These Desultory Months

Tokyo, Quarterfinals

Murray d. Nalbandian, 6/4 7/5

Beijing, Quarterfinals

Berdych d. Verdasco, 6/1 6/0

Notwithstanding the annual ennui afflicting tennis after the US Open, last year’s Fall Season was, by broad consensus, among the finest ever witnessed. (It is a measure of the cultural cringe pervading the Australian consciousness that I can so casually jot down the previous sentence, even as Spring rapidly uncoils here in Melbourne. Our Christmas may fall in mid-summer, but that doesn’t disqualify it from all the northern hemisphere trimmings, up to and including fake snow and jolly medleys about reindeer.) For whatever reason, the final few months of every tennis season inspire only dull anxiety in the majority of commentators, which this year has been sharpened by the certainty that nothing could match 2010, let alone exceed it. It was shaping up to be a long few months. Following New York, Nadal, Djokovic and Federer were all pretty beaten up, and their absence or under-performance would deprive the Asian Swing of some essential cachet. We may talk all we want about the second tier seizing its opportunity, but the big guns put bums on seats, as they say. When your nation only sees one Tour stop per year, you’d probably rather the second tier made its name elsewhere.

All the same, initial results have been promising. Last week, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur arguably surpassed last year’s events. This week Tokyo and Beijing certainly have. Punctuated by inexplicable blow-outs – Berdych d. Verdasco was exemplary – the tennis has been mostly first rate. Murray and Nadal remain on course for the Tokyo final, and Murray remains on course for the year-end No.3 ranking. The Scot saw off David Nalbandian in the quarterfinals, a match that many anticipated to be close, myself included. It wasn’t especially close, in much the same way Nalbandian’s matches against Federer at Wimbledon and Nadal at the US Open weren’t. There is a psychology thesis waiting to be written on the perennial faith fans show in Nalbandian, even though it is now four years since he did anything truly outstanding. Nonetheless, everyone will talk up the Argentine’s chances in the Davis Cup final, since the fact that he has beaten Nadal before apparently trumps the fact that he hasn’t beaten him recently, and that they will be playing on Spanish clay. Mark my words, the bandwagons will roll out like a Panzer division.

Meanwhile in Beijing, an initial haemorrhaging of seeds has ultimately done the tournament no harm. Tsonga and Berdych will presumably bludgeon each other to death in the first semifinal. Both are playing imposingly well, with the Czech dropping just three games in his last two matches. He dropped serve in the opening game against Verdasco, and set about proving this to be the least indicative start to a match in history, winning the next twelve. Unintentionally hilarious as ever, Verdasco had earlier remarked that “Last year I lost three first rounds during the Asian swing, but my form is [now] like it was in 2009″. Cilic and Ljubicic will meet in the other semifinal, an all-Croatian affair, and a bit of an inter-generational showdown. It would be a nice event for Ljubicic to win, and on the apparently slicker Beijing surface, it is not beyond reason.

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