The More Things Change

Nine days into the 2013 season, and it is safe to say that the second week has commenced the way first one concluded, and that the transition between the two was executed seamlessly. The young men who barely lost in Sunday’s finals have badly lost in Tuesday’s first rounds. Older men continue to lose their minds and their first serves to the dreaded time violation fairy. Photo: Getty Image - Matt KingBernard Tomic and John Millman are still the only Australians winning anything. Perth’s heatwave has relocated to Sydney, with potentially catastrophic results. Anything even passably amusing on Twitter is still being termed ‘epic’. The more things change . . .

Sydney, First Round

Fognini d. Dimitrov, 6/3 6/1

(Q) Harrison d. Bautista Agut, 2/1 ret.

It’s hard to believe that Grigor Dimitrov’s 6/3 6/1 capitulation to Fabio Fognini wasn’t a tank, for all that these are nowadays dignified by the term ‘strategic’ when they occur the week before a Major. Strategic or not, Dimitrov clearly preferred to be elsewhere – during some games he preferred to be sitting down and stalked to his chair before the point had concluded – and Sydney’s apocalyptic weather provided a useful pretext. My store of puns regarding the incompatibility of extreme heat and fog went sadly unrealised, since there was no way for even Fognini to lose this match, although in a different mood he might have given it a red-hot go. Whether Dimitrov was exhausted or not, it was a deflating outcome given the determination and audacity he’d displayed in reaching the Brisbane final. Were he as accomplished at maintaining leads as he is at establishing them, he might conceivably have won that final, or at least pushed it to a deciding set. Today he was lucky to win four games.

One hopes that Bulgaria’s greatest male player is not saving himself for the Australian Open. A 250 final isn’t so sumptuous an achievement that he can afford to save himself for anything, and the question remains whether the Dimitrov who lost the Brisbane final is particularly superior to last year’s edition. He is certainly ranked higher, and until his performance today one wouldn’t have hesitated to affirm that he is certainly better, even if he hasn’t quite completed the advertised metamorphosis from good to great. Last year in Melbourne Dimitrov survived a stern five setter against Jeremy Chardy in crushing heat, and followed this up by pushing tenth seed Nicolas Almagro to a fifth set, whereupon the Bulgarian wilted. Before that his warm-up consisted of a strong effort at Hopman Cup, before withdrawing from the Sydney qualifiers, citing exhaustion. He has undoubtedly improved, but he still can’t seem to play well for consecutive weeks. For the sake of a tired comparison, in 2002 the twenty-year-old Roger Federer prepared for the Australian Open by not only playing Sydney, but winning it.

At least Dimitrov saw out his match, for what it’s worth, thus providing a curious contrast to Roberto Bautista Agut, who on Sunday fell in three sets in the Chennai final, and today gave up after four games in Sydney. Unquestionably the Spaniard’s turn-around was tougher than Dimitrov’s – if only because his connecting flight was longer and involved customs – but it still seems unfair that Dimitrov will endure harsher critique for finishing his match than if he’d just retired.

Channel 7 has once again striven to harness local patriotism by labelling every Australian player with a small Australian flag, presumably in order to spare casual fans the humiliation of cheering for a foreigner by mistake. Suburban families who might otherwise worry that Marinko Matosevic is awaiting trial in The Hague can rest assured that he is in fact the country’s highest ranked male tennis player. It has had precisely the reverse effect in my house. My daughter proved steadfast in her preference for Denis Istomin over James Duckworth, wisely as it turned out. Channel 7 has taught my children that the national colours are the kiss of death. Yesterday my son asked why the Australia flag people keep on losing. What could I say? Had I realised that Sydney was fated to reach 43C today, I could have suggested that our hapless compatriots had deliberately lost in order to spare themselves the savage heat. In other words, they’d strategically tanked. Sam Stosur, who hasn’t won a match in Australian in living memory, numbered among them. After she’d blown her third set lead over Zhang Zie she professed herself satisfied by the loss, insisting that she’d only ever wanted a couple of matches before Melbourne anyway. By entering two lead-in tournaments she had therefore guaranteed herself precisely that.

