Radiant Joy

September 10th, 2014 4 comments

US Open, Final

(14) Čilić d. (10) Nishikori, 6/3 6/3 6/3

Marin Čilić has won the 2014 US Open, thus shortening by one entry the list of sentences I thought I’d never write. Precisely where it ranked on this list was difficult to ascertain, since it is both a long list and one that by definition isn’t written down. Chris Trotman/Getty Images North AmericaPerhaps it should be. I spent almost as long pondering this irony as it took for Čilić took to defeat Kei Nishikori in yesterday’s final, which wasn’t very long at all.

As Major finals go, it was a bit of a fizzer. One doubts whether that matters to Čilić, or indeed whether it matters all that much to anyone. The quality of the encounter is soon forgotten when history is being made. Čilić is the first Croatian man to win the US Open, defeating the first Japanese man to reach a Major final. It was the first Major that didn’t feature either Nike or adidas clothing since 2003, and the first that lacked any representatives from the current top three since the late Triassic period.

It was therefore a final that no one anticipated, neither before the tournament kicked off, nor even by the semifinals, which the tournament continues to schedule on the last Saturday, and persists in calling Super. With Rafael Nadal absent, it seemed certain that either Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer would claim the title, and probable that they’d face off for it on the third Monday. It was a prediction that saw some revision in Federer’s quarterfinal against Gael Monfils, as the Swiss first languished in a two set hole, then later faced a pair of match points. Having weathered those squalls, one confidently predicted smoother conditions ahead. Late-career Federer is all about the attack, and his semifinal opponent boasted nothing like Monfils’ defensive prowess.

There was similarly little chance that Nishikori would survive Djokovic’s untiring ministrations. The Japanese is prone to physical breakdown and defaults at the best of times, and these were hardly that. He’d arrived in New York with an injured foot, and was coming off consecutive five-set, four-hour-plus victories over Milos Raonic and Stan Wawrinka. A Djokovic – Federer final – eagerly desired by the tournament, the broadcasters and the vast majority of fans – appeared all but guaranteed. It was thus rather a shock when Djokovic and Federer contrived to win only one set between them.

I have seen Čilić play well before – doubtless we all have – but never quite like this, and never in a manner that suggested he could maintain it through the last three rounds of the most important tournament of his life. If anything, that was the standard word on Čilić: He might overpower lesser opponents for a time, but sooner rather than later his weaknesses would be exposed by top-class opposition. Those weaknesses, in no particular order, were inadequate movement, inconsistency from the ground, a serve that was underpowered given the altitude from which it arrived, a tendency to tighten up, and an insufficiently ruthless disposition. (Upon one occasion Čilić’s relatively placid nature served him well, when he was the last man unscathed after David Nalbandian displayed the wrong kind of killer instinct in the Queens final several years ago, gifting Čilić what was until yesterday his most prestigious title.)

Those weaknesses have been shored up. If I’d feared that Čilić’s movement would be exposed by Federer’s redoubled willingness to attack the net, I needn’t have. Čilić is still no Monfils, but this is mostly a good thing, and he was more than up to the task. The groundstrokes that cut through the wind against Berdych, cut right through Federer in the semifinal, and  wrought similar damage on Nishikori in the final.

Federer had recovered from two sets down against Monfils, but despaired of doing so against the Croat, given he could barely land returns in the court. Čilić’s serve, by his own admission, was the key shot in the final, since it ensured the wind was only a problem for Nishikori. The mechanical improvement of this shot owes a great deal to his coach Goran Ivanisevic, whose own serve was famously monstrous. Indeed, even Čilić’s extravagant knee- and back-bend looks rather less comical when the delivery itself is so potent, reminding us Goran’s service motion looked pretty goofy too, unless you were facing it.

And when it comes to killer instincts, simply observe how unhindered Čilić looked when serving out sets (especially against Federer, where he barely conceded a point), or how focussed he was when breaking in each game in which he created an opportunity, invariably early in each set. What was so striking about Čilić’s mastery was how replicable it all looked. In winning his first Grand Slam title, he already looked like a multiple Grand Slam champion.

