When Only Gods Remain

Miami Masters, Third Round

Dimitrov d. (7) Berdych, 6/3 2/6 6/4

Unlike last year, when Miami suffered a minor Götterdämmerung that saw handfuls of lesser deities cut down in the early going, the divine ranks have this year held together remarkably well. Only three of the top thirty-two – Feliciano Lopez, Marcel Granollers and Juan Ignacio Chela – failed to reach the third round. However, having devoured the last of the mortals, it was inevitable that the gods would turn on each other, and that the greater powers would now feast on the lesser. When only gods remain, the weakest of them are fated to perish.

The exception, in so many ways, is Tomas Berdych. If he’s a god, then he is a deus ex machina, in the literal sense, although today, conveniently, he fulfilled that role in the dramatic sense as well, providing the plot contrivance whereby the stalled saga of Grigor Dimitrov might be permitted to develop. It hardly needs saying that Dimitrov’s story has been in sore need of a kick-start. His biggest win this year came at the Hopman Cup against Mardy Fish, which used to feel like a big deal. Unfortunately, the Hopman Cup lacks any ATP affiliation, and this performance was therefore of no use to his ranking, which has recently slipped back outside the top hundred. By reaching the fourth round in Miami, Dimitrov will rise to somewhere around No.85.  His humanity is evident in his smile and his infinite capacity to err, and for now he remains the only mortal to reach the Miami fourth round.

Today’s victory over Berdych is also Dimitrov’s first official win over a top ten player. There is a fervent hope among his followers that it is the break-through long anticipated, not to say prophesised. It certainly felt ordained, as though he couldn’t actually lose, no matter how many times he double-faulted – nine in all – or fell over, or generally faffed about. Berdych was having none of it, and went about his assigned task of becoming the Bulgarian’s break-through win with what might be termed single-mindedness, if it wasn’t so clearly a case of errant code producing a self-defeating feedback loop, a very crappy ghost in the machine. Last week the Czech was bagelled by Nicolas Almagro. It’s past time he was recalled to Ostrava for urgent maintenance from his team of Tengineers.

(Incidentally, doesn’t The Tengineers of Ostrava sound like a light opera from the nineteenth century, by Lehar or, more appropriately, Smetana? Imagine lots of twee ensemble pieces about building the perfect tennis robot. Talk about rich comedic potential. Unfortunately, a visit to Wikipedia has revealed that idyllic Ostrava is an industrial dump, among the most polluted cities in the EU, and that it was dubbed during the communist era, with typical whimsy, ‘the steel heart of the republic’. I now envisage a more avant-garde operatic treatment for Berdych, perhaps a constructivist take on The Golem. But I digress.)

(2) Nadal d. (25) Stepanek, 6/2 6/2

Speaking of golems, Radek Stepanek was due on court later that day, destined to provide no more than a light snack for Rafael Nadal, who’d barely whetted his appetite on Santiago Giraldo the round before. I’m sure both men were ravenous by the time they arrived in a main stadium from which Ana Ivanovic and Daniela Hantuchova had systematically drained all energy, via a match conducted at spectacularly low intensity. I’ve already remarked that the Miami crowd won’t rouse itself for anyone that isn’t from Latin America or the United States (Rafa and Roger excepted), but you’d think at least the men would find something in a match between two renowned beauties who’d taken the time to coordinate their outfits perfectly. Alas, no.

As the second set tiebreak ground down to match point, the crowd began gradually to rouse itself, their fitful yawns combining with the frantic gurgles of those sleep apnoea sufferers still trapped in slumber. The lucky few that woke in time saw Ivanovic seal the match with a mighty forehand winner, and might have felt a moment’s regret at the match they had just slept through. I’m happy to put their minds at ease, and reassure them that they hadn’t missed anything. The 17 points before that were all decided by unforced errors.  I only wish I was exaggerating.

Radek Stepanek was the oldest man remaining in the Miami draw, which is saying something, given the weary antiquity of the current top fifty. I would say he was evergreen, if he didn’t so closely resemble an old tree-root. Still, he’s very fit, and a dangerous prospect for many. The immense variety in his game means that Stepanek has a number of decisions to make when facing Nadal. Should he hang back and attempt to rally with the world No.2, and therefore lose fairly quickly? Or does he rush the net, get passed constantly, and lose very quickly? Decisions, decisions . . .

Through the first five games, he opted to trade ground-strokes, often successfully, and generally to the Nadal backhand, which was patchy. Any shot into the open court was followed in. This pattern lasted for almost five games, until Stepanek fought to break point on Nadal’s serve. The Czech built his attack thoughtfully, and worked his way forward with a scathing combination of strokes, ending with a backhand up the line. Nadal sprinted to his right, and nailed the backhand pass. From there, it didn’t matter much what Stepanek did. Nadal took firm control of a match that had really been so unlosable that even he could probably admit it, if questioned under duress. The Spaniard won the next seven games, and the last couple. Some of his passing shots, especially on the forehand and especially on the run, were magnificent.

I am consistently amazed at Nadal’s accuracy when catching the ball off-centre (slow motion replays attest to it). The Babolat AeroPro Drive GT is admittedly generous in this respect – I use this frame myself, and the sweet-spot is immense – but it is still remarkable, especially given the work he puts on the ball. (Regrettably Robbie Koenig was not on hand to talk us through the RPM graphics that flashed up on screen.) The most prodigious shot of the match was a darting forehand pass, struck at the full stretch, that he curled off the outer part of the strings (I doubt it would have been possible if he tried for the centre), that curved up and over and in. The crowd loved it. Stepanek, hopefully, learned a valuable lesson: if you approach to the Nadal forehand, and you’re certain it’ll be a clean winner, you’re wrong.

Kiss Cam strove but sadly failed to add much to proceedings. It didn’t help that through the early rounds Miami has lacked the star power of Indian Wells, which was always going to be the case since famous people notoriously prefer deserts to swamps (I think David Attenborough covered this in an episode of Life on Earth). I only bring this up because of an incident back in California, in which Kiss Cam allowed Ben Stiller  to prove the maxim that celebrities are better than normal people, as he lunged without hesitation past his wife and kissed the lady next to her. He has kind of ruined it for everyone else.


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