Minor Miracles

Rome Masters, Rounds One – Three

Of the nine Masters 1000 tournaments unevenly studding the ATP calendar, Rome’s Internazionali BNL d’Italia is my favourite. For one thing, the location is perfect, and perfectly peculiar. Whatever the Foro Italico’s provenance – confected in the 1930s, it reflected Mussolini’s determination, common among tyrants, to legitimate his rule via a spurious connection with ancient glories – one cannot deny that set dressing this sumptuous helps establish a certain tone.Clive Brunskill/Getty Images EuropeThe kitsch statues dotting the grounds are no more authentically Roman than the props in Gladiator, but they work the same trick.

A premier tennis tournament in a fake Roman sports facility is something you’d hope to encounter in the United States, so it’s doubly piquant to experience it in Rome itself. Furthermore, the current tournament has been staged at this location since 1950, which in tennis counts as a venerable tradition, and it’s hard to know what to make of it. The gap between real and fake shrinks year by year, especially as the pool of people who know or care about the difference irreversibly dries up. I wonder what Umberto Eco makes of it. I don’t know if he’s a tennis fan, but I’ll be sure to put it to him if ever our paths cross.

Still, exhaustive fidelity to detail in the mise-en-scene counts for little if the story lacks vigour – the Baz Luhrmann principle – and it wouldn’t be my favourite Masters if it was no more than a theme park for semioticians. Thankfully, the story is typically excellent. For whatever reason, Rome generally throws up more memorable tennis matches than any other event at this level. (Strangely, this is rarely the case for the concurrently staged WTA event.) This year’s tournament is only three rounds old, and there has already been sufficient drama for a full week elsewhere. It has been so memorable that I’ll recount some of it here, lest we forget.

Andy Murray turned 26 on Tuesday, which was bound to happen eventually. It was a far more miraculous event for the British press corps, which permitted itself the full measure of its adoration. There was a time, during Il Duce’s heyday, when two score and six was regarded as the peak age for a male tennis player. One English journalist, perhaps concerned that Murray has yet to achieve enough, suggested that this theoretical age be updated to 28. Perhaps by then he’ll be closer to winning the French Open.

He certainly won’t be winning it this year, having aggravated a persistent back injury in his second round match against Marcel Granollers. The Scot’s injury occurred quite early in the first set, which he duly lost. Granollers broke early in the second set, and looked like going on with it. Murray then staged a series of comebacks that were precisely as remarkable as they were pointless. Twice the Spaniard moved ahead a break, even serving for the match, before eventually losing the set in a tiebreak. Only then did Murray retire, having apparently proved his point. Interestingly, this is only the second time Murray has ever retired from a match, and both times have occurred on his birthday.

Afterwards he revealed that he’d be unlikely to play in Paris. The world number two’s withdrawal would grant Rafael Nadal a top four seeding at Roland Garros, which means that the rousing ‘debate’ over the legitimacy of Nadal’s number five seeding was even less useful than it initially seemed, although that hardly seemed possible. It achieved little more than the revelation that lots of people apparently didn’t know that Roland Garros determines seedings based on the Entry System, or that missing seventh months of the season has repercussions for one’s ranking. Lleyton Hewitt was the top seed at Roland Garros in 2002, ahead of Gustavo Kuerten. I can’t recall anyone complaining. Whether the French Open should in future adjust its seeding policy to something more like Wimbledon’s is a related debate, but still a separate one. The idea certainly has merit, but there was never a chance it was going to be implemented this year, scant months out from the event.

In any case, Nadal has more pressing concerns in Italy. He wasn’t far off losing to an inspired Ernests Gulbis, who, like Djokovic in the Monte Carlo final, several times came within a point of inflicting Nadal’s first clay court bagel in five years. Gulbis closed the first set out 6/1, which was still an appropriate reward for one of the best sets played this year, by anyone. Nadal of course has a proven capacity to weather such storms, knowing that no one remains unplayable for long. When a big hitter is hitting big, there’s not much you can do except ride it out, and defend what you can. Nadal’s eventual victory was a testament to this – just 13 winners to 59 from Gulbis – although Gulbis’ tendency to puncture an otherwise superb effort by saving poor service games for the ends of sets certainly bears acknowledgement.

