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Heineken Open, Auckland

Nalbandian d. Isner, 6/4 7/6

Insofar as disparate gatherings of strangers can boast anything – beyond a tendency to wildly applaud any celebrity pledging self-reform – tennis crowds often boast distinct personalities. It is frequently remarked upon during the US and French Opens, but almost never at lesser events. The crowd at the ASB Tennis Centre in Auckland is an excitable one. Anything even slightly out of the ordinary – dead net cord, miss-hit, stray seagull – is guaranteed to elicit an ooh or an ahh. Aces are met with gasps, even when it is John Isner serving. As an Australian, it is easy for me to sound condescending about this, but I don’t mean to. In thrall to the tyranny of geography, New Zealand is pretty starved for top-shelf sport, even in cosmopolitan Auckland. The venue itself is intimate, leafy and atmospheric; the pricey seats at one end are laid out around tables, and there is a constant chink of glassware. ‘A Horse With No Name’ played at one change of ends. The coverage owes a debt to Terry Gilliam.

The stream I watched had no commentary, which is generally no bad thing, though I did vaguely yearn for someone to buttress my belief that David Nalbandian is the worst great tennis player I have ever seen. Given the relative ease with which he was returning Isner’s serve – he should be one of the great returners, but usually isn’t – there was no facet of the game in which Nalbandian should not have been dominant. Yet the scoreline was what it was. Of course, Isner’s efforts to shore up his ground game have been laudable. His forehand is a fearsome weapon. But this is Nalbandian, for god’s sake, who can trade blows with the greats at their greatest. His strokes are so compact, so fluid. His movement is so efficient. It all looks so functional. I am reminded of Mark Twain’s assertion that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds, if only the formulation. David Nalbandian’s tennis is worse than it looks. Still, he won. Tomorrow’s semifinal against Nicolas Almagro should feature, to quote a word-smith not quite on par with Twain, some ‘tremendous ball striking’.

Medibank International, Sydney

Troicki d. Gasquet, 6/4 6/4

The last time I featured Richard Gasquet and Nalbandian in the same post, it was on a day when the Frenchman went down to Viktor Troicki. Now it has happened again. It’s curious how that happens, how the orbiting bodies in the tennis cosmos will occasionally clump together in strange configurations. It is most noticeable when players who have hitherto collided only rarely suddenly run afoul of each other every week. (Last May, Roger Federer hadn’t encountered Alejandro Falla since the 2006 French Open. Then, randomly, there he was three tournaments running. Given that he knew precisely what to expect, it was little wonder Federer looked so complacent on the first morning of Wimbledon.)

This was Troicki’s 100th ATP victory, and his 11th since almost toppling Rafael Nadal in the Tokyo semifinal last October. Since then he has improved his ranking 24 places to No.30 (it will climb higher again after this week), bagged his first title (Moscow) and clinched the deciding rubber in the Davis Cup final. Throughout that period his only losses have been to Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Rainer Schuettler (which we can safely explain away as the not uncommon let-down many suffer upon capturing their first title). The capacity to beat those you should beat is a key way of determining whether your ranking is a correct reflection of your ability, and not merely the result of sporadic inspiration or luck. He isn’t particularly flashy, and he has a weird serve and the eyes of a lunatic, but Troicki deserves to be where he is.

Matches from the Auckland tournament can be downloaded here. As ever, please avoid highlights.

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