A Profane Space

Madrid Masters, Semifinals

(3) Federer d. (7) Tipsarevic, 6/2 6/3

To the extravagant array of trying conditions already prevailing at the Madrid Masters, today’s second semifinal added a fitful and swirling breeze. Roger Federer was already favoured to win, and, while he surely doesn’t like playing in the wind, he has demonstrated time and again his ability to cope with it better than anyone else. The most recent example of this was of course the Indian Wells semifinal, but another match worth recalling is the US Open quarterfinal in 2010, in which he served as though unruffled by the merest zephyr, while Robin Soderling was blown away.

Returning to today, Janko Tipsarevic didn’t cope especially well, either, especially in the early going, when Federer was utterly dominant. Tipsarevic found just two points on Federer’s serve in the opening set, and both of those were double faults. The Serb picked it up in the second, although not sufficiently to deny Federer an early break, sealed with a screaming forehand return winner. There was a lone break-back point, though Tipsarevic’s gallant backhand up the line was just long. It’s possible that the result might have been different had it landed in, but not terribly likely.

(6) Berdych d. (10) Del Potro, 7/6 7/6

Some hours earlier, Tomas Berdych and Juan Martin del Potro fought out a terrific match, in which the former’s serve and the latter’s forehand combined to send the winner count into the heavens, hardly weighed down by a modest ballast of unforced errors. This was attacking, uncompromising tennis at its best. And yet, there was tremendous variety here, too. Del Potro several times demonstrated a feathery touch –  via drop shots and some slices cunningly dipped at the feet of the approaching Berdych – in addition to excellent defence. Berdych landed numerous blows with his crosscourt forehand, and, as expected, his determination to move forward was generally decisive. Ultimately, the outcome was decided by a few points, and these, unfortunately, were decided by del Potro’s mental state, which at key moments grew fissured.

There have been several moments recently when the famously unflappable del Potro has flapped, a tendency that I have failed to reconcile metaphorically with his commonly-applied sobriquet, which is the Tower of Tandil. (Indeed, all nicknames based on buildings run into serious problems when applied to anyone excelling in a sport more vigorous than golf.) Cast your mind back to the Indian Wells quarterfinal, when his early challenge was disallowed due to a Hawkeye glitch, initiating a frustrated slump that endured for the entire fist set. Today he allowed two calls to get to him. The more crucial of these came late in the match, at 6-6 in the second set tiebreak, and thus didn’t affect him for long. A wide del Potro serve to the deuce court was signalled in, Berdych indicated that it was wide, and the umpire Mohamed el Jennati confirmed it, even if it was only by an inch. The Argentine was deeply unimpressed at this, and lost the subsequent point with a soft backhand error, which brought up another match point for Berdych. He took this, via one of those seemingly unremarkable rallies that nonetheless reveal the Czech’s mastery of the surface: every shot was made to count, and allowed him to move further up into the court, until he finished it off with an overhead. He thrust his arms aloft, then clenched his fist. This one meant a lot.

Del Potro declined to shake the umpire’s hand, instead waving a forefinger in his face. For millions of viewers around the world, Hawkeye had already confirmed that the umpire had been correct on both overrules. Given how incensed he was upon losing, it isn’t unlikely that del Potro has confirmed this for himself afterwards. Certainly he shouldn’t have allowed himself to grow so disaffected at the time, but, really, having Hawkeye available on the court would have cleared it up immediately. There are those that insist that it isn’t necessary on a clay court, since there is already a traditional mechanism by which close calls can be checked. The inexactitude of the mechanism – the umpire lumbers down from his or her chair, scurries across the court, and then debates the player over the correct mark – is naturally part of its old world charm. Traditions should not be frivolously cast aside, and I suppose it would be regrettable if such an amazing spectacle was lost. But if we cannot discard tradition in the Caja Magica, where it has been long-decreed that anything is possible (aside from guaranteed footing for the players), then where? The Box is a virtual abattoir for sacred cows.

Ironically, given its postmodern presumptions, Madrid also has history in this area. Exactly one year ago, in the semifinals of this very event, Federer sparred at embarrassing length with Mohamed Lahyani about a disputed mark on the court, well beyond the moment when the global audience had seen the umpire’s decision proved correct. Of course, being Federer, there’s no reason to believe he would have accepted a Hawkeye ruling either, but I think the point stands. Clay courts need Hawkeye less than other surfaces, but it would still help. It would have helped del Potro today – if only to be more sanguine in his loss – unless, as in California, it proved faulty. Then he really would have blown his top. The Tower would prove to be an ICBM silo. The only thing more aggravating than a lack of technology is when it doesn’t work, thereby betraying the hallowed covenant between machine and man.

Which brings me neatly back to Berdych. Tomorrow he will contest only his third Masters Series final, hoping to capture his second title at this level. The first came in Bercy, back in 2005, a year in which he was the only man other than Federer or Rafael Nadal to win one. 2005 is in some ways an instructive season to look at, and offers a useful reminder to those who gripe that the top four now win nearly everything. Back then, the top two won nearly everything, with only Safin (Australian Open) and Nalbandian (Masters Cup) willing or able to spoil the party. Anyway, Berdych will be attempting to become just the second man outside the top four to win a Masters event in over two years. By reaching the final Berdych has already overtaken David Ferrer in the rankings. If he wins it, he will close on Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at No.5.

Of course, if Federer wins he will move to No.2 ahead of Nadal, which could have profound ramifications for the draw at Roland Garros, although there is no point going into this unless it comes to pass. Even if he loses, there are a number of entirely possible scenarios whereby the move could occur in Rome next week. He will also be seeking to claim his 20th Masters title, putting him back level with Nadal atop the leader board.


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