Any hope that Sky Sports’ obsession with altitude would fade upon leaving Madrid proved naïve on my part. Mark Petchey dutifully suggested Gulbis’ excellent first set was only possible because Nadal’s groundstrokes were falling short, and that this occurred due to the sudden return to sea level. I imagine he essayed a similar explanation when Philipp Kohlschreiber withdrew from his encounter with David Ferrer citing vertigo, of all things. Nadal and Ferrer play next. I’m not sure many people are looking forward to it, for any number of reasons. Assuming Nadal gets past Ferrer – I do assume that, for the record – he’ll probably play Novak Djokovic, who I also assume will survive Tomas Berdych. Berdych today defeated Kevin Anderson, which is fast becoming the defining theme of both their years, for better and worse. Djokovic, it bears mentioning, has looked terrific so far in allowing decent players no chance at all. Perhaps it doesn’t bear mentioning: he looks like that nearly all the time.

The week’s dramatic centrepiece was undoubtedly Viktor Troicki’s second round performance against Gulbis, a four minute tirade over a disputed ball-mark, that roamed across the entire court, featured extras and props, and culminated in a threat to take his racquets and go home. While it wasn’t quite the comic coup de grace it has been made out to be – the standards of tennis humour are calibrated notoriously low – Troicki has raised the bar dangerously high for anyone determined to go bananas in the future. Expect Jerzy Janowicz to organise the lines-people into a cancan line in Paris. It has also galvanised the call for Hawkeye to be deployed on clay courts. The calls have grown more vehement after yesterday’s otherwise wonderful match between Janowicz and Richard Gasquet, in which the Frenchman was broken back early in the second after Janowicz demanded the umpire confirm the wrong mark. It was less pivotal to the result than some have claimed, but the outraged cries of the slighted are always the slowest to find silence.

Benoit Paire’s straight sets victory over Juan Martin del Potro was probably the finest performance in the third round, one in which the younger man tempered his natural (and hitherto self-defeating) exuberance with an uncharacteristic maturity and poise. Tasked with serving out the first set, he simply did that, landing decent serves, closing the net and hitting his spots, as opposed to his usual practice of serving underhanded and attempting drop-shots with the handle of his racquet. He managed 38 winners, to just twelve from his opponent, and deployed his backhand masterfully to ensure del Potro could only rarely set his feet. The commentators were slow to cotton on to the developing upset. They commenced by discussing Paire’s manifold shortcomings and predicting the Argentine’s certain victory. After the first set they began pointing out that del Potro is a notoriously slow starter. The culprit – lack of altitude – escaped censure. Only late in the second set did it become apparent that Paire was actually playing his way into the Rome quarterfinals, and that those patiently awaiting Delpo’s inevitable fight-back were waiting in vain.

Roger Federer, newly shorn, has progressed easily, looking considerably more ferocious than he did in Madrid last week, where he was incapacitated by a toxic blend of altitude and Kei Nishikori. He has so far dropped six games in two matches. Admittedly one of these was against Potito Starace, who has lately tumbled from a perch than was never very high. Nevertheless, Federer dealt equally harshly with Gilles Simon, ensuring that their match never reached the usual point at which the Frenchman sucks him down into the psychic mire. Mikhail Youzhny had failed to work the same trick in the round before, failing several times to serve out the first set, and afterwards looking exactly as irritated as someone being beaten to death with pillows should, especially someone who’d already seen off the in-form Tommy Haas. Federer next plays Janowicz and, given the state of his half of the draw, must fancy his chances at reaching his first Rome final since 2006.

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