A Magic Box of Chocolates

Madrid Masters, First Round

(12) Monfils d. Kohlschreiber, 7/5 6/7 6/3

Gael Monfils this afternoon defeated Philipp Kohlschreiber in a fine match in the first round of the Madrid Masters, and afterwards failed to label the court the worst in the universe. It might not have been the best match played today, but this feature alone renders it unique.

Madrid’s blue court controversy has proved, to my satisfaction if no one else’s, that the vast majority of pundits prefer to talk about anything other than actual tennis given half a chance. Even last week, with three tour level events conducted on red dirt, Madrid dominated the headlines (exceeding even the requisite quota of articles about Nadal, Federer and Djokovic, none of whom were actually playing). Thankfully, Madrid has started. Admittedly, all the chatter is still about the courts, but at least there are now people playing on them.

Upon completing their matches, few of those players showed restraint in criticising the surface. Winners and losers were united in this. Novak Djokovic was particularly incensed after his scrappy three set win over Daniel Gimeno-Traver. Stan Wawrinka declared it to be the worst court he’d ever played on. Sergei Stakhovsky got in early with his complaints, and then got out immediately by folding to Ryan Harrison, who’d earlier risked serious harm by declaring the blue clay ‘awesome’, although the fatwa was later called off on appeal. He was still a teenager, after all.

I’m past trying to conceal my bafflement that so many people care this much about the colour of a tennis court. Perhaps I’m biased in this area: I don’t care at all. But the sorry state of the surface is a different matter entirely, although the tendency, inevitably, has been to conflate the colour change with the inadequacy of the court’s preparation. There was presumably no way this could be avoided.

The word is that Madrid is playing fast, and from my vantage on the far side of the planet this seems to be the case. But Madrid always plays fast, although Nadal and Djokovic proved three years ago that no court is quick enough when two guys are determined to spend all day on it. The balls are light, and the air is thin. It is usually quite slippery, too, but this year the slipperiness has seemingly gone beyond inconvenience, and become distracting, if not downright perilous. No one has hurt themselves yet, but you may rest assured that the first injury will sound the death knell for blue clay, in much the same way that pot hole in Monte Carlo didn’t prove how lethal the red stuff is.

Anyway, back to Monfils and Kohlschreiber. The German, fresh from his BMW acquisition in Bavaria, shot out to an early lead, hustling Monfils all over the court for the first seven games. For a small guy, he can generate tremendous pace. Monfils can generate even more, but all too often, and for entirely private reasons, he prefers not to. The Frenchman seemed distracted, and ended that seventh game by marching through the return and perfunctorily swatting the ball away. Something was up, clearly. Whatever it was – an issue with his shoes was suggested – he apparently fixed it at the changeover.  He came out flaying the ball the way a succession of coaches have insisted he should. A quick hold to love, and it fell to Kohlschreiber to serve for the set. A pair of set points turned up, begging, but were mercilessly shooed away. Monfils broke, held, and broke again for the set. From 2/5, he’d won five straight games. Most of the rallies ended with a Monfils winner, and no two were alike. Kohlschreiber, forlorn, barely had time to wonder what he’d done wrong. The answer was nothing.

For Monfils it was reminiscent of Doha, where he belted Rafael Nadal from the court. The issue is that he then stops playing like this, for no reason, and certainly not because his form wanes. An effective game plan is abandoned whimsically, and the fact that it allows him to win tennis matches appears to be insufficient incentive to stick with it. Having taken the set, Monfils set about retreating back into his shell. Once again, he was broken to open the set. Outrageous winners gave way to nip and tuck. Somehow, the second set reprised the first perfectly. Kohlschreiber moved to 5/2, and Monfils held. The German served for the set, and was again broken. It was quite eerie. He looked mesmerised. With a mighty effort, he shook himself free, and limped to a tiebreak. Monfils retreated from passivity into ineptitude at this point, and Kohlschreiber stepped in and took control, although Monfils produced the highlight of the day with an outrageous tweener volley off a ripped return.

The third set was cagier still. Until 3/3 all was finely balanced, and a tight finish appeared inevitable. The tension mounted. Then Monfils won twelve straight points and the match was over. Sometimes, you just don’t know what you’re going to get.

Raonic d. Nalbandian, 6/4 6/4

Milos Raonic was already proving this on an adjacent court, as he quickly set about transfiguring the day’s most anticipated match into a largely foregone conclusion. David Nalbandian was by no means at his best, but he would have needed to be pretty close for it to have mattered much. Raonic served 16 aces, and lost zero points on his first serve. But he also won 62% of points against Nalbandian’s second serve, due to an eagerness to spank any forehand he could lay his racquet on, and a calm assurance once rallies got under way. As with Monfils, there was just no way of knowing what was coming. One point might steam along steadily, while on the next Raonic might belt a backhand winner at the outset. Nalbandian, already frazzled by the impenetrability of the Canadian’s service games, grew desperate and ornery. He tossed his racquet about a bit, but it didn’t help.

Raonic will play Federer tomorrow night, in the latter’s first match on the popularly-reviled blue clay, and on court Manolo Santana, which Djokovic insists is frustratingly unlike the outer practice courts. We’ve been hearing all week how dangerous the opening match is for a top player, although this was mostly applied to Nikolay Davydenko and Nadal, which I cannot see being close. There is no conceivable mechanism by which Federer’s opener could be more difficult. If this was sufficiently clear when the draw was set free last week, the calmness and completeness with which Raonic today saw off Nalbandian has made it crystalline.

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