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Living In A Blue World

October 21st, 2013 4 comments

Stockholm, Final

(7) Dimitrov d. (1) Ferrer, 2/6 6/3 6/4

It is consistent with the ATP’s belated commitment to greater coherence that the European Indoor season, which began this week in Moscow, Vienna and Stockholm, now wastes so little time getting to the point. It was a move long overdue. If the season as a whole makes little sense, muddled as it is by the timing of the Majors, at least the little mini-seasons that comprise it can achieve some internal logic. Now the European indoors is structured just like the Asian swing, as a three-week escalation from 250 level events, through a pair of 500s, and culminating in a Masters 1000. Dimitrov Stockholm 2013 -4The clay season and the US Summer trace similar arcs, and presumably the grass season would as well if it only had more time.

Nevertheless, I confess I miss the more amorphous proportions the indoor season used to have. Whereas now it is crisply marketed and boasts a discernible shape, it was once baffling and went on seemingly for ever, filling the back-end of the season with an indeterminate number of ghoulishly-lit, interchangeable events differentiated only by their trophies, which strove to surpass each other for nightmarish modernism. It was kind of wonderful. You could tune it at any point and know what you were getting, yet rest assured that none of it mattered very much.

Along with Basel’s dusted pink – now a confected memory – the hyperborean gloom of Stockholm was the season’s highlight, if that’s the word. It was thus with some disappointment that I tuned in earlier this week, and discovered that the Swedish tournament’s overall look has been sharpened. Since before I can remember it has been so unrelievedly blue that it left viewers in no doubt that the spectacle before them was taking place somewhere very northern and very cold. The way the image seemed to darken and grow fuzzy at the edges helpfully evoked the sensation of freezing to death. Perhaps it was merely an issue with the coverage, not helped by the time difference that ensured I was always watching in the small hours of the following morning. Sadly, although the court is still blue, the colour has deepened, and the space around it has been recoloured green, thus helping it look exactly like a lot of other tennis courts. Thankfully Stockholm’s other trimmings have remained untrimmed, including the net contraptions used by the ballkids – why are these not used everywhere? – and a trophy that looks like one of Dr No’s discarded doomsday devices.

This device – I am assured its depleted palladium core has been removed – is now in the possession of Grigor Dimitrov, his reward for becoming the first Bulgarian supervillain ever to win a tour title. His victory also completed rare day of triumph for one-handed backhands and vindication for the select group of men who’ve rightly or wrongly been dogged by comparisons with Roger Federer. Dimitrov is merely the latest to be burdened by the title ‘Baby Fed’. The original Baby Fed, you will recall, was Richard Gasquet, who an hour earlier recovered to defeat Mikhail Kukushkin in the Moscow final. Tommy Haas was spared the dubious Baby Fed accolade through being older than Federer. Instead, for large parts of last decade he was held up as an example of stylish potential untapped, of what Federer might have been had it not all worked out so well. The irony, if we can even call it that, is that Haas this year has won twice as many titles as Federer: two. Maybe it isn’t irony, but it is somewhat miraculous, given Haas’ age. During the trophy presentation Robin Haase remarked that he himself might have been the thirty-five year old, while the German could pass for twenty-five. ‘If you only knew,’ replied Haas.

Both Gasquet and Haas recovered from a break down in the final set against sporadically inspired opponents, eventually claiming their titles within about ten minutes of each other. Initially it appeared unlikely that Dimitrov would reprise this pattern. He and David Ferrer commenced the Stockholm final in the traditional manner of fast indoor tennis, by breaking each other constantly. Dimitrov soon wearied of this, though Ferrer didn’t, and soon won the first set. Mostly this was achieved through the universally-applied tactic of directing everything at the Bulgarian’s backhand, though it would be unfair to suggest that it ever truly broke down. Indeed it held up admirably through the tighter second set. Ferrer had by now tired of breaking as well, instead developing a fondness for unforced errors. He lost his serve late, and then the set.