Of course, so had Richard Krajicek. Čilić now joins the special list of men who’ve won their first Major in their Major final, a list that features no shortage of champions who looked unbeatable for a couple of weeks, but only once. But even here it’s important to establish some differentiation. Čilić wasn’t fortunate to win this title, coasting like Stephen Bradbury through a collapsed draw while the favourites gagged, stumbled or simply fell in a heap. He tamed a tough draw - including a five setter against Gilles Simon at his irritatingly tenacious best - and elevated when it mattered. Čilić didn’t drop a set in the last three rounds.

Nishikori on the other hand dropped a handful of sets, though one cannot blame him for that. He was exceptional in reaching the final, but sadly wasn’t once he got there. The cornerstones of Nishikori’s game are quick hands, great movement and an attacking disposition. (He’s one of those rare metaphorical buildings with multiple cornerstones.) Commentators often term him a counter-puncher, based, one imagines, on his size and speed. But he is no more a counter-puncher than Nikolay Davydenko or Sebastien Grosjean, and like them he rarely hesitates to attack when the slightest opportunity arises. On certain days and one certain surfaces, a sustained flat-hitting assault can be hard to repel, even for the best defenders in the sport. But on other days the calibration is off, and it never quite works. Nishikori had one of those days on Monday. Nerves are a funny thing, unless, like Čilić’s serve, they’re happening to you in real time while millions of people watch.

Quick hands mean little if your legs don’t get you to the ball in good time. Nishikori’s legs looked leaden almost from the outset – a fatal combination of nerves and weariness. He created more chances as the match wore down, but it was too little and it was too late. Čilić steadied, and held, then held again. With a final fine backhand he won, and collapsed joyously onto his back. Everyone who’d ever wondered how Čilić would celebrate a Slam title now had their answer. He radiated the kind of joy that begs to be shared. Sixteen thousand kilometres away, I know I felt it. Everyone felt it.

Čilić thus moves beyond the niche notoriety of tennis fandom into the broader kind of fame by which even those only vaguely interested in tennis, such as John McEnroe, have heard of him. He’s done the rounds in New York, as all US Open champions are obliged to. He’ll soon do the same on a smaller though infinitely more rambunctious scale in Zagreb. If he wasn’t a big name in Croatia before, he certainly is now. (Nishikori’s name was already big in Japan, and by becoming the first Japanese name to reach a Major final it hasn’t shrunk.)

If anyone took Čilić lightly before, you can be certain they won’t now, though really I doubt whether anyone did take him lightly. It is unlikely that any top pro upon discovering the Croat as his next opponent put his feet up and gave his coach the day off. Really, Čilić has ensured that the media won’t take him lightly. Never again will he be permitted to slip through a draw beneath the radar, no matter how tightly he cleaves to the topography, or even burrows through it. He might not win another match between now and January, but you can bet Bruce McAveny will bury us beneath an avalanche of Čilić stats come the Australian Open.

But that’s a concern for another time. Unlike the Australian Open, the US Open has always been wholesomely free from Channel 7’s taint. From next year, it will be free from CBS’s taint, as well, which will permit a measure of sanity to be restored to the schedule. In the meantime, choice of broadcaster was a toss-up. Sky Sports was mostly a mess, alternating between a syndicated USO Live feed and the usual home-grown derangement whenever Andy Murray graced the court. Murray’s four-set loss to Djokovic was immediately declared the match of the tournament, although it certainly wasn’t. US Open Radio was as ever the worst of the online radio options. Gigi Salmon’s presence meant that the BBC5Live online service was the best.

In the end Eurosport carried the day. There’s a lot to be said for the common touch, with common here covering Mats Wilander’s impish levity, Frew McMillan’s measured murmur, Jason Goodall’s wryness and Chris Bowers’ tendency to channel Stefan Zweig: ‘There are times at the US Open when you wonder if the players are mere entertainment, like a string quartet at a Viennese street café.’ You said it, Chris.

