.

(28) Dolgopolov d. (1) Nadal, 6/3 3/6 7/6

While Kevin Anderson gradually dug himself a deep foxhole against Evgeny Donskoy, Rafael Nadal and Alexandr Dolgopolov made their way onto Stadium One for what was fated to be the match of the day. So far this year Wawrinka is the only man to defeat Nadal, a result that was especially surprising given the Swiss had never won so much as a set from the Spaniard before that. Dolgopolov also hadn’t won a set from Nadal, although the last set they’d played – a tiebreaker in the Rio final a few weeks ago – was the closest he’d come. There was some hope that he was finally due – this was not a hope officially sanctioned by Nadal’s fan base – although I doubt whether anyone seriously believed the Ukrainian would manage to win two sets. Victory appeared unlikely.

The opening salvoes did little to convince otherwise, though they also suggested that neither man particularly covets his own serve. Breaks came and went, as did Dolgopolov’s challenges. He had none left after two and a half games. The breaks soon gave way to holds, but for one last surge from Dolgopolov. He saw out his first ever set over Nadal with nary a trace of nerves, his first serve percentage soaring into the high thirties. Indeed, it was the kind of nervelessly virtuosic performance that Dolgopolov is notorious for; flat, bold hitting, painting the lines and exposing Nadal’s forehand corner with uncounterable crosscourt backhand drives, timed exquisitely. The Spanish commentators, models of objectivity, took to declaiming ‘afortunado‘ after Dolgopolov’s better points. One assumes they were referring to themselves, and simply felt lucky to be witnessing the Ukrainian in full flight.

It was also the kind of tennis Dolgopolov notoriously cannot sustain. Nadal turned it around in the second set, mostly by tightening up his groundstrokes (length was an issue in the first set), and muscling his opponent around and off the court. When he took the set 6/3 it seemed as though routine patterns had been re-established, and equally clear that he’d go on with it. Somehow, though, he didn’t. Dolgopolov, slave to the mad clockwork in his brain, began to hit out again, and broke. From 5/2 up, however, he began to hit out in earnest – often metres out – while Nadal refused to miss.

Dolgopolov, inspired by Monfils, broke himself to love in lieu of serving out a famous upset, thus convincing at least one onlooker that the match was essentially over. It was a mercy when he held serve and forced a tiebreak, and a miracle when he kept the breaker close. The score flopped around listlessly for a while, mostly due to Nadal’s unwillingness to sustain a lead. A disastrous forehand approach by the Spaniard at 5/5 permitted Dolgopolov a match point, which he took with an ace. Nadal challenged. Hawkeye, having finally achieved sentience on the worst of all days, caught the prevailing mood perfectly and decided Dolgopolov’s serve had missed by a few millimetres. The miracle here was that Dolgopolov maintained his composure, made no complaint, landed the second serve, and then assembled an excellent point. It turned out he could win two sets, and thus a match. He looked ecstatic, and his father overwhelmed. Nadal afterwards proffered no excuse beyond a gracious concession that his opponent had played better. And with that, the defending champion is out. Whether it was a bold, fragrant upset or a hillock of crap is, naturally, a matter of perspective, just like the day itself.

Categories: ATP Tour Tags:

The Best of The Next Point

March 4th, 2014 21 comments

The Next Point CoverIt is with great pleasure and a small measure of trepidation that I announce the release of The Next Point: Selected Tennis Criticism 2011 – 2013.

This new volume features what I consider to be the best tennis pieces I have written in the last three seasons. There are about fifty of these. There’s also a fairly long introduction, in which I essay a general explanation for the term ‘tennis criticism’, lash into the unacceptably poor standard of so much current tennis writing, and declare that Mikhail Youzhny will win this year’s US Open.

Taken from the Introduction:

While I have attempted to choose only the best pieces, I have also been guided by a sense of variety. It wouldn’t do if all the selections happened to fall during a particular tournament or all focussed on a single player. Given that I find certain tournaments and players inherently more rewarding to write about, this was a very real concern. Tomas Berdych, for example, features frequently, while Juan Martin del Potro features hardly ever. This doesn’t reflect any personal preference for the Czech over the Argentine. Indeed, I’ve always felt sympathetic towards del Potro, while Berdych was a taste laboriously acquired. I used to have great fun thinking up new ways to suggest he was a robot. Given Berdych’s new-found humanity, I could no doubt mount a persuasive argument that he is a more inherently literary character. But it’s probably just a coincidence. I quite like Andy Murray, a very literary character, but he doesn’t feature much, either. I urge you not to read too much into it. My articles aren’t Michelin stars.

My intention is that the pieces in this volume represent the best that I can do, within the broad limits of theme and chronology outlined above. It therefore follows that any pieces that I feel merit improvement should therefore be improved. Admittedly that was also my intention when I wrote them the first time. The difference is that the original pieces were written in a tearing hurry, which is not the ideal way to produce anything. Astute readers will soon discover that many of the pieces in this volume have changed from their original incarnations. The truth is all of them were revised to some extent. In some cases this entailed just a nip or tuck here and there. In other cases the changes were substantial. Some of the pieces were heavily cut, others were lengthened. In a few cases two adjacent articles were combined into one. All up, I’m satisfied there’s more than enough new material to justify the modest asking price ($5.99 US).

Long-time readers will perhaps raise an eyebrow at some of the inclusions, and will certainly quibble at some of the omissions. Nadal fans, for example, might wonder why my article on the 2013 Madrid final didn’t make the cut (sorry Miri). I can say that it was in contention, but ultimately couldn’t justify its place next to the Rome final recap from the following week. There were about dozen pieces that nearly made it in, and some were in until late in the editing process. The Luck of the Draw from last year’s Australian Open was cut only a few days ago. Ultimately I couldn’t ask a satisfying first half to compensate for a flat ending.

The Next Point: Selected Tennis Criticism 2011 – 2013 is currently available from the following outlets:

  • Amazon (Kindle’s .mobi format).  For those who aren’t aware, there is a free Kindle app that enables you to read Kindle ebooks on Apple and Android devices (probably Windows, too);
  • iTunes (for Apple devices and iBooks);
  • Smashwords (.epub);
  • Barnes & Noble Nook Store (.epub).

I also intend to do a small print run, though how small will depend on the level of interest. Plenty of people who knew of this project as it progressed have expressed a desire to own a physical copy. If you’d like one, too, please let me know. Bear in mind that it will cost significantly more than ebook versions, to cover printing costs and shipping.

I’d like to thank all those who contributed their time, energy and expertise in preparing this volume, especially Alexandra. And as always my everlasting love and gratitude go to Kate, Sabine and Elias, who believes with all his heart that he and Novak Djokovic will one day be best friends.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

So Many Proven Yangs

February 24th, 2014 10 comments

Marseilles, Final

(3) Gulbis d. (2) Tsonga, 7/6 6/4

It is a strange quirk that Ernests Gulbis, that least reliable of professional tennis players, somehow boasts a perfect record in tour finals, a record he kept intact today in Marseille. He has now won five ATP titles without losing one, a kind of scruffy yin to so many proven yangs, such as Gael Monfils or Julien Benneteau. Gulbis didn’t get to play either Monfils or Benneteau this week, though that wasn’t his fault, since the former wasn’t here and the latter was defeated early on in another part of the draw. Gulbis Marseilles 2014 -4As the truism goes, you don’t get to choose which Frenchmen you face in tennis. You can only defeat the ones who are placed in front of you.

