Turning Points

Marseilles, Buenos Aires, Memphis: Finals

Photo: Gerard Julien, AFP/Getty Images

Typically, the third week of February had something for everyone, assuming any of them were watching. Aficionados of fast indoor tennis were well-served by a strong field in Marseilles. Lovers of clay doubtless enjoyed the return to normal outdoor dirt in Buenos Aires. Meanwhile those fond of announcing the demise of American tennis surely appreciated Memphis, where every able-bodied American male player turned up – initially they outnumbered the fans – then failed to make the semifinals. It was a week rich with portent, the ground littered with key moments, turning points, watersheds and the shells of roughly shucked clichés.

Earlier in the week, Bernard Tomic lost to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Marseilles quarterfinal. This miraculous event occurred very deep in a final set tiebreaker in which the Frenchman saved a perfect handful of match points. The delay before knowing pundits commenced wondering whether this was a defining moment for Tomic was infinitesimal. Special relativity prohibits the transmission of information beyond the speed of light – the energy required to attain such a rate approaches infinity – but this must have been right up there. Indeed, it may have been faster, since Einstein imposed no theoretical limit on the transfer rate of non-information, examples of which include shadows, phase velocities, or rapid assessments of how vital a given result was to a young player’s continuing development. No one suggested that it might be a turning point for Tsonga.

(There also persists an antediluvian belief that nothing travels faster than bad news. Special relativity proves this proposition to be false, assuming the bad news has any substance whatsoever. If, on the other hand, the bad news relates directly to a Kardashian, then there is nothing to stop it instantaneously propagating throughout the cosmos. My research department admits it doesn’t fully understand the mechanism by which this occurs, though physicists suggest a catastrophic buckling of space-time might be responsible.)

The urge to christen eras as we live through them, to pen the history of today, is, broadly speaking, a modern one. It reflects our faith that through mastery of the past we’ve gained a commensurate capacity not merely to chronicle the present, but to define it. We note moments as they occur, join them up into trends even as we note them, all the while delivering an authoritative running commentary, which is simultaneously deconstructed. The commentary carries the certainty of papal writ, while the deconstruction occurs in a laconic drawl. It’s kind of a neat trick, and to pull it off you need to sound the part. Tone is everything.

So adept have we grown at this that we’re even confident of adducing a trend from a single event. Thus Novak Djokovic’s magisterial 2011 season was implicit within his Davis Cup triumph the year before, as a mighty oak lies latent within an acorn. (The organic metaphor is appropriate, since the conceit is teleological.) But if you say it just right – offhanded, with sufficient mystery to suggest you know more than you’re letting on – you can imply you saw it coming, that you noted the precise moment when a hitherto meandering path narrowed and snapped straight, and the rake’s progress grew purposefully sober. The laity is duly impressed, especially those who don’t realise how often such predictions are delivered ex post facto. Of course anyone can predict lottery numbers after they’ve been drawn – the prophet’s trick is to convince others that they knew all along what was going to happen.

Part of the skill is to get in early, as events occur, and then to say just enough, but no more. The technique isn’t to declare that Tomic has in fact turned a corner – since no one will know that until he does, and is struck by a lorry – but to be the first to wonder aloud at the mere possibility. The finest match at this year’s Australian Open was between Djokovic and Stanislas Wawrinka, and even while the Serb was tearing his clothes apart the question of what this meant for the Swiss was being airily posed. Would this be his year? Wawrinka is nearer the end of his career than the start, but he’s young enough that his career-defining season still lies in the future. When it happens we’ll fall over ourselves in referring back to that marathon at Melbourne Park, and declare that this is clearly where it started. It was nice of him to signpost it. Often they’re harder to spot.

Remaining with Wawrinka, he has just lost the final in Buenos Aires, to David Ferrer. This is the first time Wawrinka has made it to the final at a Golden Swing event, beating the defending champion Nicolas Almagro en route, and there’s no shame in losing to Ferrer on this surface. One certainly couldn’t say the Swiss has taken a backward step. But, taking a longer view, he has been coming to South America for years now, and these kinds of tournaments are designed for players like him. He really should have won one by now. We’ll have to wait a little longer to decide whether Melbourne mattered all that much.

A player certainly needs age on his side. We can suggest that Radek Stepanek will receive the same bounce from his Davis Cup heroics as Djokovic, but only in jest. Meanwhile Marseilles’ match of the week was Juan Martin del Potro’s defeat of Michael Llodra in the second round, which the Argentine won 7/5 in the third set. Sadly the Frenchman is already 32 years old, and we are thus spared the trouble of wondering precisely what this might mean for him. Llodra is no longer an acorn, and will never be an oak. We already knew he played well in France, indoors. Move along: nothing to see here.

Consequently, we can also add that an outcome must be unprecedented, or at least unexpected, in order for it to be considered portentous. Thus we can say that Tomic reaching the third round at the Australian Open and falling to Roger Federer in straight sets was less significant than pushing Tsonga in the quarterfinals in Marseilles. A strong performance in a location where he traditionally underperforms (i.e. not Australia) means more than a stronger one at home.

This brings us back to Tsonga, who won the Marseilles final over Berdych, somehow. Tsonga saved five match points in the quarterfinal, and today he saved another one in the final. He was almost but not quite completely outplayed through two entire sets. The 6/3 score line in the first set does the Frenchman undue credit, since Berdych’s domination had felt more comprehensive than that. In the second set Berdych won 86% of points behind his second serve, while Tsonga won 38%, yet somehow he attained the fleeting sanctuary of the tiebreak. The match point was saved at 5-6, with an ace up the tee from Tsonga, and the set was sealed when Berdych pushed a backhand wide.

