False Start

This, I will hazard, will be a short post about a week of firsts, and a bad day for Italian men’s tennis. It is rare for me to write anything all the way through from start to finish, but I’m going to give it a go. For one thing I’m still away on holiday, and for another it might be fun. Most of my posts are composed modularly, in such a way that the parts can be flat-packed – thus saving me thousands on transport costs – and then arranged and reassembled at the end. But not today. Today I’m going to start from the beginning and see what comes out. This explains how an introduction like this one came about. Believe me it wasn’t planned.

St Petersburg, Final

(3) Klizan d. (4) Fognini, 6/2 6/3

The firsts this week occurred in St Petersburg, which is has been shunted forward from its traditional position just after the Asian swing, and Metz, which has lurked in this part of the schedule for a few years. In St Petersburg Martin Klizan won his first ATP title, and became the first first-time titlist this season, and the first Slovakian to win a tour event since Dominik Hrbaty in 2004. As droughts go, it wasn’t quite up there with that of the British men and their Arthurian quest never to win a Major title again – which was progressing nobly until Andy Murray wrecked everything – but it was still something, I suppose. Or so the ATP would have us believe. I personally don’t recall it being a hot topic, but then I am Australian, and we have our own problems.

The most amazing thing about Klizan’s victory in the final was that he had won the semifinal the round before, although my research department informs me that this is not an uncommon way to progress through a tournament draw. What is amazing was that he’d had much left after a semifinal in which he’d eventually overcome Mikhail Youzhny in three hours and 47 minutes. It was therefore the fourth longest best-of-three match ever played (assuming a non-advantage third set), and the second longest that did not involve Rafael Nadal. It was a titanic battle by almost any definition, except perhaps the literal definition featuring protagonists drawn from the Pantheon, or the more accepted one of a luxury ocean liner colliding with an iceberg thanks to Leonardo DiCaprio, thereby teaching everyone but Clive Palmer a definitive lesson in hubris. But those definitions aside, it was titanic battle. One was immediately put in mind of Chennai in 2008, when Nadal almost did himself in to deny victory to Carlos Moya, only to fold meekly to Youzhny in the final the next day. Youzhny’s presence in both instances makes the parallel seem important, but it isn’t clear why. The main thing to know was that Klizan’s Pyrrhic semifinal win would consign him to certain defeat in the final.

It of course didn’t pan out that way, for two reasons. Firstly, due to some unholy combination of fitness and necromantic forest magic – he’d pronounced himself ‘dead’ after the semifinal – Klizan was as spry as a whippet in the final, darting hither and thither and gleefully teeing off on any available forehand. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, his opponent was Fabio Fognini, who just wasn’t really in the mood. This was not the first time the Italian has failed to win a maiden title – he fell more valiantly to Gilles Simon in Bucharest earlier this season – and based on Sunday’s example it won’t be the last. It was one of those matches in which his generally winsome insouciance tips over into a less-appealing stroppiness, when what seems to be disinterest turns out to be disinterest. He has a habit of giving up once he’s down. Think back to the match against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Roland Garros, when Fognini checked out part way through the second set. In the St Petersburg final he fell quickly to 0/4 in the opening set, and that was more or less it. He was done. The very next point he attempted a reverse tweener while running for a drop shot – that’s right, while sprinting forward. Shockingly, it didn’t come off. There was momentary resistance to open the second. He even broke Klizan back for 3/3. But that was it.

Klizan, in his first tour final, had every reason to be crippled by nerves, and must have been fatally enervated given his semifinal – it was titanic, you’ll recall – not to mention his heroic toils in Davis Cup the weekend previous. In the end it took only sixty-nine minutes. The fifty or so people that turned out to watch must have been terribly disappointed, assuming they weren’t mostly hobos in search of warmth. Klizan has now risen to No.33 in the rankings. He says his goal is to be seeded for the Australian Open. If it was staged next week, he probably would be. He was ranked No.100 less than five months ago.

Metz, Final

(1) Tsonga d. (5) Seppi, 6/1 6/2

A short while later in Metz, Tsonga took an even shorter while to see off Andreas Seppi. About fifty minutes, all told, which made it the briefest final played this season, and the shortest since Murray beat Donald Young in Bangkok a year ago. I haven’t checked, but I suspect it is the first time two Italian men have lost ATP finals on the same day in less than two hours combined. More importantly, Tsonga won Metz last year, and this is therefore the first time he has ever defended a title. He did it in the most impressive style imaginable, by aggressively reducing Seppi to the level of semi-interested onlooker.

Faced with such an onslaught, Fognini would have been justified in giving up, although he probably would have chosen this moment to fight his heart out. It wouldn’t have mattered. It is rare that everything works so completely for Tsonga. His athleticism is generally a given, and his first serve and forehand are rarely less than imposing. But when his backhand is penetrating and his returns aren’t missing you know you’re in for a tough day if you’re planning to win, or a very short one if you’re Seppi. To be fair, brisk indoor courts in regional France are not Seppi’s optimal operating conditions. He tried.

One gets the feeling we’ve arrived at a part of the season that Tsonga really likes. Unfortunately we’ll now leave it again for a few weeks. Metz and St Petersburg are two weird and insignificant events lodged awkwardly between the Davis Cup semifinals and the Asian swing, a kind of aborted start to the European indoors season, like the famous false horn entry in the first movement of the Eroica, or something. It’d be like playing Houston and Casablanca before Indian Wells. Anyway, they are what they are – next year they might be something else – and Klizan and Tsonga won them. Of the two, St Petersburg boasts the more traditional silverware, a shortcoming Klizan sought to overcome by putting it on his head. Tsonga merely kissed the Metz trophy, since its hideousness speaks for itself.

And this is what my posts look like when I’m in a rush and just write it all down in a shoddily-dammed rivulet of semi-consciousness. Now I just need to go back and concoct an introduction that makes it look like this is what I was intending to do, and perhaps another paragraph about Fognini. And I’ll work in the word ‘Arthurian’.

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