Peaking at the Right Time

Nice, Final

(3) Almagro d. (Q) Baker, 6/3 6/2

Nicolas Almagro today defeated Brian Baker in the final of the Open de Nice Côte d’Azur, thereby defending his title, and ruining the best feel-good story the sport has known in years. He did it quite emphatically, with a magnificent display of serving, immense skills off the ground, and a complexion worthy of a skin-cream commercial. He was (groan-inducingly) without blemish. He was also a clear cut above his opponent today, and clearly superior to anyone Baker has faced en route to the final. Characteristically, Almagro has peaked at precisely the right time, the week before a Major.

The same might be said of Baker, but in his case there’s really so little data to go on that we’d be making an assumption. He has played eight matches in the last week and a bit, and many of them were close. Perhaps, for him, this is an ideal preparation. His physical history suggests otherwise, I suppose. It suggests that one tournament every seven years is about the sweet spot. At least today’s match wasn’t overly long, and, mercifully, the French Open has given him tomorrow off.

Still, if the final wasn’t long, it was closer than the scoreline suggests. Many of the game went to deuce. It’s true that most of those occurred when Baker was serving, but at least he didn’t go down easily. They were often followed by an Almagro service game lasting about a minute, Federer-style. The stream I was watching was the best I could find, but it still didn’t permit me to follow the ball on first serves. Perhaps if the court had been blue . . .  It turns out the Côte is azure everywhere but where it matters. As I say, Almagro served tremendously, and my stream was good enough to register him roll his arm over, the crowd volume to rise, and Baker to trudge to the other side a few times, and then to his chair. In lieu of a definitive first serve of his own, Baker’s game relies heavily on his capacity to break, and Almagro took that away from him. I am not alone in wondering what this will mean when the American encounters more fearsome servers on a faster court.

The upshot was the Almagro was hoisting the ‘trophy’ in a touch under seventy minutes. Unlike last year, I believe the points from this title – his twelfth – will actually count towards his ranking. In a few days he will face Paolo Lorenzi in the first round of the French Open. It’s hard to imagine how Almagro will blow a two set lead to the likeable Italian veteran, but luckily it’s not my job to organise it, merely to witness it unfold. The malign sprites that cursed Nice are not to be trifled with, and Almagro has thumbed his pimple-free nose at them twice too often. It will not stand.

World Team Cup, Final

Tipsarevic d. Berdych, 7/5 7/6

Troicki d. Stepanek, 2/6 6/4 6/3

To the vexing question of what the Davis Cup would look like if it was played in a single week – assuming that single week fell directly before Roland Garros, and it was contested at a modest venue in western Germany – the answer has always been Düsseldorf’s World Team Cup. For over 30 years, eight teams have fought valiantly for the right to be declared the most exhausted as they head to the French Open. Offsetting this slightly, the event is sponsored by Power Horse, who, it turns out, make some kind of equine-themed energy drink, and (disappointingly) do not manufacture outboard motors, at least according to their corporate literature. Serbia has now won the World Team Cup for the second time.

In the final they defeated the Czech Republic, granting the Czechs valuable experience in losing national team-based tennis events on clay, since they are travelling to Argentina for the Davis Cup in a few months. It is also revenge of sorts, since the Czechs saw off the Serbs in a spiteful Davis Cup tie in Prague a few months ago. We could therefore say there was a lot riding on this outcome. We would therefore be wrong.

Still, the Serbs were quite emphatic in their victory, which included glorious triumph in both singles rubbers. In the first, Janko Tipsarevic saw off Tomas Berdych in straight sets, although the effect was rather ruined when one of them wasn’t a tiebreak. These two have history in this area (again, see Prague). It was reasonably tight, but I don’t want to give the impression that its intensity was excessive. It felt like a hotly contested exhibition match, rather like Kooyong the week before the Australian Open. Berdych didn’t look too distraught afterwards, certainly less so than in Madrid a few weeks back.

The key difference between Düsseldorf and other warm-up-type events is that, for whatever ill-defined reason, the World Team Cup is sanctioned by the ATP, and therefore awards ranking points – at a rate unique to itself – and the match results count on the official record. Given this official imprimatur, I wonder if the results therefore carry more weight in the players’ minds. Does Tipsarevic feel more satisfaction at this win over Berdych than if it had occurred at, say Abu Dhabi back in January?

Actually, Tipsarevic is the wrong example. No one has been more fired up than him this week. His celebrations upon beating Philipp Kohlschreiber yesterday – from what I saw, the match of the week – were roughly commensurate with reaching a major semifinal. His celebrations upon beating Berdych were similar, but he topped this easily when Viktor Troicki clinched the title, leaping onto his team-mate’s back. It certainly felt like Davis Cup, especially when Radek Stepanek was left idling at the net without a hand to shake, evoking tense memories of that soulless barn in Prague. It was all innocent enough, though, under the complicated Rhineland sun.

Side note: Adidas have revamped their design and colour-schemes. Fernando Verdasco, typically, is incarnating the new look, to manful effect. I believe this means that no one has to wear toxic orange any more. Those still wearing it are therefore wearing it by choice.

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