It was, fittingly, a non-Frenchman Gulbis struggled with. His toughest test came against Roberto Bautista Agut in the second round, although this wasn’t strictly a surprise. (The surprise was that having eluded defeat the Latvian went on winning.) Bautista Agut has distinguished himself this season with several scrapping, aggressive and defiant efforts, though this week he also distinguished himself by being just about the only Spanish man with a tennis racquet not playing in Rio. Consider this: there were more Spaniards in Rafael Nadal’s half of the Rio draw than there were Frenchmen in the entire Marseille draw. Once Gulbis had survived that early round struggle, he set about beating any locals he could lay his hands on, starting with Nicolas Mahut, continuing with Richard Gasquet and concluding today with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

It wasn’t a particularly exciting final as these things are measured, and certainly not compared to last year’s decider between Tsonga and Tomas Berdych. As you’d imagine when two big men face each other on a fast indoor court, the service dominated, though better returning would have helped it dominate less. Gulbis had not been broken since the second round, and Tsonga today could engineer only two opportunities, which he characteristically flubbed. Gulbis on the other hand was in plenty of the Frenchman’s service games, although he was no more effective at converting break points, ending the match with a rather  memorable 1/11. The Frenchman generally saved them with muscular play, and managed to do the same with a few match points in the second tiebreak. Gulbis served it out with an ace, before commencing a victory routine from which he’d carefully expunged any trace of exaltation. It made Marat Safin’s celebrations look flamboyant by comparison. You’d think Gulbis wins these things every other week.

Actually, that’s not far off. He usually wins these things in this week every other year. Last year he won Delray Beach as a qualifier, and his maiden title came at that tournament in 2010. It may seem surprising that he hasn’t returned to Florida this year, but his failure to show up for title defences is another of the few infuriatingly consistent things about him. So far in his career he has never once graced a tournament the year after he has won it. Look for him in Rio next year, or at least anywhere but Marseille.

Rio de Janeiro, Final

(1) Nadal d. Dolgopolov, 6/3 7/6

Owing to a minor calendar shake-up, Nadal will next week find himself in the rare position of having two titles to defend, in Acapulco and Sao Paulo. Taking a leaf from Gulbis’ playbook, he has chosen to skip both, preferring instead to win this week’s inaugural Rio event. After all, opportunities to be the first name on a new trophy don’t come round every week, presuming there’s a trophy upon which names can be inscribed.

Nadal almost surprised us all by not winning the tournament, though got there in the end. The direst moment came against Pablo Andujar in the semifinal, a match that saw the world number one recover from a set down, and finally take it in a mighty third set tiebreak, saving a pair of match points along the way. For once the bromidic phrase ‘he found a way to win’, usually uttered at the first faint whiff of adversity, was actually merited. Usually the way he finds entails being better at tennis than his opponent, but against an inspired Andujar there were stretches of the match in which Nadal was emphatically outplayed. Indeed, Andujar won more points overall. Alas for him, he lacked either the savagery or the cold precision necessary to claim the points that mattered most. He has thus been relegated to a statistical anomaly – this was the first time Nadal has won from match point down since beating Troicki in Tokyo in 2010.

Alex Dolgopolov’s half of the Rio draw had, for a wonder, boasted only two Spaniards, but they were two of the toughest in David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro, although the latter has lately learned to be as disappointing on South American clay as he perennially is on the European variety. Throw in Fabio Fognini, and plenty of reasons to be distracted by events back home, and Dolgopolov’s run to the Rio final proved to be a minor masterpiece of tightrope-sprinting. He’d been marvellous, in his dicey weird way. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there’s no better player to watch when he’s on. Indeed, to say that would be to confess to fetishism. He has a game only a mother could love, but there’s no denying the excitement he delivers, especially for those of us drawn to unpredictable, aggressive tennis.

Regardless, the betting markets, history and the general opinion of the person on the street were unanimous in believing that it wouldn’t be enough to get by Nadal in the final. The only exceptions were those subsets of Nadal fandom which insisted that Nadal’s flat performance against Andujar would be sustained into the final: a passionately misguided belief in Nadal’s frangibility has meant some fans fail to absorb the lesson that he very rarely plays badly, and almost never plays badly twice in a row. As ever with Dolgopolov the interest lay in discovering whether the strobes of brilliance could be spaced with sufficient proximity so as to provide consistent luminescence. So far this week they had. His only real chance for the final, however, was to hope they joined up to form a band of light so incandescent it might sear the retinas from Nadal’s head. Dolgopolov lacks anything resembling a bread-and-butter game. Whether through technique or temperament, he appears incapable of sustaining discernible, or at any rate reliable, patterns of play. He is hell to play when he’s playing well. The trick, as far as I can tell, is to force him to have to play well or else, thus ensuring that he probably won’t.

Nadal, as ever, had the luxury of being able to achieve this by deploying any number of established patterns, knowing that most if not all of these would likely guarantee him victory. Today’s patterns involved nothing fancier than the judicious application of just enough pressure to provoke Dolgopolov into over-hitting. This was particularly apparent in the first set, in which Nadal himself hit only one winner, which was the ace he served to seal it. The Spaniard broke early in the second set (as he had in the first), and looked likely to coast it out. Dolgopolov, after all, had not broken Nadal, not merely in this match, but in any of the four other matches they’ve contested.

It therefore came as something of a surprise when an apparently nervous Nadal lost his way while trying to serve it out at 5/4, the break sealed with yet another scything Dolgopolov crosscourt backhand into the top seed’s forehand corner. I recall how effective this tactic was for Troicki in Tokyo three years ago, thus providing a lesson that Novak Djokovic subsequently learned by rote. You can go crosscourt to Nadal’s forehand, but you have to take the ball very early, and go there flat and with tremendous pace. Dolgopolov went there time and again today with great success, but it’s a dicey way to live, especially on clay, where Nadal is inexorable. He was certainly inexorable in the eventual tiebreak, and Dolgopolov’s proved all over again that risky tennis only looks good when it comes off. The flashes of light were now spaced too far apart, and soon they went out entirely.

Nadal won’t be the last Rio champion, but he’ll always be the first. The trophy, worthy of a European indoor event in its determination to reference anything but a trophy, was handed over by the universally beloved Gustavo Kuerten. It’s a kind of lattice-worked wave arrangement, and thus provided plenty of spots for Nadal’s teeth to find purchase. (Marseille, ironically, has a perfectly ordinary trophy, which Gulbis did not bite.) Both men brought up Ukraine’s current situation in their speeches, Nadal graciously and Dolgopolov with all his heart.