The stage was thus set for Dimitrov to fall down an early break in the deciding set, and then storm heroically back. Sadly, for Ferrer and for those of us pointlessly hoping that all three finals would play out almost identically, Dimitrov was never quite broken, though it was a near-run thing. Instead, again, it was the top seed Ferrer who found the crucial error at the worst moment, and double-faulted to give away the break. Dimitrov served it out, and commenced his celebration routine. Thankfully this has evolved from earlier in the year, when he would roar ‘That’s what I’m talking about!’ with arrhythmic gusto, uncannily echoing Gru in Despicable Me.

He began his year by reaching his first tour final in Brisbane, then characteristically lost his way. I was sitting with his old coach and manager as he fell dismally to Julien Benneteau in the first round of the Australian Open – a meticulously rendered example of a backhand crumbling apart – and could hardly have imagined that of the two men Dimitrov would be the first to win a maiden title. One of course should not underestimate Benneteau’s capabilities in this area, especially after Kuala Lumpur. The real risk is that after Stockholm we’ll overestimate Dimitrov. He has always attracted heightened expectations, especially in an era in which the next big things have proven slow to appear.

Presumably his new coach will help with that. Stockholm was Dimitrov’s first tournament with the ineffable Roger Rasheed, ‘ineffable’ in this case denoting that species of incomprehensibility that contrives to sound meaningful. Rasheed’s gift for impenetrable neologism is of course legendary, and certainly hasn’t gone unexamined in these pages. In the case of Dimitrov, however, I can see its legitimate value: by having to focus so hard on deciphering what Rasheed is saying he ensures that his mind remains empty of whatever it is usually filled with. Rasheed thus stands revealed as a kind of Zen master, with corporate-calibre motivational aphorisms taking the place of ‘Om’.

Beyond his capacity to spout claptrap, though, Rasheed is nothing if not a taskmaster, and notoriously intolerant of any player giving less than his best. His true value will be in addressing those periods, altogether too common, when Dimitrov decides not to bother. Everyone looks good when he’s playing well, and Dimitrov looks better than most. It’s what happens when you’re playing badly that counts. Yesterday in the semifinal he came back from a set down, though admittedly that was against Benoit Paire. But today he recovered from a poor start against Ferrer, and held his nerve admirably through a tight final set. Afterwards Dimitrov insisted that he was happier with his perseverance and resilience than with the actual silverware. I can’t say how true that is – it sounds like the kind of sentiment Rasheed would endorse, although he’d certainly use different words – but I suspect it is at least partially the case. In any case, one can hope.

Categories: ATP Tour Tags: , , , ,

The Elusive Billy Bye

March 25th, 2013 13 comments

Andy Murray tomorrow plays his third promising youngster in a row. He’ll face Grigor Dimitrov in a widely anticipated Stadium Court encounter. The last time they met was in the Brisbane final in January (the heat and humidity will thus seem familiar). Yesterday Murray saw off Bernard Tomic quite comfortably. By some coincidence Murray and Tomic met in Brisbane last year. William Bye Macau 2010 -1In the first round Murray easily accounted for the eminently defatigable William Bye, yet again. Murray and Bye seem to meet in Brisbane and Miami every year. Their fortunes are tightly wreathed.

William Bye is sometimes called Billy by his closest friends, and always called that by those passionate supporters who believe their searing regard confers a certain intimacy with a famous stranger they will probably never meet. The elusive Billy is especially hard to meet; he rarely grants interviews, and believes only important things should be said on social media, which means he has long since given up on it.

Bye’s country of origin is unknown. He is almost certainly not related to China’s Yan Bai. Occasionally he will be billed as Ukrainian – ‘Bye (UKR)’ – although this is surely incorrect, and merely due to broadcasters lazily assuming that Bye (UNK) is a typo. Mostly his nationality is simply left blank. Some whisper that he was born in international waters, on an abandoned oilrig that for a time saw use as a Megaupload server-farm. He will neither confirm nor deny this. There are rumours that he has been approached by Sweden with an offer of citizenship. By accepting this offer he would instantly become Sweden’s highest ranked player, and guarantee himself a spot on the Davis Cup squad. So far the Swede’s overtures have been rebuffed. Just because Bye hails from nowhere doesn’t mean he forgets where he’s from, or the rich tradition he incarnates.

