Skewed Straight Sets

Australian Open, Second Round (Day Three)

Presumably everyone who cares to know is already exhausted by the unfolding brouhaha between the world’s finest male tennis players and the sport’s governing bodies. The salient issues include the excessive length of the season, scheduling, prize money, the Davis Cup, Mike Bryan’s volleyball court, and Rafael Nadal’s concern that his tennis career might adversely impact his recreational holidays in years to come.* I think there might be a butler strike looming, as well. The men held a spirited meeting last Saturday, and apparently decided that the best way to air their demands would be to combine them all into one phenomenally garbled message, and then have random players essay conflicting announcements whenever they felt like it. Those for whom English is a second language were encouraged to speak first and loudest. There was, briefly, talk of a player’s strike, although this did not eventuate. Instead, through two days of criminal heat at Melbourne Park, the players chose to express their solidarity by killing each other in as many five set marathons as possible. I suppose it could have been worse. It could have been interpretive dance.

The rage, like the weather, had apparently cooled by the time the second round got underway this morning, although it warmed to a white heat as the day wore on. The early going saw most winners move through in straight sets, although the matches were as skewed as straight sets can be. By the evening however, our heroes had rewarmed to the task of pulverising each other. Nalbandian almost pulverised the umpire. It looked like a lot of work, and I’m amazed they haven’t demanded better recompense, or shorter hours.

Falla d. (8) Fish, 7/6 6/3 7/6

The only certainties, as Mardy Fish whined, slouched and ultimately collapsed in straight sets on Court Three today, were that he would later complain about Alejandro Falla’s constant recourse to the trainer in the final set, and that the tiresome puns on both player’s names would flow. ‘Fish was not on Falla today!’ ran one, like literary diarrhoea. There are times when it’s hard to be disappointed enough in your fellow man.

Fish’s post-match interview was predictably dominated by an awkward discussion of the rules and etiquette surrounding cramps and the treatment thereof, although to be fair to Fish, he was only answering questions as they came at him. It was the journalists who couldn’t let it go, although that didn’t deter most of them from writing it up as a cautionary tale of sour grapes. (Think back to Wimbledon 2010, when Federer carelessly mentioned a back injury. He then spent the remainder of the presser fielding follow-up questions, with the result that he was accused of giving his opponent too little credit.) To his credit, Fish conceded that he didn’t lose because Falla received some rubs during the changeovers. No, he lost because he couldn’t get over the fact that Falla received some rubs during the changeovers.There is a difference; the gap in which Fish so often loses himself. ‘I’m only human,’ he explained afterwards.

In keeping with the new solidarity, neither man would reveal what was uttered at the sour handshake.

(2) Nadal d. Haas, 6/4 6/3 6/4

Initially Tommy Haas’ encounter with Nadal felt like a tragic mismatch, as though the German had brought a knife to a gunfight, or deployed light-cavalry against a full Panzer division. Here was a former world No.2 against the current No.2, and it was a clear case of mortality writ large, an indication of the degree to which the epoch has shifted. At 4/0 down, the story was practically writing itself. This was a shame for Haas, but I wasn’t about to turn down so clear an invitation to unleash any number of worn clichés.

Then, Haas held. A patronising mutter rippled around Rod Laver Arena. Good for him! He soon broke Nadal, then held, then broke again. The staggered mutters joined up into a perpetual buzz. Haas moved to yet another break point at 4/5. Nadal unloaded three big serves to salvage the set, but it was a close run thing. The knife-fighter had transformed the duel, by closing and grappling. My lazy write-up took a turn for the onerous.

Haas had turned it around with a sudden and frankly unlikely strategic adjustment. He began to loft junk-balls at Nadal’s backhand, and the Spaniard, whose backhand will sometimes run hot but can lose shape in a true crucible, began to miss.  This disrupted his entire game. The issue, sadly, was that this is not Haas’ natural game, and he has always been prodigiously impatient. The German’s focus cracked at the start of the second set, and Nadal rode the single break to the end. Haas surged ahead for a time in the third, but it was destined not to last.

Afterwards, as Spidercam swooped in gaily, the players clasped hands warmly, exchanging endearments. Nadal applauded as the crowd was invited to appreciate Haas’ effort. The effect was immensely valedictory. Haas removed his shirt and threw it to a girl in the crowd, facilitating one young lady’s life-long dream of being doused in his sweat.


*To be fair, Mike Bryan’s volley ball court issue is not the full extent of his complaints: he doesn’t have enough time to enjoy his new swimming pool, either. When Steve at dared poke fun at this, he was summarily branded a ‘hater’ by Alex Bogomolov Jr., a senselessly ad hominem epithet too readily levelled at anyone who dares disagree with you.

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