Dramatic Reenactments

There were three ATP tour events concluded at various points this weekend. Individually they demonstrated certain principles in their own right, while collectively they offered yet more unnecessary proof that not all tennis events are created equal. Yesterday Novak Djokovic won his 36th title on a slick outdoor hardcourt in Dubai. A few hours later Rafael Nadal won his 52nd title on an Acapulco clay court that was mainly remarkable for being littered with the remains of David Ferrer. Both of these finals were enhanced by rambunctious capacity crowds. Meanwhile Ernests Gulbis has just claimed his third career title in Delray Beach, which surpassed itself by taking the unusual measure of not allowing any spectators in.

REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

Dubai, Final

(1) Djokovic d. (3) Berdych, 7/5 6/3

If I can be candid for a moment – always a clear admission that a writer is being evasive elsewhere – finding new and interesting things to say about Djokovic winning tennis tournaments is not getting any easier. One must search in ever-more obscure nooks for original insights. A disinclination to repeat oneself can be crippling (which is presumably why so few tennis writers bother with such a stricture). Already my search parties are roaming into remote districts, while a team of bright young interns scours the historical record, on the lookout for abstruse references I might appropriate. So far their toils have proved fruitless. What more is there to say?

The alternative, once it becomes apparent that nothing new can be said, is to append this latest victory to all the others, and subsequently churn out some numbers, and see where we go from there.

It was Djokovic’s fourth title at this event, meaning his armada of Dubai silverware almost rivals Federer’s, which opens up some interesting dramatic possibilities. At the present rate of accrual they’ll one day be able to recreate some of the more stirring encounters from the Hornblower novels, if not the Battle of Trafalgar. Indeed, after a weekend watching my daughter adroitly repurpose any object not nailed down into a Harry Potter prop, it occurs to me that the multifariousness of tennis trophies enables the more successful players to stage fairly elaborate recreations. Or, if not them, their offspring: I imagine Federer’s twins will one day invade his trophy room in search of useful props. Any of the World Tour Finals trophies would serve as a decent Goblet of Fire – they’ll need to remove those naff ribbons, and perhaps affix them to their bicycle handles – while Stockholm’s silverware would make a perfect doomsday device for Dr. No. The Dubai runner-up dagger would be excellent for The Golden Child. Mikhail Youzhny is your man if you want to borrow one of those.

But back to the numbers. It is also Djokovic’s eleventh straight victory over Tomas Berdych. Sadly, it was no more remarkable than the recent wins in Melbourne, London or Shanghai, all of which occurred on hardcourts, and none of which saw the world number one attain an unassailable peak. Berdych fought all his considerable worth, and repeatedly forced Djokovic to defend. Unfortunately Djokovic is the best defender in the sport, and that is the aspect of his game that seems immune to breaking down. You cannot allow Djokovic to attack, but obliging him to defend is merely to play into his hands. It seems an insoluble problem. It must seem that way to Berdych.

After the Shanghai semifinal loss Berdych had sounded resigned that even with his powerful (if limited) arsenal there was simply no way to break down or through the Serb. The increased speed of the Dubai surface enabled a few more of his shots to penetrate, as did a courageous early commitment to launching his backhand up the line, and he was characteristically more assertive than the similarly proportioned Juan Martin del Potro had been in the semifinal. But it wasn’t enough, and Berdych’s focus typically warped and buckled under compression. Some have sought to isolate the result in a few missed shots from the third seed – a simple forehand volley, a botched overhead – but that’s being overly reductive. I don’t see that the outcome would have been materially altered had the Czech made those shots. There were decisive moments for Djokovic as well. The difference is that he gains greater clarity when pressed, not less. It helps that he is generally more careful to make the key moments break points on his opponent’s serve rather than his own.

The rest of Djokovic’s numbers are no less impressive, for all that each merely represents an incremental increase on whatever it was on Saturday. He has now won eighteen consecutive matches, dating back to the Paris Indoors (his loss there remains his only one since the US Open final). He has also won thirteen consecutive matches against the current top eight, including every single member of the elite besides Nadal, who he hasn’t faced. Perhaps the numbers are enough. They are, after all, astonishing.