Categories: ATP Tour Tags: , , ,

Speechless Saying That

January 27th, 2014 38 comments

Australian Open, Final

(8) Wawrinka d. (1) Nadal, 6/3 6/2 3/6 6/3

Stanislas Wawrinka has won the 2014 Australian Open, thereby proving wrong those who’d maintained he couldn’t, a group in which he himself was often prominent. At a single broad stroke, which began in his coiled shoulders and uncurled through that mighty backhand, he has become a Major champion, soared into the top three, and stopped Rafael Nadal from becoming the first man in the Open Era to claim a career Grand Slam twice. Due in part to the circumstance and in part to the innate preposterousness of what he had achieved, Wawrinka’s initial reaction was one of muted disbelief, a response that he managed to sustain through the trophy ceremony, and the endless interviews he subsequently granted to all of the world’s main broadcasters. For all I know he is still wearing an expression of bemused incredulity. Scott Barbour/Getty Images AsiaPacHe wouldn’t be the only one. It was with unabashed wonder that Brad Gilbert on ESPN declared that Wawrinka actually was the Australian Open champion, adding that he was ‘still kinda speechless saying that.’

To say that Wawrinka was a little lucky is a little redundant. No one wins a Major without some luck, least of all those who aren’t lucky enough to be Roger Federer, Nadal, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray, collectively known as the big four. Since the 2004 French Open, only three men besides those four have contrived to win a Major – a sequence of thirty-nine tournaments – and in no case was the eventual winner permitted to amble through a wide open draw. At the 2005 Australian Open Marat Safin defeated the first (Federer) and third (Hewitt) seeds. At the 2009 US Open, Juan Martin del Potro also beat the first (Federer) and third (Nadal) seeds. Wawrinka is the first man to see off the first (Nadal) and second (Djokovic) seeds to win a Major since Sergi Bruguera at the 1993 French Open.

Boris Becker insisted when probed that he would never concede any side of a draw is easier than the other, but then the words that tumble out of Becker’s mouth often bear no trace of a supervising intellect. Perhaps they should have probed him more thoroughly, or with a sharper implement. Wawrinka’s half of the draw was certainly friendlier than the other half, and he was unquestionably helped by a retirement in the first round (Golubev) and a walkover in the third (Pospisil), especially since it limited his exposure to the apocalyptic conditions of the first week. But that merely helped him survive the early rounds, and no draw is benign that brings one up against Djokovic, especially in Melbourne.

From the quarterfinal until the second set of the final, when events lurched into a strange place, Wawrinka was mostly majestic. As he did with Robin Soderling, Magnus Norman has performed wonders with Wawrinka, and in a relatively short time has ensconced himself among the coaching elite. Unfortunately, even Norman hadn’t anticipated the sharp dip the final would take – a slow turn through the S-bend – and thus couldn’t have known to prepare his charge accordingly. Perhaps he’d figured that the concept of hitting the ball away from an immobile opponent was too obvious to need saying. It turns out nothing is too obvious in a Slam final. It might have been worth a professional code violation to belatedly deliver this complicated message. Marching onto court and smacking Wawrinka upside the head probably would have risked a default, but Norman must have been sorely tempted. I know I was. I suspect even Nadal was by the end.

Nadal’s back injury inevitably obliges one to wonder what might have transpired had he remained fit, though I confess I don’t find such speculation worthwhile. There was one set in which both players looked fine, and Wawrinka dominated it, but this was his first Major final and there is little reason to think he could have sustained that level indefinitely. One suspects Nadal eventually would have pegged him back. In any case, Nadal’s injuries are a misted, shifting quagmire in which even well-provisioned expeditions are liable to be waylaid and careen over a precipice. Mountains spring from molehills, or at any rate, blisters become volcanoes. Writers who toil hard to maintain a veil of impartiality can fall to anxious weeping the moment Nadal stumbles. There was a moment when he might have twisted his ankle against Kei Nishikori. It soon turned out that he hadn’t, though not soon enough for some alleged professionals to demonstrate that there are in fact fifty-four stages of grief, and that they’re all boring. By the same token, those insisting that Nadal was not injured are certainly wrong, and in many cases have taken their insistence to contemptible lengths. They are also beyond convincing, being possessed by a special kind of mania. As I say, a quagmire, and not worth the trouble.

Others have insisted they noticed something awry with Nadal early in the first set, if not in the hit-up. Perhaps I’m obtuse, or I was busy staring awestruck at the fearless guy up the other end, but I confess I didn’t see anything wrong. I did remark to my companions that Nadal appeared to have fallen into the trap he used to with David Nalbandian, which was to pay a famous backhand too much respect. Wawrinka’s backhand is, without doubt, a superb shot, one by which I am often reduced to envy. But his forehand remains the more potent shot, and it’s from that wing that most of his groundstroke winners originate. The semifinal was an especially fine showcase for this. Tomas Berdych heard countless forehands hum past. I suppose it hardly mattered, Wawrinka was fearsome from both sides through the first set. It’s worth remembering that this was the first set he ever took from Nadal, though he nearly didn’t. He fell down 0-40 while serving for it, halfway through a sequence of six missed first serves. Nadal then failed to put another second serve return into play, and it’s easy enough to believe his later claim that his back was already bothering him. Something was wrong somewhere.

The matched changed completely in the second set, which Wawrinka opened in grand fashion by breaking to love. It wasn’t long after this that Nadal evinced clear signs of distress, leaning over and clutching his back, and at 1/2 availed himself of a long off-court medical timeout. Wawrinka, left in the dark on the bright court, took his frustration out on Carlos Ramos, and was only slightly mollified when tournament referee Wayne McKewan emerged with an explanation. There was some concern that the Swiss was thereby squandering valuable energy. Magnus Norman looked on serenely. Nadal re-emerged, encountering lusty boos from the Rod Laver Arena crowd, behaviour that what won’t go down as its finest. (Nadal later said he understood their frustration, though unlike Bernard Tomic he didn’t call a separate press conference to explain himself.) Nadal’s face looked exactly the way it had in the 2011 Australian Open quarterfinal, when an injury early in the first set combined with a ruthless David Ferrer to destroy his chance at the ‘Rafa Slam’. Wawrinka worked out his vestigial frustration with a brace of aces, while Nadal commenced lobbing serves over at about 140kmh. Before long Wawrinka had won his second set against Nadal. There was speculation that Nadal would default. I didn’t think he would, but believed that the match was essentially over, assuming Wawrinka would do the smart thing and make the Spaniard run.

This turned out to be a rather large assumption to make. Although physicists have yet to isolate the mechanism by which this process works, injured players will sometimes transform into a kind of localised gravity-well, drawing every ball inexorably towards them. The only reliable way for the opponent to avoid this effect is to launch their shots ten feet out. For the next set and a half Wawrinka tried both these approaches, with limited success. It recalled Albert Montanes’ flailing and dispiriting loss to a crippled Fabio Fognini at Roland Garros three years ago, and Mikhail Kukushkin’s near-implosion against Gael Monfils at the Australian Open. In both cases the latter player could barely move, and was reduced to windmilling his arms at any ball that strayed within reach, generally to devastating effect. In much the same mood, Nadal hardly bothered running for any ball more than a few metres away, but swung lustily at any that landed nearby, which, somehow, was nearly all of them. Thus we discovered yet again that the world number one in a reckless mood is perfectly capable of striking fabulous winners off both sides from neutral balls, leaving some of us to wish that he’d play like this more often. Nadal still missed plenty, however, enabling Wawrinka to achieve multiple breakpoints in every other game, whereupon Wawrinka’s return would explore the bottom of the net or the unscuffed part of the court beyond the Melbourne sign. Nadal’s pace and mobility began gradually to improve, and he won the third set. Wawrinka took to shouting at himself, but not in English. Magnus Norman looked on serenely.

