One Enchanted Evening

Barcelona and Bucharest, Second and Third Rounds

There was good tennis to be had today in Barcelona, Bucharest and elsewhere, although having spent frustrating hours in the fruitless pursuit of it, my firsthand knowledge is limited. Nevertheless, I discovered vestiges everywhere, traces evident in still-restive crowds and the detritus of tightly fought tiebreaks. Yet whenever I felt myself growing near, the trail went cold. We’ve all had night’s like these, when everyone just wants to go home to bed, but you all stay out anyway, desperately searching for a good time, until, by 4.30am, you’re barely surviving an unsolicited lap-dance from a West Papuan highlander.

The upset of the round was Milos Raonic’s straight sets rumbling of Nicolas Almagro, which I tuned into just in time to see the Canadian gathering up his things from the Pista Central, under the watchful gaze of that rakishly-tilted Volkswagen, perched at one end of the court. It had, apparently, been a mighty effort by the Canadian, against an eternally disappointing opponent who may or not have been injured.

Wasting only a few moments on the usual uneasy contemplation of Raonic’s strange proportions and alarming resemblance to Moe Szyslak, I switched streams for Bucharest, where my dark-horse pick Cedric-Marcel Stebe was emphatically failing to beat Andreas Seppi, in spite of the latter’s superior ranking and far greater experience. Stebe has yet to claim consecutive wins on the tour this year, but his time will come. Then watch out. There will be consecutive wins all over the place.

I remained in Romania for the nonce, a deft change of courts delivering me to the cloying embrace of Fabio Fognini, who had thoughtfully coordinated his outfit with his opponent Marcos Baghdatis, and then spotted the Cypriot a break in the opening set, before roaring back to take it 7/5. It was thrilling, apparently. The Fog was fearless, the way Baghdatis used to be. There were allegedly torrents of winners. I saw none of it. They were well into the second set by the time I happened along, and the winners, sadly, had slowed to a fitful trickle. Eventually the players arrived at the point of the set where double faults become crucial. Every game saw one or the other play come within two points of the set or the match.

A tip off on Twitter suggested that Kei Nishikori and Albert Ramos were doing good things. With little reluctance, I tore myself away from Bucharest, and returned to Barcelona. Either the tip was incorrect – a mislead – or the protagonists had worked the initial excitement out of their systems. Nishikori was up a set and break. This of course is not an impregnable position, and so Nishikori set about fortifying it, ever so slowly, with an additional break. Ramos was mostly powerless to stop him.

I’d committed a tactical error. Back in Bucharest, Fognini apparently finished off Baghdatis with a tremendous tiebreak, belting winners everywhere. I must have been something to see. Anything would have been something to see. It all became a bit of a blur by that point, the way all good benders tend to once the witching hour arrives. Somehow I found myself in Taiwan, watching the Kaohsiung Challenger. My mouth felt carpeted. Amir Weintraub was facing the top seed Yen-Hsun Lu, and acquitting himself admirably, insofar as his error quota – though large – barely exceeded his opponent’s. After the extended clay rallies, these quick-fire hardcourt points were startlingly brief. I momentarily perked up. Points were concluded after they’d barely begun, mostly when the returner’s shot landed beyond the confines of the court. Lu took the first set, but I fancied Weintraub’s chances. I hadn’t watched him since qualifying at the Australian Open, and he was playing better than that. He lost.

A return to Barcelona revealed Andy Murray thrashing Santiago Giraldo. There is often a great deal of pleasure to be gained from watching a top player dish out a hiding to a lesser one, but Murray can be relied upon to provide the exception. It was as dull as a 6/1 6/2 result can be. Still, it was a pleasure to have Jason Goodall back in the commentary box. Afterwards Ivan Lendl was invited down on to the court, and strove mightily to deliver clichés through the PA system’s excessive reverberation: ‘Andy-dy-dy is taking-ing-ing it one match-atch-atch at a time-ime-ime.’ As a two-time former champion, and a reigning Ivan Lendl, he was presented with a plaque. Albert Costa was there, under the presiding gaze of the impassive Volkswagen: Aus Liebe zum Automobile.

I tarried in Barcelona, now fit for naught but torpid staring. The court was slowly rotating clockwise. Feliciano Lopez beat Jarkko Nieminen handily. The Spanish commentators, whose smug bonhomie had grown muted following Almagro’s upset, were back in full song. And with good reason: Rafael Nadal was up next, his stately procession to the title scheduled to continue. But it’s only stately because they insist on making him wait a day in between matches. The whole thing would be over much sooner if they allowed him to play all five matches consecutively. Today’s victim was Robert Farah, a Columbian ranked somewhere in the 240s. Goodall declared Farah to be a doubles specialist, and I suppose, compared to singles, he is. This was the pair’s first meeting. It is a contractual obligation for players and their fans to overstate the degree of difficulty that facing an opponent for the first time entails. But I can’t imagine how unusual a new player’s game would have to be for it to trouble Nadal on clay. Safin’s power, combined with Raonic’s serve and Santoro’s finesse? There’s a reason guys like that aren’t ranked No.242.

Having said all of that, Farah won’t be ranked there for long. His results this week alone will propel him up to No.208. He is also a decent player, and based on today’s effort it isn’t any stretch to see how he beat Pablo Andujar in the previous round. He has power to burn on the first serve, and a fine backhand. He pressed Nadal closely at times today, and even broke him at the start of the second set. Nadal, naturally, hit some excellent forehands, especially on the run, and especially passes.

It was now very late, and through the haze I noted the burly Papuan in the corner eyeing me off worryingly. Fernando Verdasco and David Ferrer won easily, although in my final desperation I’d already fled back to Bucharest, figuring that nothing untoward could befall me in the former Eastern Bloc. Gilles Simon was handling Dudi Sela with ease. Gratifyingly, he has retained the assertive style he unleashed on Nadal in the Monte Carlo semifinals. Unfortunately for Sela, this meant losing rapidly, rather than eventually, which is Simon’s traditional timeframe. Still, it wasn’t enough to save my evening. As the weight descended onto my legs, I felt myself go under.

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