Nadal Acapulco 2013 -7

Acapulco

(2) Nadal d. (1) Ferrer, 6/0 /62

Had Djokovic faced Nadal in Acapulco a few hours later it might have been a different story, although that is debatable. He certainly would have provided a sterner test than Ferrer did. However, the story wasn’t that Nadal defeated Ferrer. The real story, or stories – there are two – is that so many people believed Ferrer would win, and that his defeat was of a severity and thoroughness hardly glimpsed since the Romans sacked Carthage.

The word heading into the Acapulco semifinals was that this was Nicolas Almagro’s big chance. If he couldn’t beat Nadal now, a mere three tournaments into Nadal’s allegedly long-term comeback, then he never will. With these conditions in place, I am now satisfied that he never will. As for the semi, so for the final: this was Ferrer’s ideal opportunity to end a losing streak to Nadal on clay stretching back nine years. He won two games, which was at least twice as many as he deserved.

At the risk of sounding boastful, not to say prescient after the fact, I have insisted from the beginning that Nadal would commence winning tournaments from the outset. I was less surprised than exhausted when this turned out not to be the prevailing opinion. There has been endless talk about how hard it is to come straight back into competitive match-play. Many people point to del Potro. I would respond by pointing to Nadal, and then pointing out that he isn’t del Potro, and that he is furthermore one of the greatest clay court players ever, contesting a series of small tournaments through South and Central America. People point to the outrageous upset to Horacio Zeballos in Vina del Mar, apparently forgetting that it was an outrageous upset, and these by definition do not reflect the norm.

The idea that Nadal was the underdog in this final was perhaps the most fantastical of all. Ferrer had been poor in seeing off Fabio Fognini in his semifinal, but even if he’d been playing well I doubt whether it would have enabled him to do more than challenge for a set or two, much like last year’s Barcelona final. A head-to-head record this lopsided doesn’t come about by accident, and it has little to do with luck. Also bear in mind that their last match was the semifinal at the French Open in 2012, in which Ferrer claimed just five games. He might conceivably have reached five games in Acapulco had it been best of nine sets. I confess that for all I’d expected a Nadal victory I hadn’t expect it to be this comprehensive, not to say merciless. But nor did Scipio Africanus ease up once his legion had broken the gates.

At the start of last year I suggested that Ferrer had hit upon a sound method of pushing Nadal, which was to probe at his backhand until it yielded an error or a short ball. It was a tactic employed to great effect by Djokovic in 2011, as well as by Murray in Tokyo that season, and by Federer in Indian Wells a year ago. If the Acapulco final bears analysis on a technical level, that is probably the detail that matters: Nadal’s backhand was impregnable, which it often is, and lethal, which is rarely the case. Normally on clay this doesn’t matter too much, since Nadal’s preternatural footwork allows him to scoot around his forehand. Quick as he is, though, this tendency does open up his forehand wing for any opponent willing to go hard cross court (Djokovic). Today, however, he remained content to use his backhand, and he used it to bludgeon Ferrer into the dirt. Denied anywhere safe to go, Ferrer’s approach grew fragmented and entirely ineffectual.

After Scipio raised Carthage he salted the land, so that it was rendered unusable for generations. Prouder men than Ferrer have been dismantled less thoroughly, and never recovered. One wonders where Ferrer goes from here, though I suspect that he’ll be fine, in his way. He’ll simply return to self-assigned task, which is to beat those ranked below him. I’m not the only one to have decried the increasing consistency with which he capitulates to those above him (regardless of ranking, this includes Nadal), but I’m beginning to suspect he doesn’t let it affect him that much – getting thrashed is simply something he has to get through. It’s likely to be painful, but at least it’s quick. Best get it over with, and move on. Afterwards his only explanation was exhaustion.