A match that began electrifyingly for Wawrinka, and continued dismally for Nadal, now spiralled into absurdity for both. Nadal, by his own admission, was mainly continuing for the fans who’d paid a lot of money to be there, but he must have wondered if he wouldn’t be doing them a kindness to end it immediately. Then again, I imagine by this time he was harbouring a few desperate dreams of victory. Aside from his first serve, which Wawrinka could barely return anyway, the Spaniard was starting to play a great deal better. On the other hand, Wawrinka, aside from his serve, had lost all coherence, and his eyes grew clouded with dread. The 2004 French Open final was invoked – always a sure sign that the ropes binding reality together had begun to fray. Jim Courier in commentary pointed out, astutely, that Wawrinka could have lost the final in straight sets and still regarded the tournament as a triumph, but to lose it from this point would be a fiasco. Wawrinka was playing like someone aware of no other fact. He somehow broke, but followed up this accomplishment, monumental in the circumstances, with the worst service game of the modern era, and lost his serve to love. He broke again, more decisively. The crowd went crazy – demented might be a better word – having stared once too often into the abyss. Wawrinka served it out to love, the way exactly no one assumed he would. In deference to his wounded opponent, his celebration was diffident. Magnus Norman leapt to his feet, exultant, and threw his arms around Severin Luthi. Nadal had been granted an unlooked-for hour on court to come to terms with the near-certainty of defeat, but he still looked quite stricken, a look he retained throughout the trophy ceremony.

Thomas Oh, Kia Motor’s ineffable representative, was so moved by what he’d seen that he kept his speech down to a few minutes, instead of its usual hour. Both players spoke well, though their efforts hardly compared to Li Na’s masterpiece from the night before. Where before they’d booed him, the RLA crowd now hurled their adoration down on Nadal, who fought to quell his tears but lost. Pete Sampras was on hand to dole out the silverware. The official reason for this was because it is the twentieth anniversary of his first Australian Open title. No one failed to grasp the deeper significance, however, which was that, had Nadal won, the world number one would have equalled the American’s Major tally of fourteen. It brought to mind the 2009 final, in which Federer failed to win his expected fourteenth Major. We were in turn reminded that the French Open is only months away. I doubt whether anyone believes Nadal won’t surpass Sampras before long.

For now, however, the important number isn’t fourteen, but one. Stan Wawrinka, who at some point regressed down the evolutionary chain from being ‘Stan the Man’ to become the ‘Stanimal’, has won his first Major, and has earned his place among the sport’s elite. I, too, feel kind of speechless saying that.

Categories: Grand Slams Tags: ,

An Emotional Feeling

January 24th, 2014 7 comments

Australian Open, Semifinal

(1) Nadal d. (6) Federer, 7/6 6/3 6/3

The Australian Open provides those of us who otherwise avoid commercial television with plenty of excellent reasons not to alter our viewing habits for the rest of the year. Sadly, infrequent exposure means we have built up little tolerance for the unrelenting vibe of ecstatic anticipation, whereby even mundane events must be imbued with an unrealistic level of excitement, like a North Korean parade.Nadal AO 2014 -15 More interesting events are treated as pivotal to world history. Tonight’s semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer was promoted as the most unmissable spectacle since the Normandy landings.

Worse still are the promos for the dreadful shows the networks will inflict upon their loyal viewers in the coming weeks and months. My only exposure to these shows, or even these kinds of shows, comes at this time of year, therefore my grasp of their intricacies may be limited, assuming there are intricacies. Certainly the reality shows seem to feature arcane rule-sets, whilst conforming perfectly to the traditional mission of commercial TV, which is to bring people into your loungeroom that you wouldn’t otherwise allow in your house. Indeed, one of the shows – My Kitchen Rules, which sounds like a pun but might not be – bases its format on this very idea. Its conceit is to have a pair of contestants invite the other contestants and judges into their homes and serve them all a meal. We are thereby afforded the twin pleasures of watching people prepare food we’ll never eat, which is then consumed by people we’ll never meet. This last is a shame, because some of the table talk is sparkling. One guy does a serviceable impersonation of Jack Nicholson. There are some twins who by their own admission share a single brain, which seems an overgenerous appraisal. Last year’s champions described winning as ‘such an emotional feeling’.

Some of these contestants and judges periodically turn up in the crowd at the Australian Open, where they’re expertly picked out by cameramen trained for that purpose. Bruce McAveny and Todd Woodbridge clearly know which side their cross-promotional bread is buttered on, and are diligent in revealing who these non-entities are. Jim Courier does a serviceable job of feigning interest. His job isn’t to hype Australian television shows. His job is to hype the latest instalment of the rivalry between Nadal and Federer, a task he set to with gusto. They have now played thirty-three times, and Federer hasn’t won a match in any format in almost two years, and a match in this format since 2007. Nevertheless, a range of factors led nearly everyone to believe that their latest Grand Slam match might be closer. There was a sentimental desire in some quarters for an all-Swiss final. There was ecstatic concern elsewhere that Nadal’s blister was infinitely more severe than the blisters that the rest of us somehow put up with. There was Federer’s recent form, and Nadal’s indifferent performances against Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov. It was enough for Channel 7 to go berserk.

As is often the case, the betting markets told the real tale. Nadal was the clear favourite to win, despite early reports that money was flowing for Federer, some of it in response to speculation that the Rod Laver Arena roof might be closed. The widespread belief is that Federer, when insulated from the elements, transforms into an ungovernable colossus. Being in Melbourne, I had the advantage of being able to look out my window, and knew that rain was unlikely, and that the roof would therefore be open. News came through that the RLA roof had malfunctioned. It wouldn’t open, or had gained the capacity to love, or something. Leaden quips plummeted dangerously from the sky. Roger Rasheed suggested that Federer had deliberately broken the roof, and that Nadal was up there desperately trying to pry it open. The latest vapid trend on Twitter is to declare ‘you can’t make this up’ in reference to events that anyone with a modicum of imagination could make up quite easily. It turns out you can’t make up something as wondrous as a stadium roof getting stuck. (There’s conceivably a reference I’m missing, or a substratum of irony.) Anyway, the roof eventually did open, ensuring Federer stayed at a manageably human scale.

The breakdown of the Nadal – Federer matchup is by now so well-known that it barely requires reiteration. Nadal hits the ball with enormous topspin to Federer’s backhand, until Federer either makes an error or delivers a shot ball, which Nadal duly dispatches. Nadal has proven his capacity to sustain this pattern of play indefinitely without discernible risk. Meanwhile Federer can only break out of this pattern at enormous risk. This means that their matches are invariably played on Nadal’s terms. What is really remarkable is how rarely this dynamic has actually determined the outcome of their recent matches. What was surprising about tonight’s result was how readily it did. Even last year, a bad year, it was notable how well Federer’s backhand withstood the barrage. This fortnight, finally comfortable with his new racquet, his backhand has been as solid as one could hope for, without hoping for too much. Tonight, however, it was already falling apart when he arrived on court, and Nadal was masterful in denying Federer any opportunity to reassemble it.

