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A Deflating Innovation

March 31st, 2014 6 comments

Miami Masters 1000, Final

(2) Djokovic d. (1) Nadal, 6/3 6/3

Novak Djokovic today won the Miami Masters for the fourth time, a mere two weeks after winning Indian Wells, thus re-establishing his pre-eminence on hardcourts just in time for the clay season, and leaving the rest of us with almost nothing new to say. Any point made after Indian Wells remains more or less true after Miami, if not more so. The finalists in California had appeared divinely favoured as all foreseeable impediments were removed from their path. Clive Brunskill/Getty Images North AmericaIn Florida the gods left even less to chance, excising the draw of likely threats by the quarterfinals, and then striking down both semifinalists before another ball was struck.

Having both semifinals decided via walkover was a deflating innovation, one that went unappreciated by the local crowd. They booed lustily at the news of Tomas Berdych’s default, although one imagines a large portion of the disapproval can be attributed to the discovery that no tickets refunds were forthcoming. Word is Berdych had a crook gut. Nishikori is notorious for withdrawals and retirements anyway, and his default grew more or less inevitable after he posted a pair of marathon upsets over David Ferrer and Roger Federer, which proved too much for his groin. The vexing hypothetical question of what would have happened had Berdych and Nishikori been drawn to face each other and then withdrawn was duly raised. Is there a rule, and if so should it be changed? This matter was addressed by Peter Fleming with devastating practicality. He pointed out that after the first guy withdraws, the second keeps his mouth shut and takes the free passage to the next round. It’s a question of whoever blinks first. Faced with Nadal and Djokovic in rampant form, however, it was probably a pretty easy decision.

And so it came down to yet another final between this pair, the seven hundred and fourteenth overall, yet, somehow, the first of this year. The hadn’t met since the final of the World Tour Finals, a best of three hardcourt match that Djokovic won quite comfortably. Today’s best-of-three hardcourt match didn’t feel functionally very different. I can only repeat what I said last time they met. Surface homogenisation has eroded the concept of surface specialists, but not entirely. At their best, Nadal is still better on clay and Djokovic is better on a hardcourt. Today Nadal wasn’t really at his peak, but that was mostly thanks to Djokovic, who was.

The only vaguely fraught moment came early in the first set, when Djokovic fended off a break point, although it was early enough that he would have fancied his chances to break back. As it happened, he didn’t need to, and set about running the Spaniard hither and yon beneath the Miami sun. The air was presumably as thick up Djokovic’s end of the court, but he seemed to be moving more easily through it, and his shots certainly penetrated it more readily. His crosscourt backhand was particularly dangerous. Djokovic’s technical excellence is such that when he is playing this well it’s hard to believe he cannot go on playing like this indefinitely, in stark contrast to the million moving parts of Nadal’s technique, which seems mostly miraculous in that it doesn’t desynchronise more. Today even Djokovic’s rare errors looked purposeful.

Nadal was broken at the start of the second set, and thereafter the only tension seemed to accrue in his following service games, as he grimly held on to remain only one break behind. Djokovic was typically marvellous on return. Has anyone ever been so good at consistently landing returns within a foot of the baseline? Nadal won only 59% of first serve points for the match. He tried at various points to get the crowd into it, with some success, but it didn’t affect the outcome. A fine final point saw them both finish up at the net, though Djokovic was the one who collapsed in triumph. He sprang up soon enough, and shared a handshake and hug combo with Nadal that lacked many outward signs of warmth. The world number one looked like he really didn’t want to hang around.

Fortunately he didn’t have to, since the trophy ceremony was abbreviated for American television. No doubt there was some pressing commitment to broadcast amateur sport played by university students. There were the usual bubbles, confetti and crystal trophies, and that was that. Sky Sports had nowhere else to be, though. Annabel Croft asked Djokovic whether at a certain point today he could feel that he’d broken Nadal’s spirit. ‘Of course,’ responded the champion, and began to riff on the concept of confidence from a position of plenty. He was probably justified in feeling a little cocky.

The imperious manner in which Djokovic smothers and thereby neutralises those parts of Nadal’s game that have tormented the tour for a decade have been amply catalogued, although there have been few occasions in which the Serb has showcased it better. One such was the first set of last year’s Monte Carlo final, which Sky Sports handily demonstrated by showing highlights of after today’s final. Network programmers have learned to set aside at least four hours for any best-of-three match between Nadal and Djokovic. When today’s final concluded in a mere 83 minutes, there was time to kill, and Greg Rusedski – mercifully – can only go on for so long.

Djokovic and Nadal between them now hold all nine Masters 1000 events, as well at the World Tour Finals and two of the four Majors. If this isn’t unprecedented, it’s awfully close. (In 2006 Federer and Nadal held all four Majors, the Tennis Masters Cup and six of the nine Masters. I’ll leave it to others to rank these achievements.) Six of the nine Masters 1000 events are played back-to-back, in three groups of two. It has almost grown commonplace for a single player to grab a pair. Last year Nadal won Madrid and Rome in consecutive weeks, and Canada and Cincinnati. In 2011 Djokovic won Indian Wells and Miami consecutively, as well as Madrid-Rome. This doesn’t speak to the modesty of the achievement, but to the high quality of the players achieving it. Winning two of these things in a row – especially Indian Wells and Miami with their absurd 96 draws, abrupt shift from desert to swamp, and over-reliance on Kiss-Cam – is still a mighty accomplishment.

Overall, it is Djokovic’s eighteenth Masters title, which puts him one clear of Andre Agassi at third on the all-time winner list, trailing only Nadal and Federer. Speaking of Federer, the Swiss has returned to the top four, while David Ferrer by failing to defend his runner-up points has fallen to number six, which should hopefully ensure a few more balanced draws in the coming months. Andy Murray, who was defending champion but lost early, has fallen to number eight. Nadal remains at number one, though his margin has been more than halved in recent weeks. Djokovic, champion in Indian Wells and now Miami, is right on his heels.

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A Picture of Equanimity

March 17th, 2014 6 comments

Indian Wells Masters 1000, Final

(2) Djokovic d. (7) Federer, 3/6 6/3 7/6

Novak Djokovic has won the 2014 Indian Wells Masters, embedding himself even more firmly in that group of men who’re able to generate endless copy thanks to their records alone. With the great champions, it gets to a point where you can find yourself just going on about the numbers. Arguably the greatest of these was across the net for today’s final, and looked for a time as though he would be the man to triumph again, thus incrementally improving many of the various records he already owns. In the end, but only in the end, Djokovic held off the resurgent Roger Federer to claim his third consecutive Masters 1000 title, going back through the Paris Indoors and Shanghai last year.Djokovic Federer IW 2014 -1 It is also his third Indian Wells title, and seventeenth Masters title overall, and places him equal-third with Andre Agassi on the all-time leader board. As I say, eventually the numbers speak for themselves.

Aside from the final, the story of the tournament was surely Alexandr Dolgopolov. He startled everyone by beating Rafael Nadal in a third set tiebreaker, then delivered an arguably more profound shock by not going down meekly in the following round. I have no statistics to hand, but it has become standard practice to follow up a stunning upset with a dismal loss. Ever the iconoclast, Dolgopolov continued to outpace custom by handily upending Fabio Fognini and Milos Raonic, both in straight sets. Custom finally caught up with him in his first Masters semifinal, when the shreds he was blown to by Federer’s artillery whipped fitfully in the insistent breeze. Nevertheless, the Ukrainian’s ranking has risen from No.31 to No.23, with almost nothing to defend for the foreseeable future. Higher seedings beckon, but he’ll always be a dangerous floater. Being Dolgopolov, there’s no sound reason to believe that three strong tournaments in a row and a win over Nadal necessarily means anything has changed. All in all, enjoy him for what he is worth, for you’ll rarely see his like.

Reaching the final guaranteed Federer’s re-ascent to the top five, while a victory in the final would have enabled him to leap over David Ferrer into the top four. Alas, he lost, and languishes about a hundred points adrift. The odds are strong that he will return sooner rather than later, however, a point Barry Cowan laboured exhaustively. Ferrer has finalist points to defend in Miami next week, and one doubts, given his injuries, whether his defence will be sufficiently stout to prevent a tumble from the elite group. Federer didn’t play Miami last year, and thus would likely return to the top four even if he skipped it again this year, an amusing yet not especially significant quirk of the fifty-two week ranking system.

Andy Murray, currently ranked at number six, will seek to defend the Miami title. After yet another disappointing performance at Indian Wells – he fell to Raonic with all due fuss – it would be easy enough to insist the Scot won’t fare any better in Miami than Ferrer. But there’s just no knowing what Murray will do at the moment. At least his perennially execrable level in California no longer presages similar form in Florida. All that is certain is that his return from surgery has been less smooth than had been anticipated. With the clay season about to commence, now would be a good time to give up expecting too much for a while. Let any strong results be a pleasant surprise. Come Wimbledon there’ll be ample opportunity to pile the pressure back on.

There was a time when John Isner was considered to be his nation’s sturdiest hope on clay, based largely on a few strong Davis Cup performances and once taking Nadal to five sets at Roland Garros. This probably revealed more about America’s bleak chances on dirt than anything about Isner’s actually prowess (as an Australian I’m hardly crowing from the high ground). Indian Wells, however, seems to suit him well. Mechanically, it’s no stretch to see why. The thin air and grippy surface combine to render one of the sport’s mightiest weapons if anything more potent: it cuts through the air faster, and explodes off the surface. The desperate home crowd support certainly doesn’t hurt, as opposed to Miami, where North American players come a distant second to South American ones. Nor does the best-of-three format hurt, which limits the opportunities for Isner to indulge in his self-defeating passion for endless exertion.