Categories: Grand Slams Tags:

Rich With Portent

July 8th, 2014 8 comments

Wimbledon 2014

(1) Djokovic d. (4) Federer, 6/7 6/4 7/6 5/7 6/4

Novak Djokovic has won his second Wimbledon title, three years after winning his first, and almost four hours after commencing a classically sinuous final in which triumph and disaster always lurked equally near. In the end, but only in the end, Djokovic held his nerve, and prevailed over Roger Federer in five superb sets. It was the first great Major final in years, and an fitting culmination to another dramatic fortnight rich with portent.

Last year’s edition of Wimbledon gave us the first hint that the incumbent era of Big Four domination was coming to an end (with ‘era’ here used in the sporting sense to denote a period of about half a decade. ‘Generation’ and ‘epoch’ represent similarly telescoped time-frames.) Jerzy Janowicz became the first Polish man to reach a Major semifinal, and the first new Major semifinalist in three years. In New York both Stan Wawrinka and Richard Gasquet reached maiden semifinals, while in Melbourne Wawrinka was the first new Slam finalist since Tomas Berdych reached the Wimbledon final in 2010. Al Bello/Getty Images EuropeWawrinka’s subsequent Australian Open victory made him just the second man outside the Big Four to win a Major since January 2005, a period of about 1.9 generations. If an epoch isn’t shifting, something is.

Roland Garros inspired a return to reality, though even there Ernests Gulbis strained daring surge to the semis, though the fact the hasn’t followed up on it is less surprising. By the conclusion of this latest Wimbledon, however, the signs of generational renewal  have become bludgeoningly clear, even for curmudgeons determined to misread them. Nick Kyrgios reached the quarterfinals on debut, rendering him the most easily justified wildcard since Goran Ivanisevic thirteen years ago. Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov reached the semifinals. Jack Sock and Vasek Pospisil overcame the Bryan brothers in a gripping five set doubles final. Ryan Harrison qualified. It almost feels Biblical.

Of course, it is only in fiction that eras conclude all at once. Convenient cataclysms are a structural cliché of all high fantasy, from The Lord of the Rings to The Wheel of Time to the Bible, but in real life change comes gradually. Sartre was wrong about a lot, but he right when he said that we never leave a place all in one go. Dimitrov and Raonic may have reached the semifinals, but they both lost, and the final featured familiar protagonists. Justifiable fears that this would guarantee yet another tedious decider were mercifully allayed. Djokovic and Federer arguably constitute the most dynamic match-up at the truly elite level (I understand this is subjective). I’ll come back to the final in a bit.

Rafael Nadal contrived to lose the first set in each of his first four matches, though only in the last of these did he lose any more than that. The go-to narrative through the early rounds was that he was ‘finding a way’ to win, an oft-chanted mantra among those fans who’re invested heavily in the Spaniard’s alleged fallibility (a category that certainly includes John McEnroe). Really the ‘way’ Nadal found was a well-worn path. My any measure he was a better tennis player than each of his opponents, and after a patchy first set he started to play like it. Simultaneously the guy across the net felt his own erstwhile brilliance dim. Recent history has proved that the Spaniard is vulnerable on first-week grass (not only at Wimbledon), but it requires an aggressive player who doesn’t stop missing for several hours. Martin Klizan, Lukas Rosol and Mikhail Kukushkin didn’t miss for a while (Rosol sustained it longer than the others), but eventually Nadal’s class won out.

I can’t imagine anyone had realistically expected that the exception – the shocking exception – would be young Kyrgios, who’d only earned a shot at Nadal by saving nine match points against the cosmically fallible Richard Gasquet. (Perhaps I’m wrong – I’ve spent the last two weeks in the jungle with no more than a dribble of internet and a satellite TV feed. This meant I missed Channel 7′s coverage, and was thus spared John Newcombe’s deranged patriotism, though it did leave me at the mercy of McEnroe.) By beating Nadal in the fourth round Kyrgios became the first teenager to reach the Wimbledon quarterfinals in three whole years.