While Bye himself is relatively new to the tour, he is the latest representative of a venerable lineage of also-rans, and his family’s near-exploits have fascinated writers for centuries. Ever one to champion the little guy, the Byes even tempted Shakespeare into occasional excursions into sports writing. This is presumably what Keats was referring to when he reflected on the unnecessarily high quality of Shakespeare’s ‘By-writing’.

The ‘e’, incidentally, was only added to the end of the family name late in the nineteenth century. This was the era of the Byes’ greatest triumphs, which predictably came on Wimbledon’s blessed turf. William Bye would regularly reach the semifinals at The Championships in those years, but could never quite manage to win through to the final, entirely due to the grace, power and skill of his perennial opponent William Renshaw. Billy and Willy would set the place alight – in those days the Centre Court turf was more flammable, but it was always Renshaw who wore the fancy asbestos pants.

Many of his devoted fans will remember the current Bye’s titanic tussle with Murray at Crandon Park two years ago. The Scot scraped through that match, but had little left in his tank for the subsequent round, falling to Alex Bogomolov Jr. This was admittedly Murray at his most vulnerable, in those years when his complicated post-Melbourne strategy involved losing every match until April. It was a missed opportunity for young Bye.

It was only last year that Murray broke out of this pattern. Having fallen early in Indian Wells to Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, Murray went on to reach the final of Miami a few weeks later, heavily assisted by a series of walkovers en route. These included Rafael Nadal in the semifinals, Milos Raonic in the third round, and of course Bye in the opening match. It was good news for Murray – essentially setting his feet on a path to Olympic and Grand Slam glory – but bad news for Bye. Still injured, he once again fell early in Monte Carlo, this time to Nadal. He just can’t catch a break.

Really, young Bye does suffer the most appalling fortune in such matters. Despite consistently reaching the main draw at Masters level, especially in America, he never fails to draw a seeded player in the first round. It really is rotten luck, and highlights the insidious Catch-22 beneath which the up-and-coming players must labour. In order to avoid seeds in the early rounds you need to be seeded yourself, which means a higher ranking, but in order to attain a higher ranking you need to win matches, which you can’t, because you’re always facing seeds early on.

Ryan Harrison is in something of a similar situation, and I think it would be mutually beneficial for these two to compare notes. Indeed, I wonder what would happen if they were to meet on court. Given Bye’s superior experience, I’d give him the edge. Plus Harrison has proven his capacity to lose to anyone for no reason, even if they come from nowhere.

Bye has yet to reach the main draw at a Major, but one suspects it’s only a matter of time. Given that the USTA is not shy of innovation, I predict his breakthrough will come at the US Open. Look for Bye to contest the first round in New York within a decade. In the meantime, his urgent task is to push further into the main draws at the Masters and smaller events. I think this a realistic goal. I believe we’ll see Bye in the second round at Masters level before too long. After all, if the intention of inviting Bye to contest the first round is to ease the top seeds’ passage through the draw, why stop there?

Update: I’ve been informed that Bye is already widely celebrated. His past exploits are celebrated here.

And thanks to Cindy, Bye’s official player profile is here. What have I wandered into?

Categories: ATP Tour Tags: , , ,

Obscure Trivia and the Pursuit Thereof

February 16th, 2013 4 comments

Rotterdam, Quarterfinals

Momentous events are unfolding, at least as the term ‘momentous’ is understood within the constricting parameters of men’s professional tennis in February. Of the three events being conducted this week, two managed to lose their defending champions within a couple of hours. Fortunately each man was located quickly; Roger Federer had wandered distractedly into a broom closet, curious to know what it was, while Nicolas Almagro had fallen into a yawning crevasse in the Brasil Open playing surface. Dimitrov Rotterdam 2013 -3Having been rescued, both men were immediately ushered onto their respective tennis court, whereupon both lost.

Meanwhile, at a secret US government facility in San Jose, there are reports that Milos Raonic remains on course to claim his third and final SAP Open title. These reports are unconfirmed, since, based on all available footage, this Gitmo-style facility is far too restricted to allow public access, and so far Amnesty International’s demands for entry have been rebuffed. I have requested my contact in the Bay Area to look into it. Expect her report within days. We demand the truth, whether or not we can handle it. At least President Obama is making good on his earlier promise to close the place down.