Still, the stark spectre of impending national irrelevance haunts the US men at every home tournament these days. They (and therefore we) are constantly reminded that for the first time no US male might, say, make it to the third round, or be seeded, or ranked in the top twenty. (Again, it’s a wide trail the Australian men blazed years ago.) It usually falls to Isner to save the day, and often he does. Once the smoke has cleared, and Ryan Harrison has provided a meticulous explanation for his latest early round loss, Isner is generally the last one towering, toiling away, interleaving all-American service games with a return style so passive it induces Gilles Simon to yawn. He’s a mystery. Sometimes he perks up and blasts a few big forehand returns, but never for long. Djokovic was less than thrilled when Isner pulled this trick several times as the Serb tried to serve out their semifinal yesterday. Isner then tore through the second set tiebreak, briefly twitterpating the locals. Djokovic only had himself to blame. Once he’d finished admonishing himself he pushed through the third set without hassle. Djokovic hasn’t played well all week, but he has been very good at maintaining his equilibrium. This more than anything is probably why he’s the one hoisting the trophy.

Calmness was fundamental again today in the key moments. There were the usual assortment of bellows, exultant or frustrated as the situation allowed, but when the match coiled tightest he was a picture of equanimity. After a patchy first set, in which Federer played all over him, Djokovic tightened his game up considerably in the second set, doubtless in the hope that if he hung around long enough something fruitful might eventuate. He was rewarded by a poor service game from Federer at 3/4, broke, and then served out the set. He broke early in the third set when Federer’s forehand went momentarily haywire, and rode that almost until the end. As with Isner in the semifinal, however, Djokovic was broken while serving for the match, this time at 5/4. If he erred in this case, though, it was only in attempting greater margin. Federer put together his finest return game of the match, broke lustily to 15, and then held once more to love. From 3/5, he’d won fifteen of sixteen points. Djokovic must have been at least a little rattled, but maintained his composure beautifully, and, vitally, held comfortably for the tiebreak.

There was a reasonable hope that what had thus far been a fine and dramatic final might conclude with a fine and dramatic breaker, but this turned out to be one reasonable hope too many. The game whereby Djokovic had held for 6/6 usefully snapped Federer’s momentum, and the Swiss was never to regain it. Djokovic meanwhile confined his mood to that narrow band between over-attentiveness and exuberance, and made a virtue out of simply executing the shots he was meant to. The match ended with a weak pair of Federer errors, the first of which put them level on 98 points apiece, the second of which put Djokovic ahead. Statistically it was a terrifically close match – both had even winner / error ratios, served in the mid-sixties and produced six aces – but it was Djokovic who won two sets to one.

Both spoke graciously on the dais. Federer broke new ground by praising the camera operators. Perhaps he was impressed by the new ‘FreeD’ images, although one doubts he was half as impressed as the commentators. I haven’t heard Robbie Koenig sound so enthusiastic since they began measuring the RPMs on Nadal’s forehand. Federer also admitted he was overall pretty pleased with his own form. As exciting as his third set resurgence was today, his resurgence across the first few months of 2014 has mattered more, especially given his poor 2013. Greg Rusedski suggested Federer might be intending to peak for Roland Garros and Wimbledon. It’s the kind of thing Rusedski is for some reason paid to say.

Djokovic for his part conceded that it was ‘an incredible match – an incredibly difficult match’. For all that it cleaved to the usual format – with Federer leaping out early and Djokovic gradually reeling him back – the subtleties and contrasts inherent to the match-up as ever inspired some great tennis. I find it to be the most consistently interesting of the elite rivalries (others will certainly disagree). Djokovic plays Federer differently to how he plays just about everyone else, which is a testament to his versatility, as is the fact that, despite never consistently playing at his highest level, he is once against the Indian Wells champion.

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A Day of Promise

March 11th, 2014 4 comments

Indian Wells, Third Round

In spite of Indian Wells’ remote desert location, today’s order of play promised the most fertile day’s tennis in weeks. Enticing match-ups threatened to bloom across three stadium courts, assuming they were provided with sufficient light and care. Alas, what began with promise finished up as a salutary lesson in being careful what you wish for. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images North AmericaBy and large, even those matches that did flower gave forth fetid blooms. It wasn’t the conditions, since those were perfect. It was mostly an issue of over-fertilisation.

(5) Murray d. Vesely, 6/7 6/4 6/4

Things got off to a noisome start on Stadium 2, as Andy Murray and Jiri Vesely  set about establishing the heroically excremental tone that would saturate the day. Murray generally struggles at Indian Wells, although one strives in vain to tease a common element out of his various losses. Last year provided a relatively green patch, as he reached the quarterfinals before falling to Juan Martin del Potro. Two years ago he lost his opening match to a rampant Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. The year before that he fell in the same round, losing with dismal single-mindedness to Donald Young.

Today Murray appeared less committed to losing. At times, particularly at the commencement and the conclusion of the match, it almost looked like he wanted to win. He led by a couple of breaks in the opening set, although these didn’t take root, and Vesely climbed back to take it in a tiebreak. The Czech led by a break in the second set, but found creative ways to hand it back. Much the same thing happened in the third set, thereby providing Vesely with a ‘valuable learning experience’. Being young and impetuous, he’ll probably appreciate the lesson less than a win.

Murray was through, but sounded more chagrined than elated. ‘The quality of tennis was not great,’ he remarked, echoing Portia. Indeed not: it droppeth as a gentle rain of sparrow crap from heaven, upon the place beneath, forming a slick grey film that coated the balls and got into everything. Murray showed himself to be a keen student of understatement: ‘It was an ugly match with no real rhythm – neither of us played well at the same time . . .’

Sky Sports, turd-polishers par excellence, again proved themselves adept at overstatement, insisting that the match had ‘had everything’, and had been a showcase for Murray’s ‘champion qualities.’ Statistics don’t always tell the full story, but sometimes they refute the wrong one. In this case they tallied well with the visual evidence, which consisted of a densely compacted trash-cube of crucial double faults, jittery errors, dozens of break points, sub-par serving and vehement self-excoriation. The soft patter of sparrow dung was soon drowned out by a downpour of clichés. The BBC had it that Murray both dug deep and survived a scare, in much the same way that a stranded hiker will excavate a foxhole to ward off exposure. Robbie Koenig chimed in to the effect that champions find a way, but failed to mention that the way in this case was a dung-slimed path paved with his opponent’s double faults. Still, lesser players have gotten lost.

(7) Federer d. (27) Tursonov, 7/6 7/6

Even as Murray and Vesely braided the clean desert air into ropes of ordure, Federer and Tursonov were providing a rather better spectacle on the main stadium, although this isn’t saying much. Federer led by a break in the first set, and served for it, but forfeited the advantage and slunk to a tiebreak, which he narrowly won. Tursonov surged into an early break in the second, then immediately reversed out of it. Another tiebreak hove into view. Both men were playing decently, and sometimes well – there will always be winners and bold moves forward with this pair – but rarely at the same time. Federer took the second tiebreak quite comfortably, and that was that. It is Federer’s eight victory in a row, and he’ll next face Tommy Haas.

(13) Fognini d. (23) Monfils, 6/2 3/6 7/5

By this time Stadium 2 had been attended to by a bio-hazard crew armed with fire hoses, although nothing could quite scour clean the noxious vibe. Into this cauldron of bad faith and broken dreams ambled Fabio Fognini and Gael Monfils, unequalled masters at the art of transfiguring beauty into dross, and then back again as fancy strikes them. (Monfils, with Gilles Simon, once rendered Hisense Arena all but unusable for weeks.) Initially it was a surprising match, in that the higher-ranked Fognini quickly set about building a commanding lead, much as a normal tennis player might. There were a few characteristic flourishes towards the end as he blew a handful of set points, but overall it was a disappointingly assured performance.

Monfils predictably roared back in the second, and maintained his momentum into the third. This was more like it. The Frenchman eventually served for the match at 5/4, threw in a double-fault on match point, and then another two points later to be broken. Fognini was now in his element. ‘Quite incredible’ remarked Koenig conversationally, for form’s sake. His uncharacteristically sedate tone suggested it was anything but incredible. If he was conserving his larynx for the tiebreak, he needn’t have bothered: Fognini held, and then, via a sequence of soft Monfils errors, broke to love to take the match. It was anticlimactic, but only if you were expecting a climax.

(3) Wawrinka d. (29) Seppi, 6/0 6/2

Dramatic matches can grow burnished with time, regardless of their actual quality. Stanislas Wawrinka and Andreas Seppi fought out a memorably awful match in Rome two years ago, with the Italian eventually saving half a dozen match points. (Venue and personnel count for a lot. Seppi was an Italian playing on Petrangeli, one of the great tennis courts of the world, before a partisan crowd always eager to give itself to frenzy. The fact that the match was a timorous, leaden-handed disaster hardly matters. Indian Wells, for all its new money and self-proclaimed status as a fifth-slam, lacks that kind of cache, and certainly lacks a local crowd as committed to lunacy.) There was little chance they’d reprise that match today; Seppi isn’t quite the same player he was, while Wawrinka is now a Major champion and playing like it. That’s pretty much how it played out. Wawrinka triumphed 6/0 6/2 in under fifty minutes, the kind of performance we’ve learned to expect from a Swiss number one.

(28) Dolgopolov d. (1) Nadal, 6/3 3/6 7/6

While Kevin Anderson gradually dug himself a deep foxhole against Evgeny Donskoy, Rafael Nadal and Alexandr Dolgopolov made their way onto Stadium One for what was fated to be the match of the day. So far this year Wawrinka is the only man to defeat Nadal, a result that was especially surprising given the Swiss had never won so much as a set from the Spaniard before that. Dolgopolov also hadn’t won a set from Nadal, although the last set they’d played – a tiebreaker in the Rio final a few weeks ago – was the closest he’d come. There was some hope that he was finally due – this was not a hope officially sanctioned by Nadal’s fan base – although I doubt whether anyone seriously believed the Ukrainian would manage to win two sets. Victory appeared unlikely.

