A Question of Experience

Australian Open, Third Round (Day Six)

Hewitt d. (23) Raonic, 4/6 6/3 7/6 7/3

There are moments when Jim Courier’s urge to turn a phrase trumps his faltering inspiration, and leads him inexorably into verbiage, if not downright garbiage. “Hello, Mr Momentum. Welcome to Lleyton Street!” he intoned during last night’s match, an utterance so transcendentally naff that it saw him briefly trend on Twitter. Channel 7 viewers will put up with a lot – even the execrable promos for upcoming shows are now broadly tolerated – but it turns out there are limits. I hasten to add that Courier for the most part performs his task adequately if not admirably, and that he was otherwise correct: momentum had swung Hewitt’s way.

It certainly needed to. Raonic – who may or may not live on Milos Street – had already spent a set justifying the constant comparisons to Pete Sampras. The serve was unassailable, and the forehand compelling. Mostly it compelled Hewitt to run. Coupled with effortless power – even on the backhand – a comparison to Marat Safin seemed equally as appropriate. Luckily for Hewitt, he has spent a long career facing those guys, and more or less knew what to do. It became a question of experience, which the Australian has in spades.

As the match unfolded, and Hewitt welcomed Mr Momentum into his home as a prelude to drugging him and chaining him up in the basement, the increasing impotency of Raonic’s first serve became obvious. He was landing barely half of them, and winning fewer of the resulting points than he would have hoped to. Courier was also asked how much credit Hewitt could take for this, to which the American quickly responded ‘all of it’. He then said it again, at some length, lest we at home had somehow misunderstood. But was he correct? I suspect Raonic’s substandard serving owed at least as much to conditions and context, which includes his opponent but certainly isn’t limited to him.

The key environmental issue for a serve such as Raonic’s is not the pace of the court – and Rod Laver Arena’s is about medium in the scheme of things – but the speed of the balls and air. The Plexicushion surface at Melbourne Park has a rough, grippy top layer – it’s quite abrasive to the touch – which results in it taking a lot of spin, and in the balls fluffing up very quickly. As the balls reach the end of their life cycle (nine games), they grow perceptibly slower, an effect that is further exaggerated in an inexperienced player’s mind. Ball changes generally produce a marked acceleration in play. Abetting this effect, the air at night is slower (through being cooler), although it was not humid.

With all of that being said, these various forces when combined actually result in only a marginal impact on a serve such as Raonic’s. It slows down a little, but coupled with his height and spin it remains fearsome, and more than capable of performing its assigned task, which is that of a sustained artillery salvo. More telling is the psychological effect of playing in these conditions, particularly for an inexperienced guy with plenty on his mind. This was his first match on a centre court at a Major, played in prime time against the local favourite. Hewitt is also a crafty veteran, doing all he could to exploit any weakness he could discover in Raonic’s game.  The Australian was especially sturdy when returning Raonic’s second serve, and was even winning his share of points when the first serve landed (almost a quarter of them).

Under sufficient pressure, minor issues are magnified. To Raonic, blinking in prime-time lights, it would have felt like he was fighting the medium itself, like running into a headwind. The upshot was that he began to over-hit his first serve, and miss. This explains how even in ‘slower’ conditions he posted the fastest serves yet seen in the tournament – topping out at 228km/h – but only served at 53%. Last year he averaged 65% on hard courts across the entire season. Like I said, context matters, too. Adrenaline surely played its part, and the evolving desperation wrought by falling inexorably behind to a proven champion. Too much of this detail is glossed over when pundits suggest that a player just plays badly, as though form is a question of personal preference, or occurs in a vacuum.

Asked in the on-court interview whether he had anticipated reaching the second week at the Australian Open, Hewitt replied that he hadn’t been sure his body would last through one match, and that so far he hadn’t looked beyond any of his opponents. Courier astutely observed that he certainly wouldn’t be looking past his next one, who is Novak Djokovic. Meanwhile Bernard Tomic tonight plays Roger Federer. The Australians may have detained Mr Momentum for a time, but I suspect Mr Reality is about to pay a visit.

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