Naturally this isn’t the only dynamic at play. Arguably as important is Nadal ability to ‘reset’ any rally that threatens to spiral away, especially if it looks like draining away through his forehand corner. Whenever Federer went hard into that corner, almost without exception Nadal would respond with a high looping forehand of his own, moderately paced but very deep, keeping his opponent pinned behind the baseline, and ensuring that Federer could gain no progress within the point. There was also the latent threat of Nadal’s forehand pass. The basic rule when coming to the net is that one should never approach to Nadal’s forehand if he can run at it, stand near it, sight it, or if he is lying handcuffed on a hospital bed in traction to the side of the court. There are no exceptions. All the coaching manuals agree on this. There is nothing wrong with his backhand pass, but at least there’s a chance he’ll miss it, and it lacks the ferocious spin of the forehand. Federer broke this cardinal rule a few times, including in the final game. Whenever he was in trouble in the early going, he approached solely to Nadal’s backhand, thus delaying disaster for a time.

One doesn’t thereby wish to imply that Federer approached the net recklessly, or even particularly frequently. He was often given no opportunity to move forward, but even so one searched in vain for the new ideas Stefan Edberg has apparently brought with him. Federer was arguably more aggressive last season when facing Nadal, at least in Rome (suicidally so), Cincinnati (more judicious) and the World Tour Finals. Tonight’s match unfolded more or less like any number of their matches over the last half a decade, only more so, and with due allowance for their respective levels on the night.

Federer on the night played quite poorly, not quite at the subterranean level of the Brisbane final, but certainly not up to the standard he has maintained through this Australian Open. His serve in particular was less potent than he might have hoped, and all but deserted him in the first set tiebreak, though this more determined its shape than its outcome. Meanwhile Nadal played well – afterwards he conceded it was his best match of tournament – which meant that a match that was already his to lose didn’t detain us beyond three sets. There were of course many flashes of brilliance, the brightest of which was a reflexed sliced pass he produced after being wrong-footed by a fine Federer volley, which in turn shocked Federer into a coarse volley error. There were others, such as the backhand return winner in the final game, but what really drove the result wasn’t Nadal’s audacity but the long sequences of bread-and-butter rallying, in which the top seed could build pressure without ever growing incautious.

After the match Nadal said all the right things, including kind words about how much playing Federer still means to him. ‘When I go on court I have very, very emotional feelings,’ he declared, proving that facing down the mighty Swiss is about as thrilling as winning a reality cooking show. (In Nadal’s defence, English is not his first language, whereas My Kitchen Rules contestants merely speak like it isn’t.) He also neatly admonished Courier for implying that he’d already won the title. He’d watched Wawrinka and Tomas Berdych slug out the other semifinal last night, and was well aware that while both men had erred, it was never on the side of caution. Nadal takes special care to regard every opponent as an overwhelming threat, including, once, Jarkko Nieminen on clay. Positioning Wawrinka as a threat is no task at all, since Stan is striking the ball with supreme authority. He is also, for the first time, the Swiss number one. All the same, the reality is that the new Swiss number one typically fares even worse against Nadal than the old one does. Wawrinka has never taken a set from Nadal in twelve attempts. If, as Courier anticipates, Nadal does win the final, he’ll become the only man in the Open Era to win all four Majors twice. Imagine how emotional that feeling will be.

Categories: Grand Slams Tags:

A Lesson in Parental Fallibility

January 22nd, 2014 7 comments

Australian Open, Quarterfinals

(8) Wawrinka d. (2) Djokovic, 2/6 6/4 6/2 3/6 9/7

It presumably surprised no one that Channel 7’s hype-department went into overdrive at the prospect of another blockbuster match between Novak Djokovic and Stanislas Wawrinka. As with all commercial television networks, Australia’s tennis broadcaster subscribes to the crude conceit that any memorable event must inevitably be repeated if even a few of its defining conditions are present. In this case the defining conditions were the players involved and the best-of-five format. These men played two five set classics last year, and according to Channel 7 this ensured their next effort was destined to be another. Being steadier and wiser, I wasted no opportunity to inform anyone near me – family members, buskers, stalkers – that there is more to professional tennis than the Majors, and that Djokovic easily dispatched Wawrinka twice at the end of last year, in Paris and London. Only an unredeemed ignoramus, I maintained, would expect another classic. Djokovic would win easily. My son, who has decided that he and Djokovic are going to become friends, was particularly thrilled by this news. As it transpired, the match was a classic. Mark Kolbe/Getty Images AsiaPacChannel 7 was right, and I was wrong. That may not be the hardest sentence I’ve ever had to write – ‘Mr Becker, I regret to inform you that your brain condition is inoperable.’ – but it’s certainly on the shortlist.

At least for the first set, it looked as though I’d be proved right. Djokovic was looking exactly like the guy who hadn’t lost a match of any kind since the US Open final in September, who was currently enjoying the second longest Grand Slam semifinal streak in the Open Era. Wawrinka meanwhile looked like he couldn’t quite work out where his baseline was, or why it was important that he position himself closer to it. He figured it out in the second set however, though it still came as a surprise to everyone in the stadium when he finally broke Djokovic, and served it out.

Crowd sympathy within Rod Laver Arena had slightly favoured Djokovic as the players sauntered on to court, though it could have been that the Serbian fans were more punctual. By the time Wawrinka broke in the third set, twice, there was no doubt which man the crowd preferred. Djokovic was too content to rally with the Swiss, especially crosscourt on the backhand, and rediscovered that this shot doesn’t break down the way other single-handers can. Nonetheless, Djokovic took the fourth comfortably, and broke at the start of the fifth. A reprise of their US Open appeared more likely than their extravagant 12/10 effort from Melbourne last year.

Then, for reasons ungraspable by rational minds, Djokovic compiled a service game of cosmic awfulness, sturdily mounted on four forehand errors, and was broken back. Both men settled into a long sequence of holds, interrupted briefly by a rain delay. Djokovic went back to holding comfortably. Wawrinka did it harder, but, somehow, legs and mind constricted, he did it. Blithely ignoring the concept of momentum, he finally broke Djokovic with the Serb serving to stay in the match for the fourth time, at 7/8. Djokovic’s brain-wave to serve-volley on match point down has already blossomed into legend. To volley was, to put it mildly, a rash choice, and it was rashly played. He swung at it, pushed it wide, and the three-time defending champion was out. He left the court to a wave of warm regard, which heated to radiant affection once Wawrinka’s took his chance to speak. He pronounced himself ‘very, very, very, very happy.’ He’d proved me wrong, but in the moment I found it hard to begrudge him his joy. My son was less impressed when I told him the result, but learned a vital first lesson in parental fallibility. It had to happen some time. I won’t complain if he gains something of Djokovic’s perfect grace in defeat, but I do dream he’ll somehow acquire a backhand like Wawrinka’s.