The opening salvoes did little to convince otherwise, though they also suggested that neither man particularly covets his own serve. Breaks came and went, as did Dolgopolov’s challenges. He had none left after two and a half games. The breaks soon gave way to holds, but for one last surge from Dolgopolov. He saw out his first ever set over Nadal with nary a trace of nerves, his first serve percentage soaring into the high thirties. Indeed, it was the kind of nervelessly virtuosic performance that Dolgopolov is notorious for; flat, bold hitting, painting the lines and exposing Nadal’s forehand corner with uncounterable crosscourt backhand drives, timed exquisitely. The Spanish commentators, models of objectivity, took to declaiming ‘afortunado‘ after Dolgopolov’s better points. One assumes they were referring to themselves, and simply felt lucky to be witnessing the Ukrainian in full flight.

It was also the kind of tennis Dolgopolov notoriously cannot sustain. Nadal turned it around in the second set, mostly by tightening up his groundstrokes (length was an issue in the first set), and muscling his opponent around and off the court. When he took the set 6/3 it seemed as though routine patterns had been re-established, and equally clear that he’d go on with it. Somehow, though, he didn’t. Dolgopolov, slave to the mad clockwork in his brain, began to hit out again, and broke. From 5/2 up, however, he began to hit out in earnest – often metres out – while Nadal refused to miss.

Dolgopolov, inspired by Monfils, broke himself to love in lieu of serving out a famous upset, thus convincing at least one onlooker that the match was essentially over. It was a mercy when he held serve and forced a tiebreak, and a miracle when he kept the breaker close. The score flopped around listlessly for a while, mostly due to Nadal’s unwillingness to sustain a lead. A disastrous forehand approach by the Spaniard at 5/5 permitted Dolgopolov a match point, which he took with an ace. Nadal challenged. Hawkeye, having finally achieved sentience on the worst of all days, caught the prevailing mood perfectly and decided Dolgopolov’s serve had missed by a few millimetres. The miracle here was that Dolgopolov maintained his composure, made no complaint, landed the second serve, and then assembled an excellent point. It turned out he could win two sets, and thus a match. He looked ecstatic, and his father overwhelmed. Nadal afterwards proffered no excuse beyond a gracious concession that his opponent had played better. And with that, the defending champion is out. Whether it was a bold, fragrant upset or a hillock of crap is, naturally, a matter of perspective, just like the day itself.

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So Many Proven Yangs

February 24th, 2014 10 comments

Marseilles, Final

(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. Gulbis Marseilles 2014 -4As 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.

Categories: ATP Tour Tags: , , ,

Yuletide Bling

January 3rd, 2014 9 comments

Brisbane, Quarterfinals

The professional tennis season seems to commence earlier every year, which is to say, less late in the previous year. Eight elite men endorsed by the International Management Group were already darting through Abu Dhabi’s liquid air while the less athletically ambitious among us still metabolised our lazy Christmas feasts. I assume someone won the Mubadala World Tennis Championship, though I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the whole thing evaporated in a haze of irrelevance.† Federer Mahut Brisbane 2014 -1It was over before I knew it, and certainly before I bothered to tuned in. I’d barely begun searching for chocolate in the unopened panels of my children’s advent calendars before meaningful play was under way in Chennai, Doha and Brisbane.

For many Australians, Christmas represents merely the most concentrated expression of the perennial fantasy that we are a small, cold county in the United Kingdom, and not a hot, dry continent located in the southern Pacific Ocean. A disembodied and dislocated Bing Crosby extols the benefits of a white Christmas in every department store. Vast artificial pine trees, festooned with yuletide bling, conveniently obstruct shopper’s views of the outside world, where eucalypts sag in the heat, sap dribbling away. School children are organised into ad hoc choirs, forced to pipe movingly about an unexplained feast (Stephen) where a king they’ve never heard of (Wenceslas) slogs through a substance they’ve never touched (snow). (There is only one well-known Australian Christmas ‘carol’ – well-known in Australia, that is – called Six White Boomers, which rousingly recounts that famous occasion when Santa’s reindeer were replaced by half a dozen kangaroos.) Trapped by December’s dull immensity and two centuries of cultural inertia, we gorge on imported turkey, hide superseded currency in hot puddings, and bunt our homes in tinsel. The best times, the ones that unite the nation, come when we beat the English at cricket.

Sport is one of the few areas where Australia’s strident declarations of global relevance don’t mask crippling insecurity. This is not to imply the sporting declarations aren’t bombastic and delusional, merely that they aren’t born from the cringing assumption that everyone else does everything better. As a nation we legitimately believe that we should win at any sport we turn our hand to, excepting those events conducted on ice or snow, and possibly gymnastics. That we aren’t dominating baseball or hurling merely speaks to the fact that we haven’t got around to them yet. It also means that the sporting public can be slow to cotton on if our dominance wanes. When our swim team doesn’t win all the gold medals, we launch exhaustive reviews to uncover structural flaws, barely pausing to consider that we might just lack the best swimmers.

As I write the Australian cricket team is seeking to complete a 5-0 series demolition of England’s cricket team, which I won’t deny has been a treat to watch. Before the current series, however, Australia had barely won an international cricket match all year, and hadn’t beaten England in a Test series since 2007. Australia at present is far from the best cricket team in the world, but for a very long time it knew no peer. Given the substantial lag-time between events occurring and their significance penetrating the general consciousness, recent poor results were treated as an aberration rather than the new norm. Thus the current resurgence hasn’t been greeted with relief so much as satisfaction at the resumption of normal service. Meanwhile the English press, long-inured to abject losses, have found their best fears confirmed, thus enabling their favourite pastime, which is excoriating their cricketers. Cultures of victory and defeat originate in reality, but they always leave it behind.

It’s much the same with tennis. Those who know only a little still assume Roger Federer will win every tournament he enters. Certainly the good burghers attending the Brisbane International aren’t discouraged in this assumption, nor are television viewers. Vision of him cradling koalas and promos for his upcoming charity night fills whatever space is left over once the commentators finish extolling the local talent. To be fair, there’s no good reason to think Federer won’t win it. The draw wasn’t strong even when it was still intact, and it broke apart almost immediately. He has reached the semifinals by defeating Jarkko Nieminen and Marinko Matosevic without any discernible effort, though Matosevic looked like collapsing by the end of the second set, after less than an hour on court. Nor has Federer’s new, larger Wilson frame caused a problem. His serve has regained its erstwhile effectiveness – last year it proved a useful barometer of the state of his back – while the famed forehand, John Fitzgerald reassures us, still boasts ‘plenty of trajectory’. More entertainingly, he has partnered with Nicolas Mahut in doubles, and their matches have so far produced the best tennis of the tournament. Yesterday’s victory over Grigor Dimitrov and Jeremy Chardy, secured 11-9 in the match tiebreak, was great fun.

The dream final, from the perspective of the Brisbane organisers, the official broadcaster, and locals who’ve secured tickets, would be for Federer to face Lleyton Hewitt, who today pushed through to the semifinal with a comfortable victory over Marius Copil. Word is that the Australian hardcourts are considerably faster this year than they’ve been in a long time, with the speed of Pat Rafter Arena more in line with the kind of court Pat Rafter once thrived on. Rafter himself, interviewed courtside, suggested that Federer will enjoy himself this year. He also admitted that it’s still weird to enter an arena with your own name on it. (Having just renamed my house the Jesse Pentecost Coliseum, I can sympathise.) Australians are still encouraged to believe Hewitt is a legitimate contender for major tournaments, based on the fact that he was a top player a decade ago, and always tries very hard. , As I say, the culture of winning dies hard. The exception comes when he faces Federer, who has instilled in the Australian public by rote the knowledge that some battles just cannot be won, no matter how hard you try. Hewitt will next face Kei Nishikori, who beat Marin Cilic. Federer will play Chardy, who beat Sam Groth.

† Apparently Novak Djokovic won Abu Dhabi, defeating David Ferrer.

Categories: ATP Tour Tags: ,

Small Height Situation

November 26th, 2013 16 comments

‘We’ve talked about Darcis and his small height situation . . .’

There were many issues facing Steve Darcis in the first round of this year’s Wimbledon Championship, though his small height situation was among the least of them. A more looming concern was incarnated by the man across the net, known in the business as the big Nadal situation. For those of us watching at home the real issue was the commentary, delivered by men whose enthusiasm for tennis wasn’t matched by a commensurate command of the English language. Goodall Koenig WTF 2013 -1As ever the urge to sound clever yielded pompous verbiage. Couldn’t they just say Darcis was short?

Of course, Darcis, who hails from the region of Western Europe known for its Belgian situation, ended up winning. His Nadal situation proved less parlous than had been forecast. The rest of us weren’t so lucky. Whereas a routine Nadal victory would have resulted in merely forgettable commentary, the upset of the year inspired the more ambitious commentators to go for baroque. Their instinct was to match spectacular visuals with coruscating wordplay. It was not necessarily a bad instinct to have, and in some cases worked out to everyone’s benefit, except perhaps Nadal’s. The best commentators rose heroically to the occasion, because they are the best talkers. In too many other cases, however, sound instinct was undone by bad technique.

One’s eagerness to poke fun at poor commentary should not be construed as a comment upon the relative difficulty of the task. This should go without saying, but sadly cannot. The most common defence of bad commentary is that it is harder than the armchair critics fondly believe. This may well be true, and indeed we are afforded daily proof that commentary is the hardest task in the world to get right. But this in turn begs the question of why, if it is so hard, so many patently unqualified people are employed to do it and why so many blithely assume they can do it well. Maybe they were misled. I’m sure Barry Cowan didn’t think it a particularly taxing gig when Sky Sports offered it to him. I suspect he still doesn’t find it very taxing. Perhaps that’s the problem.

