Night Thoughts

Australian Open, Second Round (Day Four)

(14) Monfils d. Bellucci, 2/6 6/0 6/4 6/2

Like the unending and infinitely kitsch waltzes of Johann Strauss Jr., which inspire Austrians in Vienna but nausea everywhere else, Henri Leconte’s deranged commentary only really comes into its own when applied to Gael Monfils. It’s a question of context, though like Strauss, Leconte eventually grows onerous even under optimal conditions. Nevertheless, the juxtaposition is revealing, although the interest resides less in anything Leconte has to say, than in how he says it.

The standard word on Monfils, reiterated soporifically, is that he is wasting his talent. (It is a hard word to refute, since the evidence is overwhelming. When he plays the way everyone wants him to – purposefully and assertively – he can match anyone, the top three included.) This ‘fact’ sits at the top of every commentator’s crib sheet, and viewers can depend upon it being covered off during the hit up. A number of subsidiary narratives have coalesced around this central assumption, most notably that of the idiot-savant, and the idea that Monfils continues to play that way he does in spite of constant well-meaning advice to the contrary. The fond belief is that this advice comes at him consistently from all quarters – from accomplished tacticians all the way down to Roger Rasheed, whose wisdom is of the hokey fridge-magnet variety – but that Monfils either will not or cannot take it in.

In general, commentators of an Anglo-persuasion seem more disposed to react to Monfils’ on-court antics with a stern and protestant disapproval. Any admiration they may feel for a gratuitous, slam dunk, topspin lob is immediately tempered by puritanical tut-tutting. We’re a short step away from slapping a PG rating on Monfils’ matches, thereby affording our children’s vulnerable minds at least some protection from the Frenchman’s dissolute influence.

Leconte, however, matches Monfils’ profligate exuberance with an unhinged exuberance of his own. As a Frenchman whose country has produced only one male Slam champion in the Open era, Leconte has as much excuse as anyone for subscribing to the cliché of Monfils as feckless man-child. But he seems happy to enjoy Monfils for what he is, to be caught up in the spectacle, and his disapproval therefore never goes beyond exasperated affection. It suggests that the prevailing belief that Monfils should curtail his showmanship does not prevail everywhere. Leconte may act the buffoon, but he is surely no idiot, and his willingness to appreciate Monfils as he is proves that watching tennis need not always be so serious.

Hewitt d. (15) Roddick, 3/6 6/3 6/4 ret.

On the subject of obvious advice delivered from multiple sources, last night’s abbreviated encounter between Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt plenty to be going on with. Hobbled by a dud hamstring midway through the second set, Roddick’s options for achieving victory were reduced to one, which was to hit through Hewitt and hope for the best. Thus obliged to shorten points, he suddenly played like everybody wants him to, the way he used to. Sadly he couldn’t move any more, and so was unlikely to win or even see out the match, but he hasn’t looked this potent off the ground in years. It proved to my satisfaction that if Roddick would only play like this while able to move freely, he is sufficiently skilled to return to the top ten.

Of course, he won’t do that. Jim Courier made an interesting comment during last night’s call, when he declared that ‘everyone’ has begged Roddick to go after his forehand. We knew that already, but I hadn’t realised that ‘everyone’ included Roddick’s coach Larry Stefanki. At some level, I’d supposed that Roddick’s utterly humourless gameplan was something he and Stefanki had devised between them, though why they then chose to inflict it upon an unhappy world I cannot say.

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