Comparisons between Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic naturally proliferated, and not to Tomic’s advantage. Of course it is only here in Australia that the ensuing discussion blossomed into a matter of national identity. Kyrgios is held to embody those values that we as a country hold dear: steadfastness, never-give-up-ness, staying-true-to-oneself-ness, the ANZAC spirit, arrogant humility (or humble arrogance), love of Vegemite, and a selection of other values that are basically interchangeable with those of every other country. Some have even argued that Kyrgios’ success will be the making of Tomic, since it will lighten the onus of national expectation. It won’t stop him having a dickhead for a father, though. I imagine the few Australians who care will be merely pleased to have someone new upon whom to pin their hopes.

Speaking of which, Lleyton Hewitt once more demonstrated a delicate capacity for irony, declaring how ‘extremely well’ he was hitting the ball in practice as a prelude to losing to a guy who hits the ball extremely well in match-play. Janowicz was the ‘tremendous ball-striker’ on this occasion, though he struck the ball somewhat less tremendously in the next round, losing in five sets to Tommy Robredo. The Pole thus jettisoned most of the points he amassed in last year’s semifinal run, pushing his ranking out beyond the top fifty. On the subject of rankings, Kyrgios has soared 78 places to 66. He’ll surely climb higher, presumably dragging Tomic along in his wake.

Andy Murray, on the other hand, has fallen to number ten, his lowest ranking in six years. His Wimbledon title defence petered out in the quarterfinals in a dispiriting loss to Dimitrov, continuing a trend of ignominious exits at Majors. Three of Murray’s last four losses at this level have been in straight sets, and he only won a set in Melbourne when Federer checked out for a while. Injury and subsequent surgery of course played its part, but Murray has been back on the tour for some time now. There are those who return from extended injury breaks unchanged or even improved, but I worry that Murray won’t be one of them. Instead, like Nikolay Davydenko or Magnus Norman, it appears as though something vital went missing. He still bosses around lesser players, to the extent that he can drive through an open draw – as happened in Paris – but against the best he can look frankly uncompetitive. Dimitrov now outranks Murray, and in their quarterfinal he played like it. He was actually toying with the Scot at times.

Unlike Murray, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga cannot blame a chronic back injury – let alone surgery – yet he too increasingly looks overmatched by top class opponents. As ever, the Frenchman bluffed and bullied his way through the initial rounds, only to become one of the least problematic parts of Djokovic’s title run. There was a time when Tsonga had a strong winning record against the Serb. Djokovic was a different player then, I suppose, but so was Tsonga. Berdych’s loss to Marin Cilic was altogether more surprising, and as it transpired, controversial. Both combined for the latest finish for a match in Wimbledon history (not including matches played under the roof) which turned out not to be a record either man was particularly interested in breaking. Dull gloom had wholly enveloped the court by about 5/5 in the final set, and saner parties began to entreat the umpire to suspend play. The officials remained unmoved, pointing out that our distant ancestors hunted antelope on the African plains by night. The subsequent tiebreak was about as skilful as top class tennis played in darkness can be. We now know that Cilic is better at this than Berdych. A man for all conditions, he followed this up by taking Djokovic to five sets in broad daylight. From two sets to one down, Djokovic found a way.

From two sets to one up on Dimitrov, he even found a way to win the fourth set, thus obviating the need for a fifth. The Bulgarian had a handful of points to force a decider, including some on serve, but alas couldn’t make them stick. He otherwise rag-dolled himself about the court with great élan, as did Djokovic, and often at the same time. A few points ended with both men prostrate, leaving no doubt as to their commitment, though questions linger over their footwear. Dimitrov is still mightily inconsistent – in an earlier round he was lucky to survive the even less consistent Alexandr Dolgopolov – but he has lately arrived at a game style with just enough structure that his frequent moments of brilliance coalesce into meaningful results. I won’t deny that Roger Rasheed has been pivotal. I’ve historically given Rasheed a pretty hard time, but only for the nonsense he utters: I’ve never doubted his capacity to extract results from the kind of talented player hitherto held back by a lack of discipline. Since teaming up with Rasheed, Dimitrov has won titles on hardcourt (indoor and outdoor), clay and grass, and has now reached the semifinals of the world’s premier tennis tournament. He is ranked number nine, the youngest man in the top ten.