Either commentating is easy and anyone can do it, or it’s hard and few can. I don’t see how you can have it both ways. That being said, I’m also not convinced it matters, because, whatever the case, there’s no reason to put up with professionals doing it badly. Nor does its putative difficulty render it immune to critique from listeners. Proficiency at a given task is not a prerequisite for noting when it isn’t done well. If a tradesman does a shoddy job repairing my washing machine, he isn’t above reproach simply because I cannot do a better job. No doubt any attempt to fix it myself would instil a heightened respect for the complexity of the task, but it wouldn’t alter the fact that repairing white goods is something that can be done well, and that a more competent repairman would have left me with a working appliance. The existence of good commentary proves that bad commentary isn’t necessary, despite strong evidence to the contrary.

Commentary is a little like tennis, in that some are more suited to it than others. The key difference is that bad tennis is self-correcting. Players who underperform typically lose matches, and consequently see their ranking decline. Weak commentators get a pay rise. Of course one’s view of what constitutes weak commentary is ultimately a matter of preference: one person’s Robbie Koenig will be another’s Cliff Drysdale. (I’ll leave to one side the tendency of various fan-bases to organise themselves tribally according to perceptions of bias, measured with instruments so hypersensitive they leave the James Webb telescope looking like a dowsing rod.) Ultimately there’s no use arguing matters of taste. I understand that my preferences aren’t likely to be shared by others, especially since I place no importance on whatever opinions the commentators happen to hold. I don’t care which players they favour, so long as whatever they have to say is said well. Sometimes I’d prefer it if they didn’t talk about tennis at all. I invariably enjoy listening to Craig Willis on AO Radio more than any ‘proper’ commentator, and he only ever mentions the tennis when the person sharing the booth shoves their elbow into his ribs. But perhaps he isn’t to everyone’s tastes.

Some fans love Boris Becker. I find him tiresome and obvious. It has been pointed out elsewhere that many viewers initially like John McEnroe, but find him harder and harder to take as they grow more familiar with the sport. Lines that seem insightful at first sound platitudinous after a while, his inclination to self-promote can be wearying, and his ignorance of players ranked beyond the top twenty is deplorable. Apparently there are Americans who enjoy Brad Gilbert’s work, but then there are Americans who enjoy spray-on cheese. Conversely some viewers cannot abide Mats Wilander, but I think he’s okay. I appreciate the way he doesn’t feel a serious point must be freighted down with excessive solemnity.

Granting for the moment the near-insurmountable difficulty of the job, surely we can conclude that the skillset required for a good commentator is not the same as the one required to be a great tennis player. Achieving renown as a player certainly doesn’t preclude a talent for calling matches, but nor does it guarantee one. Why then do television networks fall over themselves to hire ex-players? It probably comes down to trust, and the fact that most people watching coverage of a tennis match (or any sport) probably don’t know all that much about it. For viewers who regard the basic rules as inscrutable arcana, there’s doubtless a measure of reassurance in having those rules explained by a well-known champion. Wedded to this is the assumption that the well-known champion boasts a deeper insight into what the players on court are currently thinking and feeling, having been there and done it themselves. All ex-pros believe they possess this special power, though only McEnroe seems convinced he is clairvoyant.

It is the natural conceit of all disciplines that their inner workings are impenetrable to the mere layperson, a conceit often propagated by a clergy intent on making its presence essential. In the case of theoretical physics this assumption is justified. In other cases, such as tennis, it isn’t. Networks naturally milk this assumption for all it’s worth, and they aren’t wrong to do so. When Channel 7 brings in Lleyton Hewitt to commentate at the Australian Open – he usually enters the booth one round after he has exited the main draw – they always cut a promo in which he promises us plebeians that we’ll be vouchsafed a unique glimpse into the workings of each player’s mind. For those of us who’ve both watched and played a great deal of tennis, Hewitt’s insight usually turns out to be less unique than advertised. Mostly he says the same stuff as the other commentators, although I hasten to concede that there’s enough original material to justify his spot.

It is in the specific details that players like Hewitt add real value. When, during David Ferrer’s abject loss to Novak Djokovic at this year’s Australian Open, Hewitt revealed precisely how he himself had responded in a near-identical situation the year before, he was providing a level of insight available nowhere else. It was excellent commentary. In his first year with Channel 7 he mentioned that he and Nadal often play golf, and that the Spaniard is just as competitive on the course as he is on the court. Again, it was specific detail, and fascinating. Koenig is another with a tremendous memory for the key facts, often acquired personally. What a treat it was to hear him discuss Radek Stepanek’s early days on tour, and how the Czech had grown so disillusioned he’d almost quit. I’d never heard that anywhere else, but even if I had it’d be worth hearing it again from someone who’d seen it firsthand. Koenig was there.

But no one can sound like that all the time. There’s only so much to say. Even Darren Cahill, who I consider to be the best commentator going around, has to repeat himself from time to time. He is right to do so, since his material isn’t infinite and he cannot assume that today’s viewers are yesterday’s. Most commentary is merely filler, and it is here that the real pros earn their salary. This is the moment when weak commentary becomes helplessly mired in cliché – the essence of which is not falsity but lifelessness – and homilies. The capacity to make a general point in an interesting way is one that we am bound to consider exceptional among ex-champions. The colour guy is there to supply just that, but the backbone of the call must be provided by those with an assured command of language, such as Jason Goodall or Gigi Salmon. One mustn’t necessarily speak flawless Queen’s English, like Frew McMillan; again, Cahill’s conversational style is fine, as is Peter Fleming’s. All share the ability to convey serious points with a light tone, and to let the tennis speak for itself when it can.

The real problem comes from those giftless orators convinced they are Cato the Younger, especially the type who believes that ‘small height situation’ is an improvement on ‘short’. Becker has some notoriety in this area, and Roger Rasheed’s passion for jargon is unsurpassed. For me, however, the exemplar remains the transcendentally pretentious John Alexander, now mercifully retired. It is always worse for a commentator to overestimate his or her stylistic mastery than to be ignorant of style at all. For anyone who works with language, including writers, an awareness of the power of words is lethal when possessed by those ill-equipped to harness it. At least those innocent of linguistic intricacy will occasionally stumble out of their own way while they make a useful point. The overwrought stylist will never do that, though, since they instinctively know that key moments should be accompanied by the most incandescent displays of technique. Thus it is that a merely workmanlike commentator such as John Fitzgerald is far preferable to a portentous buffoon like Alexander.

Alexander, or JA as he was called by those forced to work with him, was without question the worst commentator I have ever heard across any sport. His dark gift was to combine a narrow and dated knowledge of tennis with a delivery so relentlessly grating that you were left to wonder (and regret) how phrases that lacerated your brain could somehow leave your eardrums intact. Temporary deafness would have been a mercy. Apparently unaware that television differs from radio in its ability to transmit images, Alexander’s most reliable trick was to very slowly recount the point everyone had just watched, in granular detail and a reverential murmur, as though he was narrating Napoleon’s coronation.

The early stages of Jim Courier’s current tenure with Channel 7 were a fraught time for the American, quite aside from the moment he first laid eyes on the anchor Joanna Griggs and inquired on air who ‘that bimbo’ was. He clearly felt nothing but contempt for Alexander, a feeling that was apparently reciprocated. Channel 7, subscribing to the dirt-common belief that mutual animosity might generate memorable frisson, ensured they always shared the commentary booth. Alexander’s knowledge of tennis more or less atrophied in 1986, while Courier as an elite player popularised the tactic of running around the backhand to unload on the off forehand, one of the pillars of the modern game. Thus would Alexander roundly admonish any player who ran around his backhand for leaving the court open, while Courier would wearily point out that this is how tennis is now played. Alexander felt it was too risky. Indeed, he was a passionate advocate for caution, believing that everyone should ‘play within himself’. This was a common phrase of his, along with ‘he measured the ball, and hit it for what it was worth.’ He would condemn qualifiers who over-hit against Nadal for not playing within themselves. Courier, his patience at an end, would try to point out that their only chance was to go for everything and hope it went in. JA wouldn’t hear of it. Courier told JA he sounded like a broken record, in a tone of voice that suggested he was willing to rearrange JA’s face to match. He clearly wanted to hit JA for what he was worth.

We are sometimes cautioned that sports and politics should not mix, in the naïve belief that sport could remain free of politics even if it wanted to. Thankfully politics does intervene from time to time. In 2010 Alexander became a member of Australia’s federal parliament, winning the seat of Bennelong as a conservative candidate – his platform was radically progressive compared to his approach to tennis – defeating the immensely capable Maxine McKew. It was a shame McKew had to go, but it was probably worth it to get JA off my television. His politics aren’t mine, but long may he serve.

If you believe, as I do, that the means by which professional tennis is transmitted to the general public cannot be usefully subtracted from the overall package – i.e. that television is not tangential to the sport’s function as entertainment, but fundamental to it – then it follows that the commentary matters. I have always written about it as if it does. Nevertheless, I’ve no desire to grade a list of all the commentators to whom I’ve ever been subjected. Even if there was space there would be no point. I’ve probably mentioned most of them over the years. Suffice it to say that there are a couple more whose work I enjoy, and many more whose efforts I find ridiculous, yet still enjoy. There are hardly any from whom I can derive no value at all, and mostly those few sin through being dull rather than wrong. Invariably their dullness reflects a degree of verbal poverty – people who don’t speak well tend to sound the same – which is mostly the result of a mistaken assumption that their business is tennis and not words. The result is not the end of the world, however, merely tedium, or as some would have it: a boring talking situation. But such cases are rare. Most commentators manage to be interesting at least some of the time, if only by accident, and the truth is that bad commentary only makes writing about tennis more fun.