(1) Nadal d. (22) Dimitrov, 3/6 7/6 7/6 6/2

If he falls in with a bad crowd, he may end up with a backhand more like Grigor Dimitrov’s, a fate no parent would wish upon their child. For the first set of today’s match between Dimitrov and Rafael Nadal, the Bulgarian did an excellent job of shielding his backhand wing from the Spaniard’s merciless attention. Mostly he did this by breaking early and serving well.

This was an unusual match, easily the strangest of the round; not particularly enjoyable to watch, nor, from what I could tell, to play. It boasted little of the drama of Djokovic’s loss to Wawrinka, and none of the quality. Nadal began poorly and never hit full stride. Dimitrov began well, but immediately subsided into woeful inconsistency. He broke early, but thereafter could barely land a return, and saw out the first set on the strength of his first serve alone. Breaks were donated and whimsically regifted in the second set. Nadal sought to fire himself up, and succeeded in whipping the crowd into some sort of startled frenzy through the sheer force of his personality, or at any rate the lustiness of his bellows, which for duration and incongruity were a fitting homage to the departed Djokovic. Either man could have taken the second set, but naturally only Nadal did, with a lovely combination of passes.

The third set was more or less the second set with all the settings dialled up. Breaks each way, flailing inefficiency from both men – Nadal’s serve in particular was heavily affected by a blister on his left hand, which Channel 7 took great delight in showing in dynamic detail, with Spidercam swooping in – an expertly curated selection of beautifully framed forehands, and the inability of both men to sustain pressure. This point from the third set tiebreak encapsulates the overall dynamic quite perfectly: Dimitrov’s tweener lob is the brilliant moment fated to resonate, but observe how once he has re-established himself in the rally he undoes his good work with a sequence of weak, short backhands. Nevertheless, Dimitrov had three set points in total, including one on his own serve. It was a big serve, too – 205kph out wide – leaving him with an attractively pristine acre of court to hit into, or out of, as it transpired. That forehand miss will certainly stay with him for a long time. It was certainly still on his mind in the press conference, as he shed hot tears of frustration. Nadal later admitted to Jim Courier that he’d simply been lucky in that moment, with a relief that had hardly faded in the intervening hour. The fourth set saw Dimitrov fade in the usual manner. He hadn’t played especially well, though he had fought well, and his tournament was over. If he’d been able to land those forehands it might have been a different match, though probably not a different result. If he’d been able to regulate the depth on his backhand better, it certainly would have been.

(6) Federer d. (4) Murray, 6/3 6/4 6/7 6/3

Nadal will face Roger Federer in the second semifinal, another instalment in the most famous rivalry in the sport, an exalted status reflected in its recourse to roman numerals. This will be their XXXIIIth meeting. Whereas last year’s matches were dominated by Nadal, there is some reason to believe that Friday’s meeting will be more competitive. Federer, with his new racquet and mended back, is back to playing the kind of aggressive tennis he was once famed for, at least for the opening sets of each match. After that his boldness erodes sharply. Two rounds ago he tore through Blaz Kavcic in fearsome fashion, before the third set devolved into an unnecessary dogfight. The same pattern threatened to recur in the fourth round against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga; that it didn’t owed mostly to the Frenchman’s sense of timing, which is not commensurate with his sense of occasion. Tsonga left his run too late, and Federer was permitted to coast over the line. Andy Murray almost committed the same mistake, only coming truly to life as Federer served for the match at 5/4 in the third set.

Federer commenced in majestic fashion, his forehand and serve both devastating, his backhand impenetrable and his excursions into the forecourt frequent and decisive. Murray had ambled to the quarterfinals thanks to the most generous draw since, well, his last Australian Open. Federer was thus his first true test, not only of the tournament, but since last year’s US Open. He missed four months of tennis, and last night appeared fatally short of big match practice. I’m not sure anyone besides those ardent Federer fans who exist in a state perpetual anxiety truly expected Murray to maintain a high level for long enough, in perfect contrast to last year’s semifinal. On paper it was the most appealing of all the men’s quarterfinals, but when it came down to it the stakes somehow didn’t feel very high.

The Scot finally found his feet in the second set, like Wawrinka the night before forcing himself to venture up onto his baseline. Federer continued to be aggressive, and this was probably the best period in the match, until Murray threw in a poor game to be broken. We can put this lapse down to shortage of match play, but Djokovic had already proved that even the best players don’t really need a reason. Federer served out the set. The third was much the same, with the Swiss entirely untouchable on serve, at least until he stepped up to serve for the match, and thoughtfully reminded us that pressure has internal obligations of its own. Federer tried to coast over the line, but Murray, to his enormous credit, was having no part of it. Invited to step in, he did, heavily augmenting the pace on his groundstrokes, and forcing Federer into error. Federer gained a couple of match points in the tiebreak, and once more reverted into passivity, and was made to pay.

The fourth set began in much the same manner – Murray’s first service game lasted about a quarter of an hour, and saw Federer gain half a dozen break points, which he mistook for an ideal opportunity to work on his sliced forehand returns. His personal challenged appeared to be to see how many of them he could bunt onto Murray’s service line. It turned out to be a lot. Murray by this point was largely spent, his first serve shorn of pace, and his movement to the forehand corner sluggish. But he was rarely stretched, and made the most of his opportunities to move forward. Federer finally attacked a forehand return on a break point late in the set, and was presumably the only person surprised to learn that this markedly enhanced his chance of winning the subsequent rally. Obliged once more to serve it out, he fell quickly to 0-30, but extricated himself with a bold rally and a brave second serve, before taking the match a few points later.

Afterwards, forced to explain himself to Courier, he sounded about as relieved as Nadal had, though one was left to wonder if he realises just how weighed-down he lately seems by pressure. At times this tournament he has looked like his old self, not merely the statesman who returned to number one in 2012, but the reckless youth who dominated the world in 2006. At other times, however, he has looked exactly like a man who has learned by heart the lesson that all things must pass, that one’s moments of greatness don’t become less precious the more of them you’ve accumulated, but more precious the fewer of them you have left.

Categories: Grand Slams Tags:

Forsaken Geometry

January 21st, 2014 4 comments

Australian Open, Fourth Round

The first week of the 2014 Australian Open was feverishly warm, generating liquid quick conditions that caused results to flow in all directions, and ensuring that reporters who’d spent too little of their off-season toiling on Agassi’s magic mountain could remain an appropriately high simmer. Renee McKay/Getty Images AsiaPacThe cool change that swept through Melbourne late on Friday night wrought a dramatic change, bringing kinder conditions, an abrupt lessening in the number of self-righteous articles about the tournament’s heat policy, and the return of Lleyton Hewitt to the Channel 7 commentary booth. On balance, I declare it a net positive.