Raonic is only five months older, and along with Eugenie Bouchard ensured this edition of Wimbledon would be especially unforgettable for Canada. Raonic has risen to number six, though this seems rather high given how easily he was handled by Federer in the semifinals. As with Dimitrov, it seems the choice of coach was decisive, in this case Ivan Ljubicic. The fearsome serve has lately been augmented by a far more rounded and aggressive ground game. This enabled him to sail through tricky previous rounds against Kei Nishikori – a match I’d believed the Japanese man would win – and Kyrgios. Sadly Raonic’s return-game remains inadequate, and in the semifinal he barely troubled Federer’s serve. His own serve was nearly impregnable but for a fatal lapse in each of the three sets, at which point he was duly broken. Federer learned long ago how to navigate encounters like this.

It is startling to realise that this was only the second time Federer and Djokovic have met in a Major final – the other being the 2007 US Open – especially when we consider that they have played 12 times at this level, including nine semifinals. The reasons for this are most structural, and according to some downright shady. The Federer-Nadal duopoly at the top of the rankings forced Djokovic to endure an arduous apprenticeship at number three, and for whatever sinister reason he was almost always drawn in Federer’s half. There was apparently a conspiracy, though its goals were unclear, and they’ve apparently been attained or abandoned.

Djokovic was the better player through the first set, or at any rate was holding more comfortably. Federer nonetheless won the tiebreak, and might have won another in the second set had Djokovic not spoiled it by breaking early and then gradually serving out the set. It was only the second time in the tournament Federer had been broken (he dropped serve to Stan Wawrinka in the quarterfinals). The tennis was brisk and fascinating, with stylistic contrast provided by Federer’s inclination to charge the net and Djokovic’s perfect willingness to go on passing him. The longest rally in the entire match was only 23 strokes, though it was very rare for any point to exceed ten. As ever, I was impressed by Djokovic’s adaptability. When facing Federer he stands up on the baseline and matches the Swiss’s champion’s intensity, going stroke for stroke, and winner for winner.

Indeed, today he more than matched Federer from the ground, amassing about three times as many forehand winners. Federer for his part hardly bothered to aim his first serves anywhere but at the lines, and finished with 29 aces. The third set ticked along metronomically on serve, notwithstanding a few dicey cross-rhythms introduced at the end. Once into the tiebreak Djokovic steadied, while Federer embarked on a polyrhythmic spree. In the fourth Djokovic emerged from a mid-set flurry of each-way breaks holding a 5/2 lead. Federer held for 5/3. Djokovic stepped up to serve for the championship, but not well. His ballooned forehand error on the first point signalled the momentum switch. The Serb receded and Federer surged: breaking back, and saving a championship point in his next service game. By 5/5 Djokovic had comprehensively fallen apart, and was broken once more amidst a flurry of errors. Federer held comfortably to claim his fifth straight game. The match was poised at two sets apiece – the first five set Wimbledon final since 2009.

Anticipating the heavy toil ahead, Djokovic availed himself of an extended toilet break, while Federer lounged court-side. Idle-handed BBC cameramen swept the crowd for stray celebrities, alighting frequently on Victoria Beckham, who looked neither pleased nor remotely curious about what was happening. Kate Winslet, Hugh Jackman and Orlando Bloom all seemed happier to be there. Federer didn’t drop a point on serve through his first three service game of the fifth set, implying he’d retained momentum. One doubted whether this streak could last against a returner of Djokovic’s quality. So it proved.