26 November, 2013

‘We’ve talked about Darcis and his small height situation . . .’

There were many issues facing Steve Darcis in the first round of this year’s Wimbledon Championship, though his small height situation was among the least of them. A more looming concern was incarnated by the man across the net, known in the business as the big Nadal situation. For those of us watching at home the real issue was the commentary, delivered by men whose enthusiasm for tennis wasn’t matched by a commensurate command of the English language. As ever the urge to sound clever yielded pompous verbiage. Couldn’t they just say Darcis was short?

Of course, Darcis, who hails from the region of Western Europe known for its Belgian situation, ended up winning. His Nadal situation proved less parlous than had been forecast. The rest of us weren’t so lucky. Whereas a routine Nadal victory would have resulted in merely forgettable commentary, the upset of the year inspired the more ambitious commentators to go for broke. Their instinct was to match spectacular visuals with coruscating wordplay. It was not necessarily a bad instinct to have, and in some cases worked out to everyone’s benefit, except perhaps Nadal’s. The best commentators rose heroically to the occasion, because they are the best talkers. In too many other cases, however, the sure instinct was undone by bad technique.

One’s eagerness to poke fun at poor commentary should not be construed as a comment upon the relative difficulty of the task. This should go without saying, but sadly cannot. The most common defence of bad commentary is that it is harder than the armchair critics fondly believe. This may well be true, and indeed we are afforded daily proof that commentary is the hardest task in the world to get right. But this in turn begs the question of why, if it is so hard, so many patently unqualified people are employed to do it and why so many blithely assume they can do it well. Maybe they were misled. I’m sure Barry Cowan didn’t think it a particularly taxing gig when Sky Sports offered it to him. I suspect he still doesn’t find it very taxing. Perhaps that’s the problem.

Either commentating is easy and anyone can do it, or it’s hard and few can. I don’t see how you can have it both ways. That being said, I’m also not convinced it matters, because, whatever the case, there’s no reason to put up with professionals doing it badly. Nor does its putative difficulty render it immune to critique from listeners. Proficiency at a given task is not a prerequisite for noting when it isn’t done well. If a tradesman does a shoddy job repairing my washing machine, he isn’t above reproach simply because I cannot do a better job. No doubt any attempt to fix it myself would instil a heightened respect for the complexity of the task, but it wouldn’t alter the fact that repairing white goods is something that can be done well, and that a more competent repairman would have left me with a working appliance. The existence of good commentary proves that bad commentary isn’t necessary, despite strong evidence to the contrary.

Commentary is a little like tennis, in that some are more suited to it than others. The key difference is that bad tennis is self-correcting. Players who underperform typically lose matches, and consequently see their ranking decline. Weak commentators get a pay rise. Of course one’s view of what constitutes weak commentary is ultimately a matter of preference: one person’s Robbie Koenig will be another’s Cliff Drysdale. (I’ll leave to one side the tendency of various fan-bases to organise themselves tribally according to perceptions of bias, measured with instruments so hypersensitive they leave the James Webb telescope looking like a dowsing rod.) Ultimately there’s no use arguing matters of taste. I understand that my preferences aren’t likely to be shared by others, especially since I place no importance on whatever opinions the commentators happen to hold. I don’t care which players they favour, so long as whatever they have to say is said well. Sometimes I’d prefer it if they didn’t talk about tennis at all. I invariably enjoy listening to Craig Willis on AO Radio more than any ‘proper’ commentator, and he only ever mentions the tennis when the person sharing the booth shoves their elbow into his ribs. But perhaps he isn’t to everyone’s tastes.

Some fans love Boris Becker. I find him tiresome and obvious. It has been pointed out elsewhere that many viewers initially like John McEnroe, but find him harder and harder to take as they grow more familiar with the sport. Lines that seem insightful at first sound platitudinous after a while, his inclination to self-promote can be wearying, and his ignorance of players ranked beyond the top twenty is deplorable. Apparently there are Americans who enjoy Brad Gilbert’s work, but then there are Americans who enjoy spray-on cheese. Conversely some viewers cannot abide Mats Wilander, but I think he’s okay. I appreciate the way he doesn’t feel a serious point must be freighted down with excessive solemnity.

Granting for the moment the near-insurmountable difficulty of the job, surely we can conclude that the skillset required for a good commentator is not the same as the one required to be a great tennis player. Achieving renown as a player certainly doesn’t preclude a talent for calling matches, but nor does it guarantee one. Why then do television networks fall over themselves to hire ex-players? It probably comes down to trust, and the fact that most people watching coverage of a tennis match (or any sport) probably don’t know all that much about it. For viewers who regard the basic rules as inscrutable arcana, there’s doubtless a measure of reassurance in having those rules explained by a well-known champion. Wedded to this is the assumption that the well-known champion boasts a deeper insight into what the players on court are currently thinking and feeling, having been there and done it themselves. All ex-pros believe they possess this special power, though only McEnroe seems convinced he is clairvoyant.

It is the natural conceit of all disciplines that their inner workings are impenetrable to the mere layperson, a conceit often propagated by a clergy intent on making its presence essential. In the case of theoretical physics this assumption is justified. In other cases, such as tennis, it isn’t. Networks naturally milk this assumption for all it’s worth, and they aren’t wrong to do so. When Channel 7 brings in Lleyton Hewitt to commentate at the Australian Open – he usually enters the booth one round after he has exited the main draw – they always cut a promo in which he promises us plebeians that we’ll be vouchsafed a unique glimpse into the workings of each player’s mind. For those of us who’ve both watched and played a great deal of tennis, Hewitt’s insight usually turns out to be less unique than advertised. Mostly he says the same stuff as the other commentators, although I hasten to concede that there’s enough original material to justify his spot.

It is in the specific details that players like Hewitt add real value. When, during David Ferrer’s abject loss to Novak Djokovic at this year’s Australian Open, Hewitt revealed precisely how he himself had responded in a near-identical situation the year before, he was providing a level of insight available nowhere else. It was excellent commentary. In his first year with Channel 7 he mentioned that he and Nadal often play golf, and that the Spaniard is just as competitive on the course as he is on the court. Again, it was specific detail, and fascinating. Koenig is another with a tremendous memory for the key facts, often acquired personally. What a treat it was to hear him discuss Radek Stepanek’s early days on tour, and how the Czech had grown so disillusioned he’d almost quit. I’d never heard that anywhere else, but even if I had it’d be worth hearing it again from someone who’d seen it firsthand. Koenig was there.

But no one can sound like that all the time. There’s only so much to say. Even Darren Cahill, who I consider to be the best commentator going around, has to repeat himself from time to time. He is right to do so, since his material isn’t infinite and he cannot assume that today’s viewers are yesterday’s. Most commentary is merely filler, and it is here that the real pros earn their salary. This is the moment when weak commentary becomes helplessly mired in cliché – the essence of which is not falsity but lifelessness – and homilies. The capacity to make a general point in an interesting way is one that we am bound to consider exceptional among ex-champions. The colour guy is there to supply just that, but the backbone of the call must be provided by those with an assured command of language, such as Jason Goodall or Gigi Salmon. One mustn’t necessarily speak flawless Queen’s English, like Frew McMillan; again, Cahill’s conversational style is fine, as is Peter Fleming’s. All share the ability to convey serious points with a light tone, and to let the tennis speak for itself when it can.

The real problem comes from those giftless orators convinced they are Cato the Younger, especially the type who believes that ‘small height situation’ is an improvement on ‘short’. Becker has some notoriety in this area, and Roger Rasheed’s passion for jargon is unsurpassed. For me, however, the exemplar remains the transcendentally pretentious John Alexander, now mercifully retired. It is always worse for a commentator to overestimate his or her stylistic mastery than to be ignorant of style at all. For anyone who works with language, including writers, an awareness of the power of words is lethal when possessed by those ill-equipped to harness it. At least those innocent of linguistic intricacy will occasionally stumble out of their own way while they make a useful point. The overwrought stylist will never do that, though, since they instinctively know that key moments should be accompanied by the most incandescent displays of technique. Thus it is that a merely workmanlike commentator such as John Fitzgerald is far preferable to a portentous buffoon like Alexander.

Alexander, or JA as he was called by those forced to work with him, was without question the worst commentator I have ever heard across any sport. His dark gift was to combine a narrow and dated knowledge of tennis with a delivery so relentlessly grating that you were left to wonder (and regret) how phrases that lacerated your brain could somehow leave your eardrums intact. Temporary deafness would have been a mercy. Apparently unaware that television differs from radio in its ability to transmit images, Alexander’s most reliable trick was to very slowly recount the point everyone had just watched, in granular detail and a reverential murmur, as though he was narrating Napoleon’s coronation.

The early stages of Jim Courier’s current tenure with Channel 7 were a fraught time for the American, quite aside from the moment he first laid eyes on the anchor Joanna Griggs and inquired on air who ‘that bimbo’ was. He clearly felt nothing but contempt for Alexander, a feeling that was apparently reciprocated. Channel 7, subscribing to the dirt-common belief that mutual animosity might generate memorable frisson, ensured they always shared the commentary booth. Alexander’s knowledge of tennis more or less atrophied in 1986, while Courier as an elite player popularised the tactic of running around the backhand to unload on the off forehand, one of the pillars of the modern game. Thus would Alexander roundly admonish any player who ran around his backhand for leaving the court open, while Courier would wearily point out that this is how tennis is now played. Alexander felt it was too risky. Indeed, he was a passionate advocate for caution, believing that everyone should ‘play within himself’. This was a common phrase of his, along with ‘he measured the ball, and hit it for what it was worth.’ He would condemn qualifiers who over-hit against Nadal for not playing within themselves. Courier, his patience at an end, would try to point out that their only chance was to go for everything and hope it went in. JA wouldn’t hear of it. Courier told JA he sounded like a broken record, in a tone of voice that suggested he was willing to rearrange JA’s face to match. He clearly wanted to hit JA for what he was worth.