Benneteau d. (1) Federer, 6/3 7/5

Federer lost to Julien Benneteau. It isn’t the first time this has happened, even within the Western European theatre of operations, and even if we confine our terms of reference to fast indoor hardcourts. Benneteau also beat him at Bercy in 2008. He is now at serious risk of becoming the only man to defeat Federer twice without ever claiming a tour title. His place in later versions of Trivial Pursuit (Obscure Edition) would therefore be assured.

Which isn’t to say that Federer’s loss is a trivial matter, for either man. Benneteau played beautifully throughout the match. This proved a simple enough matter in the first set, given Federer, by Mark Petchey’s scathing assessment, had played the worst set of his career, or words to that effect. This is probably unfair, since he used to put together some pretty woeful sets before 2003, but the broad point can be conceded. Benneteau Rotterdam 2013 -2He was unusually sluggish, both in his reactions and his footwork, while his serve lacked penetration and his forehand lacked endeavour. Perhaps he’d inhaled some ammonia in that broom closet.

The true wonder was that Benneteau continued to play well even into the second set, after his opponent had finally relocated his game, notwithstanding a weak effort to be broken back to love. The tightest moments came at the end, at 5/5, when the Frenchman fended off three break points with positive play, and by landing first serves. The Sky commentators essayed the confident prediction that if Federer stole the set – he later admitted he wouldn’t have deserved it – he’d go on to take the match. The more superstitiously inclined among Federer’s fan-base, who subscribe to the idea of ‘jinxing’, undoubtedly wished the commentators would just shut-up, especially when the defending champion’s subsequent service game was disastrous. After struggling to 30-30 he double-faulted. Benneteau took the match on first match point, again by playing assertively, and charging to the net behind some strong groundstrokes. Federer missed the backhand pass, challenged the clearly out-ball, and that was that. Benneteau afterwards revealed that he’d immediately apologised to Richard Krajicek for beating his star attraction. ‘That’s okay,’ Krajicek (apparently) replied. ‘It’s sport’.

Speaking of obscure trivia (and the pursuit thereof), this is the first time Federer has lost to a player outside the top twenty who isn’t an ex-No.1 since May 2010, when he fell to Albert Montañés in Estoril. He has now gone without winning a title since the Cincinnati Masters last August, in contrast to a year ago, when we was in the midst of his most lucrative title-spree in years. In this period he has failed to defend four events (Basel, Paris, London and now Rotterdam). Having ceded the No.1 ranking to Novak Djokovic in the last week of last season, he is now over 3,000 points adrift of the Serb at No.2 (and about 1,300 points clear of Andy Murray). Federer’s next event is Dubai, starting in ten days, and after that the Indian Wells Masters. He is the reigning champion at both. But that’s okay. It is just sport, and some fans would do well to remember it.

Benneteau will face Gilles Simon in the semifinals. Simon’s opponent Martin Klizan retired with cramps in the third set. It is hard to see that that these reflected any excess of physical toil, since it was an indoor hardcourt match played at night, although it is, as ever, easy to say that they were instead the corporeal manifestation of the soul-crushing ennui experienced by most of Simon’s opponents at one time or another. I confess I’m surprised Simon is playing in Rotterdam at all. I imagine the US military could have put his abilities to good use in San Jose.

Dimitrov d. Baghdatis, 6/7 7/6 6/3

The other semifinal will see Juan Martin del Potro take on Grigor Dimitrov, who earlier defeated Marcos Baghdatis in the finest match of the day, and arguably the best match so far this week. It was a bruising, exciting, high-quality, all-court encounter between two gifted shotmakers making shots, conducted in an excellent spirit. Dimitrov vaulted the net upon claiming the final point, and delivered a heartfelt embrace to his opponent.

This is the third time Dimitrov has defeated Baghdatis in four attempts (with the latter’s only win coming when Dimitrov retired early in their match at Wimbledon last year). One hesitates to call it a match-up issue. In all three losses the Cypriot came very close to winning. Today the moment came late in the second set. The first time they met, in Munich a couple of years ago, Baghdatis held two match points in the second set tiebreaker, and after blowing them gave up almost entirely. Baghdatis Rotterdam 2013 -5Earlier this year in the Brisbane semifinal their match was mainly notable for the putatively crucial moment in the final set tiebreak in which the older player had suffered a time violation, although this had less bearing on the outcome than many vehemently declared. They play tight, thrilling matches, and somehow the Bulgarian seems to win them.

