The Sin of Pride

US Men’s Clay Court Championship, Final

Sweeting d. Nishikori, 6/4 7/6

Ryan Sweeting is a generally unappealing piece of work, and perhaps the most ironically named tennis player since the diminutive Sebastien Grosjean bestrode the court. At least, on his day, the Frenchman could be great. A 6’5” sourpuss, sweet the American is not. Even winning his first tour final before boisterous compatriots in straight sets, he found plenty to moan about: his equipment, the conditions, the court, even the compatriots, who nonetheless remained mostly thrilled at the elementary coincidence of sharing a country of origin. Say what you like about the American Davis Cup team, but they are a pretty upbeat lot when they congregate, spear-headed by those psychotically positive Bryans. New title or not, hopefully attitude counts as much for Jim Courier as it did for his predecessor, and Sweeting won’t be permitted so much as orange-boy duties.

The final itself was of low quality, a fact made plain by the result. Sweeting’s game is based on the concept that even pretty good players can’t play well all the time, and this week he struck pay-dirt. He was marginally more aggressive than has hitherto been the case, but there are limits to these things. It was Kei Nishikori’s match to lose, though this is merely an observation, and not, as Nishikori seems to have taken it, a recommendation. Mostly, it was an opportunity, and not only to claim a second ATP title, but to realise the portentously named Project 45. Project 45 is the dream whereby a Japanese male tennis player will surpass the previously highest ranking held by a Japanese male tennis player, which you may have guessed was No.46, held by Japanese male tennis player Shuzo Matsuoka. By losing today’s final, Nishikori leapt thirteen places, landing on No.48. For all the pride he must feel at his entry into the top 50, you’d have to imagine those three spots above him loom large in his thoughts.

Meanwhile, over in Casablanca, Pablo Andujar also won his maiden title, over Potito Starace. Andujar at No.52 is the 10th highest ranked Spaniard in the world, meaning he won’t even be picked to wash the oranges for the Davis Cup team. (He’s ranked 13 spots above Lleyton Hewitt, around whom the entire Australian Davis Cup effort is based. Tennis Australia’s self-defeating internal squabbles seem like time and energy well-spent). Anyhow, Andujar and Sweeting are the fourth and fifth players to claim a first title in 2011, and it’s only April. Three players managed it in all of last year. None of these tournaments were exactly big deals, but that’s precisely what weeks like this are for.

Monte Carlo Masters 1000

Play has commenced at the Monte Carlo Masters 1000, home to the prettiest centre court on tour. Sadly, no new player will be claiming this title, given that Rafael Nadal has won it every year since 1973, and will go on winning it until the sun explodes. He stepped off the plane to an audience with Price Albert, whereupon they rehearsed their comedy routine for the trophy presentation, and wondered aloud why the other players even turn up. Djokovic and Soderling got the hint, and pulled out. Federer has lost to Nadal here about as much as he’s lost to him everywhere else, but figures he’s due a win: the sin of pride.

The sporadically diverting sideshow of who will get to be runner up is already under way. Results so far have been patchy. A newly shorn Ernests Gulbis saw off an ailing Alexandr Dolgopolov in short order, while Philip Kohlschreiber took his typical three sets to dispose of Andrei Golubev. Battered, he’s earned an hour with Federer in the second round. Meanwhile, Milos Raonic and Michael Llodra fought out one of the weirdest matches of the year, which is adequately summed up by the scoreline: 6/3 0/6 6/0. The momentum shift at the set break is amongst the strangest phenomena in tennis, although in this case the shift actually occurred with Raonic serving at 0-40 in the opening game of the third. You don’t have to be Llodra to lose from this position, but it helps. Another game for Milos, apparently.

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