We are sometimes cautioned that sports and politics should not mix, in the naïve belief that sport could remain free of politics even if it wanted to. Thankfully politics does intervene from time to time. In 2010 Alexander became a member of Australia’s federal parliament, winning the seat of Bennelong as a conservative candidate – his platform was radically progressive compared to his approach to tennis – defeating the immensely capable Maxine McKew. It was a shame McKew had to go, but it was probably worth it to get JA off my television. His politics aren’t mine, but long may he serve.

If you believe, as I do, that the means by which professional tennis is transmitted to the general public cannot be usefully subtracted from the overall package – i.e. that television is not tangential to the sport’s function as entertainment, but fundamental to it – then it follows that the commentary matters. I have always written about it as if it does. Nevertheless, I’ve no desire to grade a list of all the commentators to whom I’ve ever been subjected. Even if there was space there would be no point. I’ve probably mentioned most of them over the years. Suffice it to say that there are a couple more whose work I enjoy, and many more whose efforts I find ridiculous, yet still enjoy. There are hardly any from whom I can derive no value at all, and mostly those few sin through being dull rather than wrong. Invariably their dullness reflects a degree of verbal poverty – people who don’t speak well tend to sound the same – which is mostly the result of a mistaken assumption that their business is tennis and not words. The result is not the end of the world, however, merely tedium, or as some would have it: a boring talking situation. But such cases are rare. Most commentators manage to be interesting at least some of the time, if only by accident, and the truth is that bad commentary only makes writing about tennis more fun.

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Direction and Magnitude

November 12th, 2013 4 comments

World Tour Finals, Final

(2) Djokovic d. (1) Nadal, 6/3 6/4

Novak Djokovic tonight defeated Rafael Nadal in the final of the World Tour Finals, an appropriately forgettable match  with which to conclude a tournament that one suspects is already evaporating from the collective memory. It was the third time in the last four years that the top two players have closed out the ATP season, but the first time it has been these two. I suppose it had to happen eventually, since they seem to have played finals everywhere else. Consequently everyone knew what to expect, especially given the surface: an extended defensive slog based around the repetition of readily identifiable patterns. Clive Brunskill/Getty Images EuropeAs with minimalism – which people persistently confuse with simplicity – great complexity is achieved by the re-iteration of basic blocks, not to mention great length. No one expected it to be simple, and no one expected it to be quick.

I confess to feeling some relief when everyone was proved wrong, at least when it came to length. When two-players face each other thirty-nine times – an Open era record – it’s inevitable that not all of their encounters will be classics, although one hoped that the last match of a memorable season would turn out to be a bit less forgettable. Alas, Nadal commenced nervously and never entirely settled. Meanwhile Djokovic was fierce initially – tearing out to a 3/0 lead – then meek for a while, and then forceful all the way until the end. He seemed to hold break points in most of Nadal’s service games, but only reciprocated the favour once to be broken back in the first set. Whatever hope this kindled of a competitive match was lessened by the consideration that the quality wasn’t high enough that you’d necessarily want to see more of it, then doused entirely when Djokovic lifted again. The point with which he re-broke Nadal to claim the eighth game ranks among the finest defensive efforts I have ever seen, a masterpiece of thrust, parry, loft and touch. Djokovic’s bellow afterwards was long and lusty, and certainly justified. Most of us will never doing anything nearly so masterful in that atmosphere for those stakes.

Djokovic broke early in the second set – more shouting – and threatened to do so repeatedly as the set wore down. Insurance breaks are nice, but aren’t necessary if you never face calamity (much like all insurance, really). The Serb was never again threatened on serve, rarely conceded the baseline, and ended up with atypically excellent numbers at the net. Nadal was almost always on the move, and even when he could set his feet on a forehand found it hard to shift his opponent for long. The length on his groundstrokes was a constant problem, except for Djokovic.

In truth Djokovic was the real problem. Afterwards Nadal conceded that his opponent had simply been too good. On this surface, playing at his best, Djokovic truly is. The homogenisation of the court surfaces has helped ensure that these two end up facing each other at nearly every tournament everywhere, and that when they do they barely have to alter their basic game, but between them the surface still matters. Nadal is better on clay, and Djokovic is superior on hardcourt, assuming both men play at their best. In both cases the gap is closing, but it is still there.

Since the beginning of his career, Nadal fading through the late part of the season has come to feel like a structural requirement of men’s tennis, although it says a lot about his magisterial 2013 season that losing in the final of the year end championships can be construed as a let-down. It is also a testament to his evolving mastery of all surfaces that one’s definition of ‘late’ has had to be pushed further and further back as the years rolled by. Initially that late part of Nadal’s year kicked off very early, once the main clay tournaments were over. Admittedly that was long ago, when he was very young. Soon he learned to commence fading after Wimbledon, with the results petering out by the US Open. In 2008 he became a factor in the later stages in New York, and has never since failed to reach at least the semifinals, assuming he turns up at all.

Yet the period after the year’s final Major – pollen-choked Australians find it difficult to call this the ‘fall season’ – has remained unaccountably lean. In his entire career he has won just two titles after the US Open, and one of those was in 2005 in Madrid, enabled by an extravagant collapse from Ivan Ljubicic. That remains Nadal’s only indoor title, since the Ariake Coliseum roof remained open through his Tokyo title run in 2010, his only other career title in what northern hemisphere fans obdurately refuse to term ‘the Australian Spring’. But this year one could be forgiven for assuming the usual rules don’t apply, especially on hardcourts. Up to and including the US Open Nadal hadn’t lost a tournament on that surface. After that he contested four events – the same ones as Djokovic – and for all that he seemed more determined than ever to secure the few important trophies that have eluded him, didn’t win any. That’s nothing to be ashamed of, of course. Winning these things is really, really hard.

Djokovic, of course, won them all, though in the process lost his number one ranking. The extent to which those two events are connected is open for debate. Some felt that losing the top spot firmed his resolve. There’s probably something to this. After a strong start to the year Djokovic’s form grew patchy, even within matches. Transcendent sets would be interleaved with uncharacteristic dreck, as he would unaccountably lose his way. Since Beijing however these periods have grown fewer – there was a bizarre one in the Shanghai final – and he has looked more like the Djokovic who swept through the first two thirds of the 2011 season. (Surgically combining the first part of his 2011 season with the last part of his 2013 yields a year of near-perfection.) One shouldn’t forget he almost did exactly the same thing last year, but for that strange loss to Sam Querrey in Bercy. Last year he was chasing down Federer for the number one spot, successfully as it turned out. Grand purpose certainly sharpens his focus.

On the other hand, it’s probably pointless to search for additional reasons for Djokovic to play superbly on hardcourts. At his best he is without question the world’s best player on that surface. His current streak of twenty-two matches isn’t the longest by any means, but it is unsurpassed for quality. It includes twelve victories over the current top ten (aside from the injured Murray), including two wins each against Nadal, Federer and Wawrinka, and eight in less than two weeks. That’s hard to top. The appropriately renamed Brad Drewett trophy, bedecked with blue streamers and bestowed amidst a blizzard of confetti, was a fitting reward.

Thus ends the latest edition of the World Tour Finals. It certainly wasn’t the most memorable instalment, from any point of view. Perhaps it was the absence of Murray, but the entire week has felt slightly deflated. The Sky Sports commentary was certainly less demented as a direct result. Recall their tedious tut-tutting during last year’s semifinal over the London crowd’s divided loyalties, particularly Sir Ian McKellen’s unforgiveable decision to sit in the Federer box. Sir Ian was nowhere to be seen this year. No doubt he’s hewing monsters in Mirkwood. One wonders whether Murray’s absence was a deciding factor in keeping other celebrities away. Last year there was a cameraman tasked with capturing Kevin Spacey’s every facial tic, and apparently no one could get enough of Pippa Middleton. This year there were endless footballers and one of the heinous mannequins from One Direction. Still, you can’t have everything.

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A Madman’s Dream

November 10th, 2013 2 comments

World Tour Finals, Round Robin.

As innovations in sports coverage go, the two tendencies with the patchiest success rate have typically entailed attempts to introduce more technology into proceedings and vain efforts to bring viewers closer to the players, or vice versa. Clive Brunskill/Getty Images EuropeThe former tendency gave cricket the third umpire. The latter gave tennis those idiotic pre-match interviews, upon which it is impossible to heap too much ridicule.

Unsurprising therefore was Sky Sports’ latest innovation, which was to amalgamate these two tendencies into a single, and potentially unholy, feature. Within minutes of each match concluding the victorious player was invited up to the studio, whereupon he was sealed in a room with Mark Petchey and forced to analyse key moments from the match on the Sky Pad, a large interactive touchscreen. It seems like a response to a madman’s dream, but the result, to my surprise, is not half bad. New technology and live television are generally a recipe for disaster, but this worked surprisingly well. (Petchey probably isn’t integral to the enterprise, but he has obviously spent thoughtful hours mastering Sky Pad’s intricacies.) One doubts whether it would be half as successful if they invited the losing player along.

It’s also not an exercise that would work for every player, since many aren’t especially voluble even in victory. Tomas Berdych and Novak Djokovic were about the best of them, chatty, thoughtful and affable. Indeed, Berdych remarked unprompted that he actually found it quite valuable to look at the match this way, while it remained fresh in mind. He was invited to discuss the point whereby he’d gained the break in the first set, concluded with a fine backhand volley. He revealed that as he was lining the shot up his mind had flashed back to an identical volley he’d duffed in a different tournament, and was mostly determined not to repeat it. It would have been nice to hear from David Ferrer or Richard Gasquet, but of course that wasn’t possible. Both went home winless. Gasquet also went home with fewer coaches than he’d arrived with.

