Båstad, Stuttgart, Newport: Finals
(With an excursion through cricket and cycling.)
An Argentine, an Italian and a Frenchman all walk into a joke. Stop me if you’ve heard it. It’s a good one. Within the space of a few hours Carlos Berlocq and Fabio Fognini, hitherto united only in being poster-children for mercuriality, both claimed their first tour titles. Later in the day they were joined by Nicolas Mahut, although this wasn’t his first title. His first title came last month in Rosmalen. He’s now an old hand, as opposed to a mere veteran, and thus knew not to panic even as he repeatedly fell behind in today’s Newport final. Those who wonder what the weeks before and after Majors are for, here is the answer: this is what they’re for. Today was one for those world-weary poseurs who profess to have seen everything, although I’m not convinced this is a market to which professional tennis should necessarily cater.
Meanwhile the butts of the joke were a Spaniard, a German and an Australian, incarnated respectively by Fernando Verdasco, Philipp Kohlschreiber and Lleyton Hewitt, all of whom lost finals there were reasonably expected to win. Kohlschreiber in particular had a strong advantage, playing in Germany, against a guy who has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to save his worst efforts for finals, which is really saying something. Nonetheless, Fognini was in his rare committed mode for this one, although through the first set he, like his opponent, appeared more committed to breaking serve than to holding it. They traded a bunch of games, with Kohlschreiber eventually getting the last couple, which earned him the set. Fognini missed his cue to fade, and instead broke at the start of the second set, and the third. Kohlschreiber fought back well from a double break down in the last of these, but by now Fognini’s commitment was translating into winning decisive points on his own serve, including a few solid ones to see it out. Being a German claycourt tournament, there was naturally a car provided for the champion. In this case a Mercedes Benz courtesy of Henri Leconte, who has recently acquired a tan so profound he looks walnut-stained, but otherwise appears gleefully unchanged. So, gratifying, does Fognini. I can’t imagine what it would take to change him.
The same holds true for Verdasco, who some hours earlier had belied his own recent form by struggling to stay with Berlocq through a fraught opening set, before collapsing entirely in the second. In just his second final, Berlocq showed admirable and unusual focus, looking all day like the eighteen-final veteran, while Verdasco, the actual eighteen-final veteran, showed little of the virtuosity that saw him inflict a collective heart-attack on Britain last week, or any of the doggedness that allowed him to endure Dimitrov yesterday. The Spaniard is now a dismal 5-13 in tour finals, and has finished runner-up at least once for the last seven seasons. I admit I didn’t see all of the second set, although what I did see wasn’t attractive enough to do justice to the venue, which is stunning. But by this time my wife was hollering constant updates from the next room, to the effect that Australia’s haemorrhage of wickets at Trent Bridge had slowed to a trickle, or that a particularly striking field of purple wildflowers had rippled into view somewhere in regional France. Tennis wasn’t the only thing on.
It is a weird reality that the densest concentration of world sports takes place during the Australian winter, and invariably in the dead of night. Wimbledon has barely ended, but there are still plenty of reasons to put off bedtime. There’s the Tour de France, which I confess I watch mainly for the scenery, since its tactical intricacies and eldritch courtesies largely escape me. Thanks to Cadel Evans, I’m patriotically obliged to make the effort. I do know that Our Cadel lost his title to an affable Brit last year, just as the Wallabies lost to the less-affable Lions last week. There’s a pattern here – another Brit is leading this year’s Tour, while Andy Murray just won Wimbledon – which of course brings me to The Ashes.