Auckland, First Round

Baker d. (5) Janowicz, 4/6 7/6 6/4

(Q) Jones d. (6) Melzer, 7/6 6/2

Meanwhile across the Tasman Sea the temperature has remained typically mild. It’s the wind that’s almost impossible. Jerzy Janowicz and Brian Baker, who last year provided more collective inspiration than a dozen Roger Rasheed desk calendars, fought out a tight match in a horrible gale. Baker won, but not before Janowicz mounted a pretty stirring late comeback. (That’s a useless phrase: ‘but not before.’ Baker Auckland 2013 -1Imagine what a lonely, quixotic figure Janowicz would cut had he delayed his comeback until after Baker won. Picture the Pole commencing his ardent toils even as his opponent strolls victorious from the court, while the stands empty around them.) The fearsome Auckland zephyr has blown over any number of bandwagons. David Goffin and Benoit Paire failed to survive the first round. Lukas Rosol failed to reach it.

Australian Greg Jones qualified after narrowly defeating Victor Hanescu in a terrific third set tiebreaker, and today upset sixth seed Jurgen Melzer. Nonetheless, Jones’  loyalty has been been called into question by some back home, since preparing for your home Major in a foreign country and winning actual tennis matches both carry a strong whiff of treason. There’s talk that Channel 7 might withhold his flag.

Actually Melzer wasn’t upset by Jones, but by Fergus Murphy, whose will-to-mischief thankfully didn’t fade with Andy Roddick’s retirement. He presumed to issue Melzer with a time violation warning, the same time violation warning that he no doubt warned the players about during the ball toss. Melzer had a meltdown – a ‘Meltzdown’ – the same meltdown that just about everyone else has indulged in. Aside from some churlish barbs hurled Murphy’s way – none quite boorish enough to be worthy of Roddick – there was little of interest added.

What is there to add? The debate about the new time rule almost immediately achieved the end-point of absurdity when Gael Monfils offered a racial justification for his sustained towel-offs. Top that. Now all that remains is for those with an axe to grind to spread as much misinformation as they can. Given sufficient cacophony, even the voice of reason won’t cut through. For example, the following appeared on Beyond the Baseline today: “I saw Kei Nishikori get a time violation in Brisbane after his opponent, Alexandr Dolgopolov, went to change rackets. There has to be a way to codify common sense.” But that isn’t quite what happened. Nishikori actually exceeded the allotted time in addition to Dolgopolov ambling off to change his racquet. Common sense was already being applied, without the need to be codified.

From what I’ve seen it has rarely been otherwise. Marcos Baghdatis’ violation against Dimitrov in Brisbane has also been thoroughly beaten to death, as though it had a significant bearing on the outcome. Todd Woodbridge yesterday claimed that after that moment Baghdatis lost a handful of points. In fact he lost only one point, but then won the next couple on Dimitrov errors. The tiebreak turned on Dimitrov’s backhand pass three points after the violation, which Baghdatis would never have reached no matter how sanguine he felt. Anyway, Baghdatis wasn’t warned for going over 25 seconds; he was warned for going over 30. He’d been consistently pushing 28 seconds without censure throughout the match, according to a shot-clock the broadcaster had up on screen. The umpire was already showing leniency.

It was a similar case with Matt Ebden yesterday. The umpire inflicted a violation because the Australian reached 28 seconds without commencing his motion. (As for Andy Murray’s contention that bouncing the ball constitutes the beginning of the service motion, Novak Djokovic successfully decoupled those two actions years ago.) As far as I can see the umpires are already being generous with the rule, and if anything they grow even more so in tight situations or after an especially tiring rally. I have yet to see a player violated at the 25 second-mark at a crucial stage of a match. But from the player’s reactions, you’d think they were being violated in a prison shower.

If it’s enforced, I’ve no doubt that players will learn to adapt. Murray wants the rule changed 30 seconds, but he wants it enforced absolutely. He pointed out that it already favours those who recover quickly. He has a point. If a player finds it hard to recover because he favours long points, then he’ll have to learn to finish points sooner, or recover faster. At some point he’ll need to make a choice. The intention of rules in sport, believe it or not, is not to make the game easier but harder, and thereby hopefully to force meaningful choices on the participants. That’s why we have a net – it forces the player to make a choice between power and control, even in this era of polyester strings. Shorter players don’t get a lower net, and nor is it lowered for them when they’re down set point.

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