The final round robin match between he and Djokovic will hopefully – though probably not – provide a useful counter to those who scream ‘Tank!’ every time a player loses a match they statistically shouldn’t. Too often the loudest shrieks emanate from the player’s own fans, meaning that for many poor sportsmanship is preferable to merely losing – a sign of bad times. But if ever a player had good reason to tank a match, this was it. The result would have no effect on the final group standings: Djokovic had already topped the group, and it was already decided that he’d face Wawrinka in the semifinals. Furthermore, he’ll be playing that semifinal in under twenty-four hours, against a Wawrinka who has enjoyed an extra day’s recuperation, and who’s already driven Djokovic to the edge several times this year. Beyond that is a final with either Nadal or Federer. Assuming the Serb gets through all that, he then has the Davis Cup final next week. But he didn’t tank: he played on, sometimes desperately, sometimes grimly, often loudly. I’m not convinced his decision to do so merits applause, since not throwing a match is hardly an act of nobility, although it is being treated as such. In bad times you take what you can get.

I’ve no doubt that tanking does occur in professional tennis, but I do doubt whether it occurs as frequently as cynics suggest, especially the ones whose cynicism forms a world-weary veneer for naivety. In this case it reveals a failure to grasp that the pride of elite athletes exists at a depth that can be hard to fathom for those of us operating nearer the surface, and impossible even to sense for those who’ve never achieved anything of note. Djokovic was entirely conversant with the benefits that tanking this match would confer, and undoubtedly the possibility did cross his mind. Perhaps he even discussed it with Marián Vajda. But he doesn’t like to lose any match, which is part of the reason he has now won twenty of them in a row, stretching back to the US Open. This streak isn’t so impressive for its length – Djokovic himself has posted longer ones in recent years – but for its quality and its circumstances. He hasn’t lost a match since he lost the number one ranking, and of those twenty victories, half have been against top ten players. One of them was against Wawrinka last week, and he’ll certainly fancy his chances tomorrow.

Wawrinka’s passage to the semifinals is a suitable reward for a superb season, which included a final in Madrid, a semifinal at the US Open, and myriad strong performances elsewhere. His key result this week was the defeat of Berdych on the opening afternoon, especially the excellent third set. It was arguably the key result for Berdych as well, although the Czech certainly had his chances against Nadal yesterday, and by winning would have broken Wawrinka’s heart. But Nadal survived his only fraught moments this week, and by winning ensured a vast outpouring of goodwill towards Wawrinka, who is like Ferrer in that all the main fanbases are united in their approval of him. As with Ferrer, it’s much easier to bestow affection upon a guy who almost never beats your favourite. We can say that Wawrinka is unlucky to face Djokovic in the semifinals, against whom he is 2-14. But he is a combined 1-24 against the other semifinalists. Adorable.

Mind you, Wawrinka temporarily alienated a few fans when he complained that Toni Nadal’s coaching had grown sufficiently ostentatious that even the umpire might be prevailed upon to sit up and take notice. The Swiss entreated the chair to issue another warning, but none was forthcoming. Nadal was more obliging, and requested his uncle tone it down:  “Wawrinka is one of the players that I have a better relationship with on tour. I felt sad during the match that he felt that way. I told him ‘I’m sorry, it’s not going to happen again’. That’s why I told Toni to stop because the relationship is more important than any match.” That’s class.

Afterwards Wawrinka worked it out with Nadal and his coach, another example of the players resolving a minor issue amicably behind closed doors, while outside their more deranged fans mobilised, whipped themselves into a wild frenzy, then drowned in the collective froth of their own rabidity. The difference, one suspects, is that the players have more important matters to think about. The match itself was close, although in Nadal’s case he was only close to losing a set. This would have been the first one he’d ever dropped to Wawrinka, so that particular record remains pristine.

Wawrinka then took his vestigial frustration out on Ferrer, as everyone has all week. Ferrer failed to win a match at this year’s tour finals, proving once again how cruel the format can be. This has been the Spaniard’s best season, at least numerically, but it has ended in four consecutive losses. He did himself no favours by choosing to play for seven straight weeks, reaching three finals in the penultimate three weeks, and winning none of them. He has conceded as much afterwards, though I expect his schedule next year will be exactly the same.

The most exciting match of the round robin phase was undoubtedly today’s between Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro, who’ve lately taken to scheduling one of these each week. There’s talk of another exhibition tour through South America, for just the two of them. This week’s match was billed as a one-match shoot-out, with the winner to earn a coveted place in the semifinals and the loser to depart in shame, or at least in a water-taxi. It all sounded terrifically exciting until one recalled that they played for precisely the same stakes last week in the Bercy quarterfinals. Indeed, those are the stakes everyone plays for every week. Somehow the logic of the round robin format has scrambled pundit’s brains.

Anyway, it was a terrific match, at least in terms of drama. Quality-wise it largely confined itself to that wide channel between the lower bounds of the transcendental and the upper reaches of the execrable, only occasionally straying into both. Del Potro steamed out to a 5/1 lead in the first set, augmenting meat-and-potatoes rallying with an extravagant assortment of forehand errors from Federer. The Swiss eventually found his range, upped his pace, and came roaring almost but not quite all the way back. Federer’s early-set let-downs have now become sufficiently regular that even he no longer bothers to look surprised. He was duly broken at the start of the second set, but soon responded in kind. The standard lifted, and eventually a tiebreak arrived, at which point only Federer continued to lift, taking it 7-2. Del Potro appeared spent.

Federer has built a forgettable season on his new-found conviction that momentum is but a fool’s conceit, and ensured he had none left for the third set by availing himself of a long toilet break. He was, predictably, broken almost immediately. When I say ‘predictably’, I mean precisely that. Tennis TV revealed some fascinating statistics that clearly chart Federer’s decline: since 2008 the likelihood of him being broken in the first three games of a deciding set has risen year-on-year from 61% to 100%. It was a perfect example of the obscure stat that tells the tale. Unfortunately no numbers were forthcoming on how often he recovers that early break. ‘Too often’ is undoubtedly del Potro’s feeling, although the Argentine didn’t help his cause with some very soft errors at inopportune moments. Federer broke late, the London crowd went bananas – remember how they were roundly excoriated last year for supporting Federer over Andy Murray – and he finally sealed a desperate win with one last ace. Del Potro had contrived to lose despite leading by a break in every set. It kind of felt like a final, as Federer admitted in his on-court interview, but it wasn’t. He had merely earned the privilege of facing Nadal, the latest instalment in a rivalry so putatively epic that it must be denoted with Roman numerals. Beyond that, it’ll be a one-match shoot-out to the death, otherwise known as a semifinal.

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The Measure of Defiance

November 4th, 2013 3 comments

Paris Masters, Final

(2) Djokovic d. (3) Ferrer, 7/5 7/5

David Ferrer didn’t quite defend his first Masters title at the Paris Masters this week, falling in the final to Novak Djokovic. But he wasn’t far off, and came considerably closer than most believed he would. This is not to diminish expert opinion, but merely to laud Ferrer’s endeavour. There were plenty of good reasons to suppose he would not reprise his efforts from twelve months ago. Despite his lofty number three ranking, his form has been inconsistent this season. The Bercy draw was not only much stronger this year, but all the best players were unusually committed – all top eight seeds reached the quarterfinals – eschewing the common practice of offering a token appearance before absconding for London. Julian Finney/Getty Images EuropeHistory also provided no comfort: no one has ever won consecutive titles at the Paris Indoors. For these reasons, and others, I’d suggest Ferrer’s efforts this year have exceeded last year’s, for all that his greatest title ultimately fell undefended.

Ferrer’s defiance of common expectation has to some extent defined the European Indoor season this year. In Stockholm he defied the widespread assumption that he’d easily account for Grigor Dimitrov, given the Spaniard’s hitherto cherished role of keeping upstarts in their place. In Valencia he overcame the advantages of a slow court and overwhelming home crowd support to lose to Mikhail Youzhny. In Paris he defied expectations that he’d lose early in the tournament, or easily in the final. There is little chance that he’ll win the World Tour Finals next week, so pencil him in for that one.

Last year Ferrer won the Paris Indoors without contesting a match in which he wasn’t the strong favourite. For a diminutive claycourter this was an unlikely scenario, since aside from the World Tour Finals, Paris is the sport’s most prestigious indoor event. Sam Querrey and Michael Llodra had thoughtfully cleared any impediment on his way to the final, and once there Ferrer discovered that Jerzy Janowicz had usefully obliterated the other half of the draw. This year he enjoyed no such favours. In the quarterfinals he faced Tomas Berdych. Admittedly Ferrer boasts a strong record against the Czech, even on this surface, including comprehensive thrashing in last year’s Davis Cup final in Prague. But Ferrer’s form, as I mentioned, has not been stellar this season, and he has recently developed a knack for losing important indoor matches to aggressive shotmakers. In the semifinal he defeated a curiously downbeat Rafael Nadal in straight sets, a result that I hadn’t believed to be more than theoretically possible. The hardcourt head-to-head between the two top Spaniards was admittedly 3-3 before this match, but two of Ferrer’s victories came six years ago, while the other was in the 2011 Australian Open quarterfinals, when Nadal could barely move. Nonetheless, Ferrer performed with quiet magnificence, enough to take advantage of Nadal’s off day. In the final he insisted he played even better. The highlight was the stone-dead dropshot winner with which he claimed the tournament’s longest rally. It is rare Ferrer to be described as a genius, but the commentators were entirely justified in doing so there. Perhaps we should be quiet while he works.