In the eighth game Djokovic returned all eight serves he faced, although Federer eked out the hold for 4/4. Djokovic held comfortably, and Federer was now serving to stay in the match. In the 2012 Olympic semifinal he’d managed to do this over a dozen times on this very court, but one’s anxiety that they were settling in for the long haul proved unfounded. Djokovic’s returns only grew more potent, and Federer’s backhand contributed a string of unforced errors (like Sam Stosur’s biceps, Federer’s backhand boasts an independent, even folkloric existence). The last of these errors came on break point, caroming from the net, and meant that Federer lost the game, the set, and the match, and therefore the 2014 Wimbledon title. Al Bello/Getty Images EuropeMore accurately, Novak Djokovic won it. He is now the first man to defeat Federer at all four Majors, although it’s conceivable this achievement wasn’t uppermost in his mind as he thrust his arms aloft, as he once again sampled the Centre Court grass, or even as he darted through the crowd to embrace his team.

Federer for his part was far less disappointed to receive his second runner-up plate than he did his first; his single tear was a far cry from 2008, when the loss of his Wimbledon crown reduced him to ash-hued devastation. Victory this year would have pleased him infinitely more, but at this late stage of the sport’s most distinguished career it all must mostly feel like icing. I doubt he’ll ever treat triumph and disaster the same - what professional athlete truly does? - but at least he’s learned they’re fleeting imposters. For reaching the final he returns to number three in the world, and supplants Wawrinka as the Swiss number one, a switch that might please both of them (unless it obliges Wawrinka to contest the deciding rubber of the Davis Cup final).

Djokovic returns to number one thanks to his second Wimbledon title, precisely three years after his first title propelled him to the top. Incredibly, this is the third time in five years that the Wimbledon champion has gone to number one. Of course the reality of a 52 week ranking system is that no player makes it to number one just by winning one tournament – Djokovic’s latest reascent is a testament to nine months of brilliance and toil – but it is nonetheless poetic that the world’s most prestigious event seems so pivotal. Even if it’s a nice coincidence, it helps legitimate the otherwise inscrutable rankings in the mind of the general public. (I recall my mother’s sneering disbelief when Thomas Muster made it to number one despite ‘only’ winning the French Open.)

Beyond the general public, though, I suspect that even for the players the number one ranking feels more lustrous when accompanied by the Wimbledon trophy. This is especially the case when the title was so hard won. Djokovic fought harder than anyone to reach this year’s final, all the while displaying the essential Australian qualities of steadfastness, never-give-up-ness and staying-true-to-oneself-ness, which as it happens are essential Serbian qualities too. Or perhaps they’re just intrinsic to Djokovic. As he eloquently pointed out afterwards: even after that fourth set disaster, his convictions still outweighed his doubts. His note-perfect on-court speech, delivered through a sheen of tears, made it clear that for the new number one, as for the man he’d defeated, Wimbledon still means nearly everything.

 

Apologies for any factual inaccuracies in this post. As I say, I’m currently located in a fairly isolated spot in the jungle, with very limited internet. Think Heart of Darkness. This post, for example, took fifteen minutes and four attempts to upload. The horror.

Categories: Grand Slams Tags:

Cubist Masterpieces

June 3rd, 2014 15 comments

Roland Garros, Fourth Round

The fourth round of the 2014 edition of Roland Garros is complete, thus concluding a first week that began nine days ago, and ushering a second week that will last a mere six. Structurally, the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament acts as the interface between the first week and the second, conveniently wrapping up what has gone before whilst simultaneously preparing players and fans for the thrills to come. Structurally, then, the fourth round at this year’s French Open has fulfilled its purpose, providing a succinct summary for the largely forgettable opening rounds. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images EuropeOnly one match lived up to its billing, while too many others lived all the way down to theirs.

The fourth round also traditionally generates the first real concentration of great matchups. Of the sixteen players remaining it’s generally a sound bet that more than half of them will be of high quality, and will thus be obliged to start playing each other. Before seedings were doubled to 32 in 2001, this was the round in which the seeded players first began to collide. Wimbledon further enhances this frisson by scheduling all eight men’s matches on the same day (weather permitting, which it seldom does).