Today’s match was decided by its least thrilling passage, a ten minute period in which Baghdatis was suddenly unable to hit the tennis ball onto those parts of the tennis court mandated by the rules. This unfortunately coincided with a patch of fine form from Dimitrov, and covered the second set tiebreaker (which Dimitrov won 7-0), and the start of the third set. Thereafter Baghdatis apparently eradicated whatever gremlins had tinkered with his range-finder, but the damage had largely been done. Dimitrov was pushed and stretched on serve throughout the third set – it was, as I say, sometimes thrilling – but held commendably firm, and his commitment to attack and probe never once faltered, even when Baghdatis saved a match point at 2/5, and forced the youngster to serve for it.

A semifinal at an ATP500 event is among the biggest results of Dimitrov’s career, and even if he loses he’ll move to a career-best ranking of No.33. There is therefore every chance he’ll be seeded at the upcoming Masters events in the US, which will grant him the (dubious) comfort of a first round bye. Those who take inordinate pleasure in admonishing Dimitrov for slow progress bear reminding that this time last year he was losing tight matches in shady US facilities, and his ranking was spiralling back out beyond the top hundred.

The More Things Change

January 8th, 2013 20 comments

Nine days into the 2013 season, and it is safe to say that the second week has commenced the way first one concluded, and that the transition between the two was executed seamlessly. The young men who barely lost in Sunday’s finals have badly lost in Tuesday’s first rounds. Older men continue to lose their minds and their first serves to the dreaded time violation fairy. Photo: Getty Image - Matt KingBernard Tomic and John Millman are still the only Australians winning anything. Perth’s heatwave has relocated to Sydney, with potentially catastrophic results. Anything even passably amusing on Twitter is still being termed ‘epic’. The more things change . . .

Sydney, First Round

Fognini d. Dimitrov, 6/3 6/1

(Q) Harrison d. Bautista Agut, 2/1 ret.

It’s hard to believe that Grigor Dimitrov’s 6/3 6/1 capitulation to Fabio Fognini wasn’t a tank, for all that these are nowadays dignified by the term ‘strategic’ when they occur the week before a Major. Strategic or not, Dimitrov clearly preferred to be elsewhere – during some games he preferred to be sitting down and stalked to his chair before the point had concluded - and Sydney’s apocalyptic weather provided a useful pretext. My store of puns regarding the incompatibility of extreme heat and fog went sadly unrealised, since there was no way for even Fognini to lose this match, although in a different mood he might have given it a red-hot go. Whether Dimitrov was exhausted or not, it was a deflating outcome given the determination and audacity he’d displayed in reaching the Brisbane final. Were he as accomplished at maintaining leads as he is at establishing them, he might conceivably have won that final, or at least pushed it to a deciding set. Today he was lucky to win four games.

One hopes that Bulgaria’s greatest male player is not saving himself for the Australian Open. A 250 final isn’t so sumptuous an achievement that he can afford to save himself for anything, and the question remains whether the Dimitrov who lost the Brisbane final is particularly superior to last year’s edition. He is certainly ranked higher, and until his performance today one wouldn’t have hesitated to affirm that he is certainly better, even if he hasn’t quite completed the advertised metamorphosis from good to great. Last year in Melbourne Dimitrov survived a stern five setter against Jeremy Chardy in crushing heat, and followed this up by pushing tenth seed Nicolas Almagro to a fifth set, whereupon the Bulgarian wilted. Before that his warm-up consisted of a strong effort at Hopman Cup, before withdrawing from the Sydney qualifiers, citing exhaustion. He has undoubtedly improved, but he still can’t seem to play well for consecutive weeks. For the sake of a tired comparison, in 2002 the twenty-year-old Roger Federer prepared for the Australian Open by not only playing Sydney, but winning it.