Nowhere is it decreed that easy titles count for less, although some insist otherwise, concocting complicated metrics whereby we can waste time measuring one player’s achievements against another’s. There’s such a thing as an honourable loss, although no one would confuse it for a win. I’ve no doubt that Ferrer, if given the option, would choose a comfortable run to a Masters title over a heroic slog that falls just short. He doesn’t shirk toil, but that doesn’t mean he necessarily prefers hard times over an easy ones. It is therefore ironic that he so consistently makes his own life harder than it needs to be. The Bercy final proved to be a valuable illustration of this. He lost in straight sets, yet served for each of them. In both cases he saved his worst tennis for late in the set, although Djokovic played a large role in that, characteristically lifting precisely when circumstances required he must. There is no shortage of broken-hearted opponents who can testify to the Serb’s sense of timing, nor his immaculate focus in parlous situations.

Until he needed to be, the Serb was rarely at his best, and certainly nowhere the level he displayed against Wawrinka in the quarterfinals, or against Nadal in Beijing, let alone the consummate flogging he visited upon Ferrer back in Melbourne, or myriad other cruel beatdowns he has delivered this year. Despite that, Djokovic afterwards claimed he was playing his best tennis of the year. Perhaps he was speaking in general terms. Unquestionably he is playing better than everyone else right now. In his current winning streak of seventeen matches he has beaten every other player in the top ten besides Andy Murray – who has a great excuse – and Berdych, against whom Djokovic no longer need prove anything.

Today it was understandable that his mind might be elsewhere. Yesterday he won a tough semifinal against Roger Federer, and must immediately ford the Channel in order to play him again on Tuesday. There is thus no opportunity to savour his second title at a venue that has in recent times known few repeat winners. The last multiple champion in Bercy was Marat Safin in 2004. There was barely time to play with his new trophy, which is some kind of tree, and different from the old trophy, a modernist homage to tangled wreckage. I missed the old Masters shields. This would have been Djokovic’s sixteenth Masters shield, and third this year. Next week he’ll attempt to win his third year end championships. Even if he does – he is the favourite – he almost certainly won’t finish the year at number one, since for Nadal to do so he must win only one match in London, and has been drawn in a round robin group that could be purpose-built to ensure precisely that. When Nadal recovered the top ranking after Beijing I had supposed that the gap between him and Djokovic would widen considerably before it closed. That is probably still the case, since Nadal has nothing to defend until February, but Djokovic has done everything he feasibly can to remain as close as possible, with ‘everything he feasibly can’ here defined as not losing ever. He has defended every title he already held, and now added the Paris Masters, a display of defiance that must reduce even Ferrer to envy.

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Small Miracles

November 2nd, 2013 24 comments

Paris Masters, Quarterfinals

It is rare at any level of professional tennis for the top eight seeds to populate the quarterfinal stage of a tournament, a result that was guaranteed the moment Rafael Nadal defeated Jerzy Janowicz in the last of the Paris Indoors fourth round matches. At Masters level this hadn’t occurred in over four years. Julian Finney/Getty Images EuropeMore gratifying still was the fact that the last eight men remaining at the Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy were the same eight who’ll descend upon London’s O2 Arena next week for the World Tour Finals.

Apparently such a miracle has never happened before, although if it was going to, this was probably the year for it. Coming in to this week, three qualification spots remained open, meaning that a number of men had every reason not only to turn up but to give their best effort, which is precisely the kind of effort that can be lacking at this tournament. Added interest came in the form of Roger Federer, who was prominent among those yet to qualify. By winning his first round match against Kevin Anderson he took care of that, and yet another comfortable victory over Philipp Kohlschreiber saw him attain the quarterfinals. By joining him at that stage both Stanislas Wawrinka and Richard Gasquet ensured their spots in London as well, although whether they’ll do much more than make up the numbers is a nice question. The very best players seem unusually committed this year.

Novak Djokovic lost to Sam Querrey in strange circumstances last year, withdrew the year before after proving he cannot lose to Viktor Troicki under any circumstances, and fared badly against Michael Llodra the year before that. Yet this week he has hardly looked like losing or withdrawing. Indeed, through the first set of his quarterfinal against Wawrinka he seemed reluctant to give up points. The Swiss had an early chance to recover an even earlier break, didn’t take it, and was reduced to spectating for the next twenty minutes. The second set was tighter, especially at the start, but Djokovic always had it well in hand.

Nadal often doesn’t turn up in Paris at all, as a culmination of his disinclination to contest any of the other European indoor events that precede it. One can understand his disinterest, given that conditions don’t suit his game, and he hardly needs the points. He has won precisely one indoor hardcourt title in his career (Madrid 2005). But in a season in which he cleaned up the American summer and went undefeated on hardcourts until September, who is to say he cannot win the Paris Indoors? Gasquet certainly had little say in the matter, thrashed four and one in just over an hour. There was a belief that the last three rounds in Bercy would provide a preview of what to expect in London. It seems that this is the case.

Many are convinced Nadal will not only win Paris, but the Tour Finals as well, thereby tripling his collection of indoor titles. One viewer took the trouble to email Sky Sports to that effect, adding, however, that she would be equally happy if Federer never won another match. Marcus Buckland and Barry Cowan professed themselves shocked by this, suggesting neither man spends much time on the internet, which is largely powered by schadenfreude and self-importance, and is thus self-sustaining. Wishing catastrophe on total strangers based on perceived minor transgressions is an even more popular online hobby than charmless grandiosity, though the two are easily combined.

Cowan confessed he did not understand how anyone could actively dislike watching Federer play, even if for whatever reason you do not care for him off the court. Buckland invited the viewer to email in their reasons, which they naturally did. It turned out to be the usual tedious guff about arrogance and poor losing. Ho-hum. Cowan still didn’t get it. To his credit I’ll hazard that the reason for his confusion is that he fundamentally doesn’t grasp how many ostensible tennis fans are a fan of a particular player more than they’re a fan of the sport. For all Cowan’s manifold shortcomings as a commentator and a player, the fact that he was a professional sportsman means that only a tiny portion of his engagement with tennis concerns any particular player. For the fan who emailed in, and many others just like her, the opposite is true. Their approach to professional tennis is primarily concerned with the deification of their favourite player, and the revilement of whichever players they’ve been taught are diametrically opposed. You’ll observe that fanatics always reserve their unkindest hopes for rivals. No one wastes time wishing Ivo Karlovic never wins another match.

It was another reminder, as if more were needed, that many sports fans are dullards who cannot function without a depressing little assortment of heroes and villains, and that these roles are by necessity cast within very tight parameters. Thus, say, the soft-spoken and sardonic Robin Soderling is a villain, held by some to be morally on par with Timothy McVeigh. The reality is that most of us encounter considerably worse people than any professional tennis player every time we leave the house, or even when we don’t. You can hear the squalid thoughts of the ethically bankrupt merely by switching on commercial radio, and after listening to many politicians speak you’ll want to take a dip in the septic tank just to feel comparatively clean. Remember the supposed falling out between Federer and Nadal at the beginning of last year over the ATP Player Council? I must have attended half a dozen more acrimonious meetings than that in the last month, and am daily obliged to shake hands with far bigger wankers than any man in the top ten. As far as I can make out, and for all that it matters, all the top players seem like pretty nice people.

The fan who’d emailed Sky Sports can’t have been happy with Cowan’s mystified response, and was surely brought to a high simmer by the subsequent coverage, which was unabashedly Federer-centric. ‘I’m not even looking at del Potro right now,’ declared Andrew Castle in commentary as the second quarterfinal commenced, ‘All my focus is on Federer!’ He went on to add that for him Federer was the story of the next twelve to eighteen months in men’s tennis, which seemed rather disrespectful to Philipp Kohlschreiber, who is poised to commence his audacious run to the number one ranking. (Mark my words.) It was also somewhat disrespectful to del Potro, who has been in tremendous form of late, and will be a legitimate title-contender in London next week. He at least deserved a look-in.

It was clear as the first set proceeded that Federer wasn’t about to give him one. Federer was quite magnificent, hitting seventeen winners to just four errors and comprehensively shutting down the forecourt. It was almost justified the presumption that Federer was eager for another shot at del Potro so soon after the Basel final. His success against tall powerful players traditionally entailed exploiting their lack of agility with constant variations of spin, width and depth. Del Potro moves superbly for a man his height, but compelling him to lunge, dip and pivot is still a wiser strategy than trying to trade lusty blows from the baseline. Federer’s first set was a testament to this; 47% of his backhands were slices, the kind of figure he used to post when dispatching the arch-villain Soderling. Unaccountably he went back to hitting over his backhand more in the second, although until 4/5 he remained untroubled on serve. Del Potro so far had had an awful day on return, but at this moment unleashed his biggest forehand, and subsequently broke to take the set. The third set was patchier, with a string of breaks each way. Federer steadied quicker, and eventually served it, to his evident relief and the visceral contempt of at least one fan. Del Potro didn’t appear particularly fazed. If anything he’d looked a trifle fatigued as the match wore on, and I imagine the longer rest will do him a power of good.

Federer has now posted just his second win over a top-ten player for the season, offset by five loses. Andrew Castle reminded viewers that by the end of next week he might conclude his season with a more respectable win-loss tally of 9:5, assuming he defeats Djokovic in the semifinals, Nadal (probably) in the final, then everyone in London. This seems rather a generous assumption to make, even by Castle’s standards. We were also reminded that Federer has now beaten at least one top five opponent at least once in each of the last fifteen years. It seemed a strange point to belabour, since he is after all Roger Federer. He is not Philipp Kohlschreiber, although soon Philipp Kohlschreiber won’t be, either. Mark my words.

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