Nadal was afterwards overcome, shedding tears into his towel. I’m not a qualified mind-reader – more a dabbler – but I suspect this title meant more to him than Sao Paulo did. I don’t know whether his overwhelming feeling was relief or pride. But I’m sure they were both present, just as I’m sure both gave way to pure delight when he was given an oversized sombrero and a large silver pear-like fruit, which I’m reliably informed is called a guaje. Whatever it is, he now has two of them, and can join Djokovic and Federer’s dramatic reenactment society, although I’m struggling to imagine which movie they’ll recreate. Pear Harbor?

Gulbis Delray 2013 -4Delray Beach, Final

(Q) Gulbis d. Roger-Vasselin, 7/6 6/3

Nonetheless, it was Ernests Gulbis who won Saturday’s most interesting match; a jaggedly-contoured semifinal with Tommy Haas, in which both men both men repeatedly scaled the peaks of quality only to hurl themselves into the surrounding abyss, thence to recommence the slow climb. Throw in an exploding helicopter and it was basically Cliffhanger. Haas was of course the grizzled veteran once incarnated by Sylvester Stallone, and as the third set wore on, it seemed inevitable that he’d prevail. Like John Lithgow, the affably skittish Gulbis was miscast as the villain of the piece, and in a surprise twist redeemed himself via a sequence of heroic holds, and a quite magnificent final tiebreaker.

It was Gulbis’ seventh straight victory – having pushed through qualifying – which predictably inspired some to declare that he’d won enough matches in a row to claim a theoretical Slam, assuming one was to be staged as a best-of-three set event in Delray Beach for the benefit of about two dozen spectators. For the record, a theoretical Slam is not the same as a real one. Still, it was a harrowing slog: The Road, reimagined as Latvian vaudeville.

He defeated Edouard Roger-Vasselin in the final, handily but for a stumble as he endeavoured to serve out the first set. It was the first time two players ranked outside the top hundred had contested a tour level final since 2007. Gulbis moves to a perfect 3-0 in finals, with two of those coming at this event. He was characteristically forward in praising the place afterwards: ‘It’s my favourite tournament. It’s the only tournament in the world I am winning.’ The local chamber of commerce might want to enlist him as a cheerleader.

Then again, perhaps not. That was probably Gulbis’ least controversial utterance of the week. He has, admittedly and typically, provided tremendous value, especially when it came to revealing his latest source of motivation: ‘I was really getting pissed to see who’s in the top 100. There are some guys who I don’t know who they are. Some guys, I’m sorry, with respect — they can’t play tennis.’ His Delray Beach title propels him back among their ranks, landing him on No.67. He’ll still have to qualify for Indian Wells this week, meaning that, for the time being, he’s still obliged to toil away on the outer courts with more of those allegedly hapless nobodies he refuses to regard as his peers.

15 Comments

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15 Responses to Dramatic Reenactments

  1. LK

    One of the best write-ups I’ve read for the Acapulco final. It really surprised me how little credit Rafa’s been given for winning that match with many in the twitter- and blogosphere putting it more down to Ferrer’s level of play, as if their previous matches have ever been on Ferrer’s racket. Yes, they’ve played many seemingly close matches on clay the past few years but I’ve always thought it was more attributed to Rafa starting their matches nervously and allowing Ferrer to dictate by dropping the ball short but as soon as Rafa has settled and got good depth, he’s been able to easily take control of their matches. And yes Rafa’s backhand was the best I’ve seen it in a long time, it will be interesting to see if he continues to hit aggressively and whether it will hold up under pressure in the bigger upcoming tournaments.

    • Thanks. I agree – the key will be to remain aggressive with the backhand even when he faces good hardcourters on a hardcourt, and even when it isn’t quite working for him. The urge to retreat from the baseline and protect his backhand wing just seems to overwhelm him at times.

  2. Jade

    If you’re already running out of ideas for how to rephrase Djokovic’s victories, I can only imagine the desperate measures you’d have resorted to during the Federer era if you’d been blogging then. But I haven’t found a tennis blogger who is better than you at spinning even the most pedestrian results into engaging writing (I still remember that tree frog metaphor you came up with for yet another Nadal win over Ferrer, for one), so I have no doubt that you’d have come up with something fresh even then.