Roland Garros has defied this tradition, however. The early rounds were riddled by upsets that proved mostly shocking for their volume and by their concentration in the draw’s top half. Kei Nishikori’s frail frame was only good for a few sets, as was Stan Wawrinka’s brain. Nicolas Almagro, afflicted both mentally and physically, fared no better. All three had only been title contenders in the minds of those Rafael Nadal fans whose fantasies of catastrophe are at right-angles to reality, but it was still a blow to have them flame out so early. Indeed, seeds were combusting all over the place - Haas, Dolgopolov, Dimitrov - with deflating consequences for the rest of the week. The best match ending up being Philipp Kohlschreiber’s agonising five set loss to Andy Murray in the third round, which concluded 12/10 in the fifth even as the bottom half of the draw had commenced its fourth round.

The draw’s bottom half held together rather better through the initial rounds, with the highest seed in each ‘eighth’ attaining the round of sixteen, whereupon he was presented with an opponent that was at least nominally worthy. Sadly, only in the case of Roger Federer and Ernests Gulbis did this result in a high-quality match, suggesting that it requires more than a lack of early round upsets to ensure a decent fourth round. It also requires a healthy dose of luck. The upshot was seven matches – I’ll come to the eighth presently – that were so unengaging that desperate commentators were required to manufacture interest on our behalf.

There was, for example, some debate as to whether Novak Djokovic’s 89 minute demolition of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was superior to Nadal’s 93 minute dismantling of Dusan Lajovic. Djokovic got it done quicker against an ostensibly elite player enjoying local support, while Nadal conceded one less game against an opponent whose presence was largely superfluous. The answer is that it doesn’t matter. Further intrigue mounted as Nadal claimed the first seventeen points of the second set, thus coming within seven points of a golden set. (Alas, he pushed a backhand wide on the eighteenth point.) This thrashing was painted as valuable experience for the young Serb, in much same way that meeting Godzilla was valuable for Bambi. Of more value is the confidence gained from winning three other matches, increased opportunity from a higher ranking and the provisional security of a six-figure pay check.

Tsonga’s abject defeat to Djokovic was more interesting, since he is putatively a top player and last year reached the semifinal, although he didn’t acquit himself well once there. To an extent, we can simply say that Djokovic was far too good, and he was indeed very good. But there’s no use pretending that something has not gone horribly awry with Tsonga’s career. Coming in to today’s fourth round encounter Djokovic had lost to Tsonga five times, though the last of these defeats came in 2010 in what is increasingly looking like the Frenchman’s heyday. Between 2008 and 2011 Tsonga compiled a record of 24-28 against players in the top ten, even including the wilderness year of 2010. Since the beginning of 2012, however, Tsonga has compiled a record of 4-26 against players of the same rank. He is still reaching fourth rounds at the big tournaments, but for the second Slam in a row he was manhandled by the first elite player he encountered (in Melbourne it was Federer), and his poor form is looking less and less exceptional.

Tomas Berdych was as impressive as anyone in pulling apart John Isner, especially as he never allowed any set to reach a tiebreak. Indeed, no one’s form has looked more fearsome through the first week, and if he didn’t have such a keen propensity to capitulate against the either of the current top two (Nadal more so then Djokovic), you’d suspect Berdych was on the verge of a real breakthrough. He’ll face Gulbis in the quarters, to whom I’m very gradually coming. Djokovic will play Milos Raonic, who progressed to his first Major quarterfinal in fine fashion, including assured dismissals of Nick Kyrgios and Jiri Vesely (representing of the next wave of up-and-comers), Marcel Granollers (representing a subset of self-taught hackers with bafflingly high rankings), and a five set grind past Gilles Simon, which is something of a rite of passage. For his troubles he has earned a meeting with Djokovic, a quite different (and far sterner) rite of passage.

