(3) Gulbis d. (2) Tsonga, 7/6 6/4
It is a strange quirk that Ernests Gulbis, that least reliable of professional tennis players, somehow boasts a perfect record in tour finals, a record he kept intact today in Marseille. He has now won five ATP titles without losing one, a kind of scruffy yin to so many proven yangs, such as Gael Monfils or Julien Benneteau. Gulbis didn’t get to play either Monfils or Benneteau this week, though that wasn’t his fault, since the former wasn’t here and the latter was defeated early on in another part of the draw. As the truism goes, you don’t get to choose which Frenchmen you face in tennis. You can only defeat the ones who are placed in front of you.
It was, fittingly, a non-Frenchman Gulbis struggled with. His toughest test came against Roberto Bautista Agut in the second round, although this wasn’t strictly a surprise. (The surprise was that having eluded defeat the Latvian went on winning.) Bautista Agut has distinguished himself this season with several scrapping, aggressive and defiant efforts, though this week he also distinguished himself by being just about the only Spanish man with a tennis racquet not playing in Rio. Consider this: there were more Spaniards in Rafael Nadal’s half of the Rio draw than there were Frenchmen in the entire Marseille draw. Once Gulbis had survived that early round struggle, he set about beating any locals he could lay his hands on, starting with Nicolas Mahut, continuing with Richard Gasquet and concluding today with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
It wasn’t a particularly exciting final as these things are measured, and certainly not compared to last year’s decider between Tsonga and Tomas Berdych. As you’d imagine when two big men face each other on a fast indoor court, the service dominated, though better returning would have helped it dominate less. Gulbis had not been broken since the second round, and Tsonga today could engineer only two opportunities, which he characteristically flubbed. Gulbis on the other hand was in plenty of the Frenchman’s service games, although he was no more effective at converting break points, ending the match with a rather memorable 1/11. The Frenchman generally saved them with muscular play, and managed to do the same with a few match points in the second tiebreak. Gulbis served it out with an ace, before commencing a victory routine from which he’d carefully expunged any trace of exaltation. It made Marat Safin’s celebrations look flamboyant by comparison. You’d think Gulbis wins these things every other week.
Actually, that’s not far off. He usually wins these things in this week every other year. Last year he won Delray Beach as a qualifier, and his maiden title came at that tournament in 2010. It may seem surprising that he hasn’t returned to Florida this year, but his failure to show up for title defences is another of the few infuriatingly consistent things about him. So far in his career he has never once graced a tournament the year after he has won it. Look for him in Rio next year, or at least anywhere but Marseille.
Rio de Janeiro, Final
(1) Nadal d. Dolgopolov, 6/3 7/6
Owing to a minor calendar shake-up, Nadal will next week find himself in the rare position of having two titles to defend, in Acapulco and Sao Paulo. Taking a leaf from Gulbis’ playbook, he has chosen to skip both, preferring instead to win this week’s inaugural Rio event. After all, opportunities to be the first name on a new trophy don’t come round every week, presuming there’s a trophy upon which names can be inscribed.
Nadal almost surprised us all by not winning the tournament, though got there in the end. The direst moment came against Pablo Andujar in the semifinal, a match that saw the world number one recover from a set down, and finally take it in a mighty third set tiebreak, saving a pair of match points along the way. For once the bromidic phrase ‘he found a way to win’, usually uttered at the first faint whiff of adversity, was actually merited. Usually the way he finds entails being better at tennis than his opponent, but against an inspired Andujar there were stretches of the match in which Nadal was emphatically outplayed. Indeed, Andujar won more points overall. Alas for him, he lacked either the savagery or the cold precision necessary to claim the points that mattered most. He has thus been relegated to a statistical anomaly – this was the first time Nadal has won from match point down since beating Troicki in Tokyo in 2010.
Alex Dolgopolov’s half of the Rio draw had, for a wonder, boasted only two Spaniards, but they were two of the toughest in David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro, although the latter has lately learned to be as disappointing on South American clay as he perennially is on the European variety. Throw in Fabio Fognini, and plenty of reasons to be distracted by events back home, and Dolgopolov’s run to the Rio final proved to be a minor masterpiece of tightrope-sprinting. He’d been marvellous, in his dicey weird way. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there’s no better player to watch when he’s on. Indeed, to say that would be to confess to fetishism. He has a game only a mother could love, but there’s no denying the excitement he delivers, especially for those of us drawn to unpredictable, aggressive tennis.
Regardless, the betting markets, history and the general opinion of the person on the street were unanimous in believing that it wouldn’t be enough to get by Nadal in the final. The only exceptions were those subsets of Nadal fandom which insisted that Nadal’s flat performance against Andujar would be sustained into the final: a passionately misguided belief in Nadal’s frangibility has meant some fans fail to absorb the lesson that he very rarely plays badly, and almost never plays badly twice in a row. As ever with Dolgopolov the interest lay in discovering whether the strobes of brilliance could be spaced with sufficient proximity so as to provide consistent luminescence. So far this week they had. His only real chance for the final, however, was to hope they joined up to form a band of light so incandescent it might sear the retinas from Nadal’s head. Dolgopolov lacks anything resembling a bread-and-butter game. Whether through technique or temperament, he appears incapable of sustaining discernible, or at any rate reliable, patterns of play. He is hell to play when he’s playing well. The trick, as far as I can tell, is to force him to have to play well or else, thus ensuring that he probably won’t.
Nadal, as ever, had the luxury of being able to achieve this by deploying any number of established patterns, knowing that most if not all of these would likely guarantee him victory. Today’s patterns involved nothing fancier than the judicious application of just enough pressure to provoke Dolgopolov into over-hitting. This was particularly apparent in the first set, in which Nadal himself hit only one winner, which was the ace he served to seal it. The Spaniard broke early in the second set (as he had in the first), and looked likely to coast it out. Dolgopolov, after all, had not broken Nadal, not merely in this match, but in any of the four other matches they’ve contested.
It therefore came as something of a surprise when an apparently nervous Nadal lost his way while trying to serve it out at 5/4, the break sealed with yet another scything Dolgopolov crosscourt backhand into the top seed’s forehand corner. I recall how effective this tactic was for Troicki in Tokyo three years ago, thus providing a lesson that Novak Djokovic subsequently learned by rote. You can go crosscourt to Nadal’s forehand, but you have to take the ball very early, and go there flat and with tremendous pace. Dolgopolov went there time and again today with great success, but it’s a dicey way to live, especially on clay, where Nadal is inexorable. He was certainly inexorable in the eventual tiebreak, and Dolgopolov’s proved all over again that risky tennis only looks good when it comes off. The flashes of light were now spaced too far apart, and soon they went out entirely.
Nadal won’t be the last Rio champion, but he’ll always be the first. The trophy, worthy of a European indoor event in its determination to reference anything but a trophy, was handed over by the universally beloved Gustavo Kuerten. It’s a kind of lattice-worked wave arrangement, and thus provided plenty of spots for Nadal’s teeth to find purchase. (Marseille, ironically, has a perfectly ordinary trophy, which Gulbis did not bite.) Both men brought up Ukraine’s current situation in their speeches, Nadal graciously and Dolgopolov with all his heart.