    The most recent Nadal win over Ferrer reminded me of Djokovic’s win over Murray in the 2011 Australian Open final in how the victor was playing at such a stratospheric level that his opponent probably couldn’t have beaten him even if he had brought his A game, but that there was still a pervading sense of the loser capitulating too meekly. The only thing I can say for sure is that if Nadal continues playing like this, the top 4 will begin sacrificing their most valued scalps to their deities of choice to avoid drawing him in their quarter.

    • Hehe, I wasn’t really too worried about writing up Djokovic’s win. As you say, there’s always an angle there if you’re willing to look. Sometimes the angle becomes so oblique that you can no longer see the subject at hand, but that really just lets you focus on something else.

  3. natalia

    Rule of thumb : with Ernie, you never know. 😉

    The drama queen who is back on clay-win hardly deserves all the attention, I think – it’s not as if he started to play serve&volley, after all… what’s the big fuss about😴

  4. Lobber

    The latest Deuce fluff piece on the ATP website is titled “Tomas Berdych: The Mental Game”. The fact that I had to read it twice before realizing it wasn’t a mean joke pretty much says it all. Not that I’m attempting to take anything away from his progress in the last few years, my problem is with this so-called tennis journalism. The article goes on to claim his backhand is a work of art, sweeter than Mecir’s, and then calls his warm-up sessions a pure delight for the tennis purist, comparing the experience to listening to a rehearsal of a Mozart sonata.
    There is just no limit to the hyperbole, is there?

    Excellent take on the Djokovic-Berdych matchup. I also loved the comparisons between the Acapulco final and the sacking of Carthage.

    • Don’t get me started on the quality of tennis writing. I may never stop. Then again, I’d much rather watch Berdych practice than watch someone rehearse a Mozart sonata. Having spent countless hours on Mozart sonatas myself, there’s no comparison.

      I almost wish I’d gone further with the Rome-Carthage comparison, or, alternatively, found a way to tie it into the theme of movie reenactments.

  5. tootsie

    @Lobber
    Substitute Federer for Berdych and you’ll see what other tennis fans have had to put up with for years. Never have so many adjectives been used in the worship of one tennis player but his fans sure don’t like it when superlatives are used to describe anyone else.

  6. natalia

    @tootsie

    Roger is genius – Berdych is not.

    • The point isn’t the merit of either player, but the quality of the writing about both of them. Having more idiotic superlatives lavished on a player doesn’t prove much – they aren’t Michelin stars.

  7. Bebe

    Trying again to leave a comment on here. …wonky behavior from I Pad last night. First of all, Pear Harbor =. Dork tastically genius. Second, Gulbis, meh, I no longer care. he’s like the Boy Who Cried Wolf. Children now interrupting my efforts. Lets see if I can continue later.

    • It was a narrow toss-up between Pear Harbor and Girl with a Pear Earring. Pear Harbor had the boats though, and a chance for Nadal to drop his ‘pears’ on Federer and Djokovic’s boats. If only one of them would win Metz. I think it’s trophy is an old-timey plane propeller, which could be a useful prop. Maybe they could invite Gilles Simon along.

      Yes, much of the talk about the Gulbis resurgence sounds suspiciously similar to what was heard after he beat Berdych at Wimbledon last year, or when he won LA, or, well any number of other times. But hope springs eternal.

  8. Bebe

    Glad you went with Pear Harbor. Girl with a Pear Earring brought up disturbing images of the Big Four wearing that head wrap and posing coquettishly/demurely with, well, a Pear earring. Oh, and the Metz trophy always looked like a fashion forward Papal hat to me, but perhaps that’s only due to my Catholic past….

    • Oops, my mistake. I meant the Hamburg trophy as a propeller, not Metz (because a venerable German 500 clay event is apparently interchangeable in my mind with an indoor 250 in regional France). But that Metz trophy would also work very well for . . . something. Maybe Cocoon.

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