Menacing Phantoms

Montreal Masters, Day Two

Whatever one’s expectations had been coming into this year’s Montreal Masters – I had few beyond an early loss for Bernard Tomic and ultimate triumph for Mikhail Youzhny – I doubt whether even ardent Canadian patriots foresaw that five of their compatriots would push through to the second round. There are more men representing Canada in the second round than any other nation, including Spain, whose men usually saturate the draw. Alas, only four Spaniards remain, although two of those progressed via walkovers against the ineffable Bye brothers, who once again suffered awful draws. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images North America(Nicolas Almagro wasn’t so fortunate. Faced with the ghoulish ghost of Davis Cup finals past, he fell.) The Canadians, on the other hand, had to do it the hard way, by playing actual human opponents.

Indeed, in most cases they did it the very hardest of ways. Filip Peliwo saved a match point against Jarkko Nieminen, before the Finn withdrew injured while trailing in the third set. This was also Peliwo’s first ever tour level victory: something to celebrate. Both Frank Dancevic and Vasek Pospisil came within two points of exiting, against Yen-Hsun Lu and John Isner respectively. All three have merrily justified their wildcards, as did Jesse Levine yesterday when he saw off a sadly jaded Xavier Malisse in straight sets. Meanwhile Milos Raonic only narrowly prevailed over Jeremy Chardy 7/5 in the final set. In each case, one must concede that the Canadian player was lucky not to have faced a sterner first round opponent – Isner was the only seed, and he’d just flown in from Washington, where he’d contested the final – but shouldn’t be dismissed for making the most of it.

Tommy Haas and David Goffin put together a match that was exciting nearly until the end, attacking and virtuosic, with the German’s all-court experience balanced nicely by the Belgian’s superb hands and foot-speed. It was almost enough to give one hope that the Belgian is rounding into some kind of form. The actual end of the match was dissatisfyingly perfunctory, however: at 3/4 in the second set Goffin threw together a poor game, Haas gratefully broke, then served out the match to love in about forty seconds. It reminded us why the first half of Goffin’s season has been so poor, even as we maintain some hope that the second half will see improvement. Richard Gasquet, who is defending runner-up points, made easy work of Martin Klizan. Youzhny’s march towards the title kicked off with a fine win over Jurgen Melzer. Both Nikolay Davydenko and Fabio Fognini proved completely unfazed by awful first sets, and came back to win easily. Their victims were Gilles Simon, who has been poor this season, and Marcos Baghdatis, who stopped compiling good seasons about half a decade ago. There was a time when he was considered a contender. Now few even rate him as a threat. I call it a shame.

Speaking of threats real or imagined, defending champion Novak Djokovic was obliged to face Florian Mayer first up in his first tournament since Wimbledon, where he’d also faced Mayer first up. This astonishing coincidence really rated no more than a bemused smile, but some had heroically risen to the narrative challenge, and dubbed it a tough opener for the Serb. It was hard to see much justification for this. Mayer is good, and extraordinary in many senses of the term, but Djokovic isn’t one to be bamboozled by a drop shot just because it is delivered two-handed, accompanied by a donkey-kick.

The early pattern in the match was for the top seed to struggle successfully to hold serve, while breaking Mayer easily. But it wasn’t a pattern likely to endure for long, and it was unlikely that Djokovic would tire of breaking Mayer. So it proved. Djokovic tightened up his service games – he held his third one in about a minute – and broke the German again to take the opening set. Mayer closed it with a meek double fault. Those first few games notwithstanding, it hadn’t been very close, and Djokovic hadn’t seemed threatened at all.

After Djokovic held and broke again to open the second set, there was reason to hope we’d heard the last of Mayer’s inherent danger, although it’s doubtful. The belief comes from the deep dark well in all fan’s hearts, where lurks a feathery dread of any player who once defeated (or even momentarily) challenged their favourite. (Thus do some Nadal fans momentarily quail at the sight of Ivo Karlovic ahead in a draw, as though a close final tiebreak in Indian Wells one year counts for more than a 4-0 head-to-head in the Spaniard’s favour.) This dovetails nicely with the media’s mission to confect rivalries from nothing, or in any case to market a near-certain thrashing as potential classic worth tuning in for.

Still, assuming you had tuned in for it, the end didn’t take long to come round. Mayer found a few more break points in the second set, but apparently confused them with hand grenades, handled them very gingerly, and discarded them immediately. Djokovic was more astute, and eagerly picked them up. He broke a few more times, and closed the match out in under an hour. Those who’d hung around until the end thus weren’t detained long, and saw the value of their tickets further enhanced when the world number one launched into a dance routine whose spontaneity was somewhat undone by the apparent care with which it had been choreographed. It even included a mascot – Canadian tennis tournaments apparently have mascots – as Daft Punk conveniently blared out over the sound system. Still, all good fun, and the crowd loved it.

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