Gael Monfils’ third round five set tussle with Fabio Fognini turned out to be a Cubist masterpiece. All the fundamental elements of a professional tennis match were there, but arranged into unsettling configurations, and largely shorn of narrative linearity. It thus went exactly the way everyone thought it would. Having whetted his taste for the bizarre, Monfils displayed little patience with the relatively mundane stylishness of Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, and dispatched him with little fuss, thereby ensuring a French presence in the second week. David Ferrer beat Kevin Anderson with less ease than he did at this stage last year, but still never looked in strife. Andy Murray, having endured that classic with Kohlschreiber, surprised everyone by seeing off Fernando Verdasco in straight sets. No one expected a classic, but the respective fan bases, striving to outdo each other for pessimism, hadn’t been shy in predicting a more exhausting debacle. Anyway, having spent some time discussing the matches that I self-defeatingly suggested weren’t worth talking about, I’ll move on to the one match that is worth revisiting, namely Gulbis’ sinuous five set defeat of Federer.

Much has rightly been made of the fourth seed’s overhead at 5/3 40-15 in the second set, which, had it been properly dealt with, would have given him a two set to love lead. It wasn’t the easiest overhead – Gulbis’ stabbed response had some work on it – but nor was it so hard that Federer didn’t have multiple options. There are degrees of difficulty in all things, and tennis at this level is often decided by the player who executes the harder shot under pressure. Instead Federer went for the easiest option, and hit his overhead straight to the spot where Gulbis happened to be standing, not because the Latvian had anticipated it, but because he hadn’t bothered to move. Gulbis redirected the ball into the open court, and a match that was already serpentine coiled once more, this time decisively. Federer was broken back, and in lieu of being two sets to love up, lost three of the next twelve games to fall down two sets to one.

If only because it superficially recalls another notorious moment serving at 5/3 40-15 – the US Open semifinal of 2011 – one suspects that overhead will be a shot even Federer finds hard to forget. Certainly it stayed with him for rather too long in yesterday’s match. It would undoubtedly haunt a lesser career: I picture small children groaning as granddad again regales them with the time he was so nearly two sets to love up in the Roland Garros fourth round. In the case of Federer, alongside whose career almost all others must be considered ‘lesser’, I imagine he won’t let it ruin his Wimbledon preparation.

Still, that overhead was emblematic of a larger issue. What let Federer down all match, as it frequently has in the last few years, was a lack of audacity, or, to put it another way, an overabundance of caution. This was evident in his service placement, which was generally conservative, and in his unwillingness to go for the sidelines in baseline rallies, which often allowed Gulbis to re-establish a neutral court position, which never stayed neutral for long. There was a time when Federer’s determination to press an advantage would not relent, and initiative could only be wrested away from him by the very best defenders, such as Nadal or Djokovic. Yesterday Federer proved unable or unwilling to maintain pressure, and repeatedly allowed Gulbis to take control.

It is entirely to Gulbis’ credit that he could and did take control, and that unlike his opponent he was willing to chance his arm to sustain it. Whenever he saw an opportunity to go big, he went big. He pounded on Federer’s backhand – afterwards he confessed this to be his master plan – served big, and, most crucially, somehow remained focussed in defending the early break for the remainder of the fifth set. Federer seemed to labour under the hope that Gulbis wouldn’t be able to maintain so exalted a level. History has shown that Gulbis can tumble catastrophically off the boil, though history has also shown that history is a poor indicator for predicting what Gulbis will do. The Latvian’s form did dip in the fourth set. Federer, finally bold, lifted to a 5/2 lead, whereupon Gulbis availed himself of a medical time-out, which he later insisted was more precautionary than strategic. This had a profound effect on momentum, as Gulbis emerged swinging lustily at everything. He had no reason not to, believing the set was already gone. Where Federer had been cruising up a double break, he now narrowly eked out the fourth set, and ceded his serve rather tamely at the beginning of the fifth. From there Gulbis, who has yet to lose in France this year, never relented. He is deservedly through to his first Major quarterfinal in six years.

Federer, significantly, isn’t. Just as his victories often break or extend an obscure record, so do his losses curtail or forestall another. Had Federer won he would have reached his tenth consecutive Roland Garros quarterfinal. Alas he is stranded on nine, and might one day bore his grandchildren with the story of how he’d have reached ten but for one injudiciously placed overhead, or, more accurately, one inspired and defiant Latvian.

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A Deflating Innovation

March 31st, 2014 6 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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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