Subtle Iterations

US Open, First Round

Gulbis d. (16) Youzhny, 6/2 6/4 6/4

Ernests Gulbis today won just his second set at Grand Slam level since Wimbledon 2009. Apparently delighted by the sensation, he then won his third and fourth, which proved to be the requisite number to claim the match, although he could be forgiven for not knowing this in advance. It has been a while. He played with considerable poise throughout, saving all ten breakpoints, and never reverted to the sardonic slump that usually defines his wins and losses. It is arguable just how much of the Latvian’s resurgence can be laid at the feet of his new coach Guillermo Canas, but it has surely helped. Perhaps maturity also played its part: today was his 23rd birthday.

Meanwhile, his 29-year-old opponent Mikhail Youzhny didn’t win any sets, which turned out to be a decisive factor in not winning the match. He hasn’t won much lately. Youzhny reached the semifinals of the US Open last year, and by leaving the tournament so early will amply demonstrate the importance of maintaining a diverse portfolio of points. When your ranking is composed of just a few big point hauls, a bad day means disaster. Failing to defend last year’s semifinal will see the Colonel shed about a third of his points, and he will likely leave the top No.30. Given the way he has played this year, that unfortunately feels about right.

(2) Nadal d. Golubev, 6/3 7/6 7/5

Later on Andrei Golubev demonstrated to everyone’s satisfaction – especially Rafael Nadal’s – that his ability to achieve set points is exceeded only by his determination not to win them. It goes some way towards explaining how so talented a ball-striker – ‘tremendous’ according to Lleyton Hewitt – can lose 18 matches in a row. As ever he struck fabulous winners off both wings, teed off on Nadal’s second serve and ran the defending champion ragged. But he never once managed to do it on the most important points. Nadal watched on warily, understandably curious to see how it would all work out.

It worked out that all three sets subtly iterated on a single theme, which was of Golubev gaining an early break, viciously wresting momentum from a strangely-passive world No.2, and then emphatically failing to capitalise. Within these fairly strict parameters he achieved some striking variation, such as blowing seven set points in the second set – including 40-0 on his own serve – and gaining a 5/2 lead in the third. For added spice, there were also meltdowns and a sustained tirade against Carlos Ramos that roamed across several Romance languages. It was terrific entertainment, and Nadal had the best view in the house. Patiently awaiting Golubev’s inevitable self-destruction, I could say that Nadal knew something we didn’t, but really, everyone knew it already.

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