For a very long time The Ashes was essentially a waste of time freighted down with excessive ceremony, in real peril of sliding wholly into irrelevancy through sheer uncompetitiveness. Australia always won, apparently without trying very hard, and with a thoroughness that made it seem as though their good times would never end. As ever a period of domination felt endless while it continued. Any epoch seems eternal when you’re in it. England was frankly terrible for almost two decades, to the point where any records set against them needed to be marked with an asterisk, like double-bagelling Mischa Zverev. Australia meanwhile fielded a succession of the strongest test squads since the West Indian juggernauts of the 1980s, the personnel of such outrageous quality that even a strategic non-entity like Ricky Ponting could look good leading them. Thankfully, nothing lasts forever, even if an Australian sporting public drunk on decades of easy triumph are only slowly sobering to the fact. It’s not unlike the way casual sports fans still think Federer wins everything, or are surprised when he doesn’t. It turns out dominating isn’t easy after all. Now that Australia’s domination has ended, The Ashes is proving itself to be tremendously diverting, and, for an insufferably arrogant Australian cricket establishment, a sorely-needed lesson in hubris. Now if they win, they have to do it hard, against teams that are better than them. Suddenly Ashes Test matches are worth watching again. The one that ended today was a classic.
Even as Berlocq was finishing off Verdasco on the world’s loveliest centre court in Båstad, England were wrapping up one of the great Test matches on a dull pitch in Nottingham. Australia had come within a whisker of lofting an audacious victory from the most parlous of positions, chasing down a 300+ fourth innings total without discernible help from their batsmen. Australia’s tactic was apparently to deploy their entire top-order as a series of decoys, and fashion each innings around tenth-wicket partnerships. To those who insist with an air of Weltschmerz that there’s nothing new under the sun: I bet they’ve never seen that. Jimmy Anderson’s ten-wicket haul deservedly earned him man of the match, but one feels Ashton Agar was only two runs shy of claiming that honour in a losing team. His 98 on debut was the highest score by a number eleven batsman in history, and was completely unforgettable for anyone who watched it. And he is only nineteen, which is three years younger than Grigor Dimitrov, who’d already proved that, for some, not even weeks like this are for winning titles.
Anyway, where was I? Right: tennis. First there was cycling, although I admit I dozed through much of that, rousing every now and again to watch a garish swarm of absurdly fit men struggle up a cruel hill somewhere in Provence. The severity of Mont Ventoux’s gradient is lost on television, although the length of the ascent was amply evoked by the faces of the participants, none of whom seemed to be enjoying themselves much. I was happy enough where I was, recumbent on my couch. Eventually Hewitt and Mahut appeared for the last grass court match of the season, mere hours after they’d left it. Hewitt had narrowly seen off John Isner in the semifinal earlier in the day, and now he was going to make it all right. Australia had lost the Trent Bridge Test, but at least Our Lleyton could win Newport. It was something.
Except, of course, it wasn’t, at least not for Hewitt. Both finalists are now a ways past thirty (although it’s important to remind ourselves that this hasn’t been considered elderly outside of professional tennis since the late Middle Ages. Watching too much sport can leave one feeling like survival past one’s thirty-fifth birthday is a notable achievement, and that even then you’re merely storing organs for your offspring.) Anyway, both Hewitt and Mahut can lay reasonable claim at this late stage of their careers to being grass court specialists, if only because they seem physically and temperamentally incapable of thriving on any other surface. Beyond that however, their skills, different though they are from each other, are both complimented by grass: they have that increasingly rare ability to make hay while the turf is still green.
Hewitt was once renowned for his mental strength, but it should be remembered that his legend was built on a capacity to fight when behind, not from the front. Even in the days of his pomp, back when Australia still boasted a world class cricket team, Hewitt was never a great closer. The latter half of his eighty week reign atop the ATP rankings were mostly defined by disinclination to attack, and eagerness to invite it. Today, as he led by a break several times in the deciding set of the final, it was his serve that let him down, and he was found out by an opponent who didn’t stop coming. Mahut, it must be said, maintained his composure beautifully. Two months ago he languished outside the top two hundred without a title to his name. Now he’s ranked 75, with a pair of them.
My television displayed an intrusive close-up of a very sweaty young man in a canary yellow top riding a bicycle up a hill, surrounded by a fleet of automobiles that taunted him with the ease by which they were doing the same. I was incensed on his behalf, and exhausted on my own, so I went to bed.