Hewitt took longer than usual to turn up. Usually he turns up after a couple of days spent processing his latest early-round loss, but this year he tarried for almost a week. It’s conceivable he got lost, since Channel 7’s commentary booth has been relocated, and renamed. The previous iteration was known as the ‘bunker’, and consisted of a low wooden structure placed out on the court surface, just to the side of the entrance tunnel. It was cunningly painted the same blue as the surface, yet somehow failed to blend in, probably because it was still a shack on a tennis court. The new arrangement is more traditional, consisting of a booth partly recessed behind the back of the court, permitting commentators an unparalleled view of the linesman’s buttocks. The voices emanating from within this enclosure, you’ll be relieved to hear, have not changed. Channel 7’s commentary remains a special brand of magnificent.

Scornful of Tommy Robredo’s remote court positioning, Jim Courier remarked with a tone of faux-wonder that the Spaniard ‘was intentionally giving up geometry’. I once gave up physics for an afternoon, and can attest to the risks involved. Courier of course hails from a culture in which the right to maintain geometry is constitutionally enshrined, in which lunatic lobby groups famously insist that their beloved set-squares and protractors will have to be pried from their cold dead hands. Having forsaken geometry, Robredo lost to a rampant Stan Wawrinka, whom Channel 7 has cruelly nicknamed ‘The Stanimal’. Robredo mastered the heat for a while, but he’s cold news now. Hewitt’s return was accompanied by a sharp upswing in the use of the word ‘tremendous’ and the phrase ‘extremely well’. He can be an ornery character on court, but in commentary his contribution is invariably positive. Marvelling at Roger Federer’s continued excellence, he took care to highlight ‘the self-belief he has, not only in himself, but in his racquet as well.’ High praise, indeed. Bruce McAveny, famously so thorough in his research, persists in pronouncing David Ferrer as David Fer-ur, as in ‘urn’. He’s either incorrect, or knows something the rest of us don’t, including David Fer-ur.

It is generally the case that the narratives which consume the first week of a Major burn out by the second. Wimbledon has a rest day on its middle Sunday to ensure the break is literal, while the US Open starts to crank up its trusty hurricane machine, affectionately known as ‘Bessie’. The first week of this year’s Australian Open was clangourous with sound and fury, but ultimately it signified little. There were intriguing upsets, and new stars, fistfuls of retirements and Ivan Dodig’s assertion that he thought he would die (no article attacking the tournament organisers failed to include Dodig’s expert self-diagnosis, although they were reluctant to point out that he demonstrably did not die, and two days later won a doubles match). There was Tomic dragging down the host nation’s spirits, and Kyrgios and Kokkinakis to buoy them up again. Damir Dzumhur was the first Bosnian man to enter any main draw. Donald Young was the last American man to leave this particular main draw. Philipp Kohlschreiber’s withdrawal from the main draw provided an opening for Stephane Robert. He entered the main draw as a Lucky Loser, but left it as a kind of folk hero, and spent long minutes after his defeat to Andy Murray absorbing the admiration of the Hisense crowd.

Indeed, the Hisense crowd itself deserves a mention, since it is entirely a first week phenomenon. While it lasts, no crowd at Melbourne Park cheers louder and longer, its appreciation fuelled by a heartfelt sense of gratitude whenever a truly big name drops by. A ticket to Rod Laver Arena rarely represents a smart investment in the first week, unless you’re eager to witness elite players mete out rough justice on journeymen. You can watch the same spectacle on Hisense for considerably less money, but as often you’ll see a close match, or even an upset. Mostly, however, a simple grounds pass is all the average punter requires, especially in the early rounds. Holders of such tickets were privileged to watch Roberto Bautista-Agut tear through the draw, until he was halted yesterday by Grigor Dimitrov. Those same fans, or ones like them, were permitted to enjoy Dimitrov’s sterling victory over Milos Raonic the round before.

Aided by cooler conditions, the fourth round admirably served its intended purpose of bringing the hothouse lunacy to an abrupt halt, freezing in place a draw that had threatened perpetually to burst apart. Whereas early on men who knew no better conducted marathon contests in gruelling heat, no match in the fourth round lasted five sets, and few reached four. Players like Robert and Bautista-Agut set the first week alight, but none of them survived the round of sixteen. Indeed, for just the second time in the Open Era, the Australian Open men’s quarterfinals are comprised by seven of the eight top seeds. The sole exception is Dimitrov, the twenty-second seed, who gambolled through Juan Martin del Potro’s vacant section.

His gambolling days might well be done, however: he next faces Rafael Nadal, whose first week was mainly remarkable for how extravagantly its difficulty was overestimated by his fans. Tomic naturally helped matters by retiring wounded after a set, as did Gael Monfils by playing one of the least tactically astute matches imaginable; of all the dense particles in this year’s draw, Monfils was arguably the densest. Nadal’s sternest test came in the unlikely form of Kei Nishikori, who arrived equipped with a precise template of how to play the world number one, which was to never permit the Spaniard a forehand unless he was stretched or surprised. Nishikori’s eventual loss was as gallant and honourable as a straight sets loss can be, and an indirect rebuke to all those who’ve prematurely given up. Nadal’s victory was a testament to the fact that he is quite a lot better at tennis than his opponent. A good player can play him exactly the right way and still not win a set. Yesterday he was pressed, but always came up with precisely the right shot when it mattered, and closed the match with, of all things, a dominant serving display.

Kevin Anderson, for his sins, was obliged to face Tomas Berdych yet again. Two years ago they had never faced each other. Perhaps they’d never even met socially. They’ve now played ten times, and Anderson is yet to win. Sunday’s loss was among the most comprehensive. Berdych was superb, and has reached the quarterfinals of this tournament for the fourth straight year, this time without dropping serve. In previous quarterfinals he faced Djokovic twice and Nadal once, and lost each time. This year he’ll face Ferrer, a far more benign prospect. Ferrer’s quarter was weak to begin with, and only grew weaker as the rounds melted away. Berdych will be his first legitimate test. Channel 7′s helpful ‘Things You May Not Know’ box told us that Berdych has dated Lucie Safarova since 2011.

The most eagerly anticipated fourth round match was between Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Federer, which Channel 7, tireless in pursuit of an angle, billed as a grudge match. Their logic, to use the term generously, was that Federer defeated Tsonga in five sets here last year, though you’d imagine Tsonga’s straight sets dismissal of the Swiss at Roland Garros eased his pain somewhat. Whatever the case, Federer repaid the treatment last night, inflicting a comprehensive shellacking that one could term clinical, depending on the clinic. I’m partial to Tsonga, and had thus hoped for more, but Federer in this form – torrents of winners and enterprising net play – is as hard to begrudge as he was hard to gainsay. There were, as Robbie Koenig would say, innumerable oil painting forehands. Indeed, it was an oil painting of a match, and Tsonga shouldn’t be disparaged because he seemed resigned merely to stretch the canvas. He made too little of the few chances he had, but it wasn’t really his fault that those chances seldom came round. Undoubtedly Murray will create more chances in the next round, but it’s pointless to blame Tsonga for not being Murray. The Frenchman surged to life late in the third set, saving three break points in a manner that only he can, but alas it was too late. Federer was unstoppable by this time, brimming with self-belief for himself, at one with his vintage game, and his brand new frame.