It was the third time in four matches this week that the Czech had lost a second set tiebreak (against Ernests Gulbis he’d also blown a match point in the process). Tsonga gained the decisive break early in the third, and rode his advantage to the end, having finally rediscovered his serve. It is Tsonga’s tenth career title (seventh indoors and fifth in France), and redresses a three match losing streak against Berdych. It is also his second victory over a top ten player this season, after last year compiling a mighty 1-15 record against his peers. That quarterfinal between Tomic and Tsonga might well have been a crucial moment, but not for Tomic. Time will tell.

Other moments that may have been definitive or meaningless during this week, as the case may be: Marinko Matosevic survived a dire field to reach the semifinals in Memphis. Del Potro lost to Gilles Simon with disappointing ease. In defeating del Potro, Simon played with the kind of aggressive purpose that makes the rest of his season seem so deflating by comparison. Ernests Gulbis, whose career has produced enough turning points that it resembles a bramble patch, played well to save a match point and push Berdych to a deciding set. Almagro failed to make a final at a South American 250 event. Kei Nishikori won his second 500 event, but, again, it was only Memphis.

And that’s just a few of the results from one relatively inconsequential week. Nearly every player has such moments lurking in their recent past, ready to be exhumed when it later becomes apparent they portended results to come. It’s all rather too much to keep track off. I think it behoves the ATP to compile a list, lest we forget, and lapse into idle speculation.

8 Comments

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8 Responses to Turning Points

  1. Lobber

    Bravo!
    An inconsequential week in the world of tennis it may have been, but not in the world of tennis writing, as it seems. I have to say this probably goes down as one of my favorite of your pieces of writing for the blog, and I have read them all.

    As with most things, there is a place in this world for blunt, to-the-point sports writing, and the internet/blogosphere has plenty of that to offer. Still, I wish more people would make the effort to actually write(!) about tennis instead of merely recounting events, laying their opinions flat on the table or worse, regurgitating the opinions of others with no critical thinking. One of the things I love the most about this blog is the way you never write down to your audience. You don’t condescend or insult anyone’s intelligence, and for that I am thankful, as I’m sure many others are.

    I really must get around to purchasing and reading your novel. I have no reason to expect I won’t enjoy it greatly, and it seems like a fitting way to pay tribute to your writing and even, in a way, say thank you. Keep up the excellent work.

    • Thank you so much. To be more candid than usual, I must admit I had my reservations about this piece, mainly worrying that it was pitched wrongly. It’s very pleasing to be told that this wasn’t the case.

      As its writer I don’t get to see it simply as it is after I’ve hit the publish button, but also in relation to all the bits that didn’t make the cut, and all the points I’d intended to make, but never quite got around to. It is, in a sense, merely one of a possible number of outcomes. And even though, barring minor amendments, it is the outcome we’ve arrived at, I still can’t help but be aware of all the other possibilities.

      This piece had a lot of discarded material. I went much further into the historical reasons why we feel the need to define the present, with a whole bit on the failings of postmodernity. There were also a few more Latin phrases that had to be cut on the grounds that more than one in a given article looks pretentious. I also never got around to discussing the tendency for players themselves to think in terms of turning points, but I told myself it’s a useful area to come back to.

      If you do buy the book, I really hope you enjoy it.

  2. Jade

    I was one of the few who thought that the Tsonga-Tomic quarterfinal might portend more for Tsonga than Tomic. Everyone seems to forget that Tomic made it to the quarterfinals of a decidedly non-Australian Wimbledon in 2011, which means that he’s proved long ago that he can play outside of Australia. For how long he can sustain it is another matter altogether.

    As for Tsonga, he showed admirable grit in that match and his match against Berdych. Like you said, he was utterly outclassed for almost two entire sets and didn’t get a sniff of a break point for the first two sets, but he hung in there and pounced when Berdych blinked in the second-set tiebreaker. It may be a sign that this “new coach” thing really is working for him. May be. Then again, his French Open quarterfinal against Djokovic from last year could have been a sign that he was finally becoming a genuine Slam contender, but it turned out to be just another close loss for him.

    • The secret is that we Australians regard Wimbledon as our turf, and expect our men (if not our women) to do well there. I’m being slightly facetious, but it’s kind of true – Australians often feel very at home in the mother country. On the other hand, we half expect our athletes to be tripped up by the strange foods and customs prevailing elsewhere. Of course, we still like to believe they’ve overcome those obstacles.

      But you’re right, the whole thing about Tomic playing poorly outside of Australia is a recent idea, and not very warranted. He did very well overseas as a Junior, and from memory he also did well in the Challengers in the lead-up to that Wimbledon run.

      The new coach thing . . . I’m so torn about this. As a confessed fan of Tsonga I want him to do well. As an even greater fan of the English language I find it hard to accept that Roger Rasheed is the man for the job. But then I do accept that when it comes to inspiring an athlete, infantile sloganeering is more effective than subtly-wrought aphorism. And Rasheed’s fitness-based approach won’t hurt (I hope).

  3. Jez

    I really enjoyed this one.

  4. Jade

    @Jesse Pentecost

    Well, Tsonga just lost in the first round of Dubai. (Granted, Llodra is a tricky first-round opponent, but still…) Maybe we should accept that it’s never going to be THAT easy for Tsonga to get out of his patterns, barring maybe a yearly on-fire stretch that lasts exactly just short of two weeks.

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