Categories: Grand Slams Tags:

Ongoing Commitments

January 17th, 2014 3 comments

As intimated earlier in the week, one of the more fascinating battles going on this week has been waged not between players, but between the media and the English language. This has entailed an exhaustive quest for original ways to describe the prevailing atmospheric conditions. Renae Stubbs found a way, though it didn’t necessarily lead to victory: ‘Can she survive in this heat, which is extraordinarily hot?’ Rhetorically, we might generously call this a polyptoton, although it would exhaust generosity to call it a good one. On the other hand, Serena Williams’ assertion that the Australian Open is ‘a great start to the beginning of the year’ is just a tautology. That’s okay – words are not her business. Quinn Rooney/Getty Images AsiaPacHer business is winning tennis matches. Thankfully Darren Cahill was on hand to explain in simple terms how she not only continues to do so, but is actually getting better at it, in clear defiance of her age.

Today Williams faced Daniela Hantuchova, who several days ago achieved the rarest feat in tennis: prompting the commentators to add a new line item to her official fact sheet. In this case the new fact is that she can play the piano, an astonishing feat that was demonstrated to the gobsmacked Australian media several days ago, who summarily dubbed her ‘a concert pianist’. The fact sheet having been amended, there’s now a legal obligation to bring up her astounding musical prowess whenever she appears on screen. From today: ‘She’s so good at so many things: tennis, piano . . .’ The media love nothing more than celebrities – athletes, actors, US presidents – demonstrating hitherto unrevealed musical talents, no matter how meagre those talents truly are. The fact is, Hantuchova is a concert pianist in the same way that I am a professional tennis player. Youtube suggests her pianistic wizardry has been revealed many times before. For the record, Williams was out of sorts, but still won. Hantuchova played very well.

Of course, supplementary talents don’t have to be musical. Anything not directly related to tennis will do, down to and including functional literacy. More than once I’ve heard Janko Tipsarevic called a ‘borderline genius’ because he has read Dostoevsky. Perhaps Benjamin Becker should try that, since the poor guy’s fact sheet hasn’t been updated in nearly eight years, and still only features two items. Firstly, he isn’t related to Boris (Boris confirmed this personally in the Australian Open’s draw ceremony). Secondly, he was the guy up the other end in Andre Agassi’s last match (Boris also mentioned this, amply fulfilling his ongoing commitment to supply no insight whatsoever).

Speaking of Agassi, he’s back on Australian television screens this year, fulfilling his ongoing commitment to talk very slowly over thinly-disguised Jacob’s Creek commercials. The overall success of the campaign is apparent in this year’s expanded budget. This time the ads are shot on location, and feature an extended cast including Steffi Graf, Agassi’s brother Phil, his Dad Mike, and Gil Reyes (who was included last year, but this time has more to do). The glacial solemnity of the delivery and the intrusive soundtrack as ever lend Agassi’s inspirational words a slightly creepy edge. It’s no stretch to imagine the weapons-grade sentimentality of the opening film breaking tough prisoners at a secret torture facility. After that, however, something miraculous happens; the rest of the ads are actually pretty good. As far as I can tell they each reprise material already featured in Open, but that’s understandable; any anecdote worthy of a wine commercial shouldn’t be omitted from one’s autobiography. ‘Magic’, the fourth and final film, is a trifle overwrought, with a syrupy orchestral track and a ‘magic mountain’. This mountain is the one Agassi would famously toil upon in order to prepare for Australia’s cruel conditions, its magic evident in its efficacy. Few players have mastered those conditions more thoroughly. Thirteen years ago I watched Agassi run David Prinosil into the ground on a very hot Melbourne afternoon, until the German keeled over and couldn’t get up. Times were different, and I don’t recall that it was regarded as a moral issue. If Prinosil was still playing, no doubt it’d be on his fact sheet.

For the longest time, networks kept their fact sheets safely out of sight, but no longer. Channel 7, in line with its ‘ongoing commitment to the evolution of tennis coverage’, has recently taken to sharing selected titbits before each match. A box pops up on screen, titled ‘Things You May Not Know’. For example, did you know that Sam Stosur loves to play ‘Bejewled Blitz’ on her phone? I hope not. Did you know that Hantuchova loves the film Gladiator? Of course you did: she’s a professional tennis player, and they all do. Apparently Benoit Paire is called ‘‘The Stork’ because he is tall and thin.’ Just in case you assumed it was because he is a qualified midwife. Last night he recovered from two sets down, running Nick Kyrgios into the ground on a very hot Melbourne evening. It was tremendous entertainment, initially contoured by the Frenchman’s forehand, which for long periods barely worked at all, and later by the Australian’s legs, which gave out entirely. Given his technical issues, it was a commendably patient performance from Paire, laced with just enough of his characteristic lunacy to keep things interesting. Kyrgios is the image of untrammelled youth on court, but afterwards was as gracious and thoughtful as you could hope for.

Juan Martin del Potro last night contrived to lose to a laudably determined (and surprisingly inspired) Roberto Bautista-Agut. Del Potro was considered a pre-tournament favourite, or at any rate represented the sole reason to believe Rafael Nadal wouldn’t reach the semifinals unhindered. Nadal wasn’t significantly hindered by Thanasi Kokkinakis, conceding just eight games, although those eight games were accumulated with sufficient panache that Australians now feel some reason to maintain hope for the future, a rare sensation in these Tomic times. Andy Murray was completely untroubled by Vincent Millot, even, it turned out, when he trailed 1/5 in the third set. Roger Federer was imperious against Blaz Kavcic for two sets, then merely good enough for one more. The main interest, apparently, was that Federer was scheduled to play on Hisense Arena, the first time this has occurred since Gladiator appeared on DVD, to the collective ecstasy of both professional tours. Britain’s The Telegraph contended that this reflected Federer’s ‘current status among the also-rans of the top 10’, although they failed to address what this says about Murray, who as of the third round will have played on Hisense twice. Interviewed after the match, Federer gave every impression that he didn’t much care where he played, though the Hisense crowd couldn’t have been more delirious in their appreciation that he’d played right there in front of them.

Gilles Simon followed up his complicated five set victory against Daniel Brands with another against Marin Cilic, all on a broken foot. Details have been slow to emerge, but it seems Cilic served for every set at least fifteen times, and that at one stage play was suspended when an escaped panther wandered onto court. Simon will next face Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Florian Mayer beat Jerzy Janowicz in straight sets today, a stunning upset that more or less everyone expected. Janowicz’s form convinced no one this week, and after losing he conceded he hadn’t spent sufficient time on Magic Mountain, mostly due to injury. He struggled mightily in the heat, but insisted it was his own fault, an unpopular attitude that will certainly go unreported. Mayer will next face David Ferrer, whose quarter is so short on marketable quality that he has already played twice in Rod Laver Arena. It could be, per The Telegraph, that this merely reflects his exalted position among the elite, but I doubt whether anyone truly believes that. If he’d been drawn in the top half, one doubts whether he’d see the inside of Laver before the quarterfinals. He’d be confined to Hisense, in much the same way that Javier Piles once confined him to an extraordinarily hot ball-closet for shirking his piano practice. Or so it says on his official fact sheet.

Categories: Grand Slams Tags:

Switch to our mobile site