At least Dimitrov saw out his match, for what it’s worth, thus providing a curious contrast to Roberto Bautista Agut, who on Sunday fell in three sets in the Chennai final, and today gave up after four games in Sydney. Unquestionably the Spaniard’s turn-around was tougher than Dimitrov’s – if only because his connecting flight was longer and involved customs – but it still seems unfair that Dimitrov will endure harsher critique for finishing his match than if he’d just retired.

Channel 7 has once again striven to harness local patriotism by labelling every Australian player with a small Australian flag, presumably in order to spare casual fans the humiliation of cheering for a foreigner by mistake. Suburban families who might otherwise worry that Marinko Matosevic is awaiting trial in The Hague can rest assured that he is in fact the country’s highest ranked male tennis player. It has had precisely the reverse effect in my house. My daughter proved steadfast in her preference for Denis Istomin over James Duckworth, wisely as it turned out. Channel 7 has taught my children that the national colours are the kiss of death. Yesterday my son asked why the Australia flag people keep on losing. What could I say? Had I realised that Sydney was fated to reach 43C today, I could have suggested that our hapless compatriots had deliberately lost in order to spare themselves the savage heat. In other words, they’d strategically tanked. Sam Stosur, who hasn’t won a match in Australian in living memory, numbered among them. After she’d blown her third set lead over Zhang Zie she professed herself satisfied by the loss, insisting that she’d only ever wanted a couple of matches before Melbourne anyway. By entering two lead-in tournaments she had therefore guaranteed herself precisely that.

Auckland, First Round

Baker d. (5) Janowicz, 4/6 7/6 6/4

(Q) Jones d. (6) Melzer, 7/6 6/2

Meanwhile across the Tasman Sea the temperature has remained typically mild. It’s the wind that’s almost impossible. Jerzy Janowicz and Brian Baker, who last year provided more collective inspiration than a dozen Roger Rasheed desk calendars, fought out a tight match in a horrible gale. Baker won, but not before Janowicz mounted a pretty stirring late comeback. (That’s a useless phrase: ‘but not before.’ Baker Auckland 2013 -1Imagine what a lonely, quixotic figure Janowicz would cut had he delayed his comeback until after Baker won. Picture the Pole commencing his ardent toils even as his opponent strolls victorious from the court, while the stands empty around them.) The fearsome Auckland zephyr has blown over any number of bandwagons. David Goffin and Benoit Paire failed to survive the first round. Lukas Rosol failed to reach it.

Australian Greg Jones qualified after narrowly defeating Victor Hanescu in a terrific third set tiebreaker, and today upset sixth seed Jurgen Melzer. Nonetheless, Jones’  loyalty has been been called into question by some back home, since preparing for your home Major in a foreign country and winning actual tennis matches both carry a strong whiff of treason. There’s talk that Channel 7 might withhold his flag.

Actually Melzer wasn’t upset by Jones, but by Fergus Murphy, whose will-to-mischief thankfully didn’t fade with Andy Roddick’s retirement. He presumed to issue Melzer with a time violation warning, the same time violation warning that he no doubt warned the players about during the ball toss. Melzer had a meltdown – a ‘Meltzdown’ – the same meltdown that just about everyone else has indulged in. Aside from some churlish barbs hurled Murphy’s way – none quite boorish enough to be worthy of Roddick – there was little of interest added.

What is there to add? The debate about the new time rule almost immediately achieved the end-point of absurdity when Gael Monfils offered a racial justification for his sustained towel-offs. Top that. Now all that remains is for those with an axe to grind to spread as much misinformation as they can. Given sufficient cacophony, even the voice of reason won’t cut through. For example, the following appeared on Beyond the Baseline today: “I saw Kei Nishikori get a time violation in Brisbane after his opponent, Alexandr Dolgopolov, went to change rackets. There has to be a way to codify common sense.” But that isn’t quite what happened. Nishikori actually exceeded the allotted time in addition to Dolgopolov ambling off to change his racquet. Common sense was already being applied, without the need to be codified.

From what I’ve seen it has rarely been otherwise. Marcos Baghdatis’ violation against Dimitrov in Brisbane has also been thoroughly beaten to death, as though it had a significant bearing on the outcome. Todd Woodbridge yesterday claimed that after that moment Baghdatis lost a handful of points. In fact he lost only one point, but then won the next couple on Dimitrov errors. The tiebreak turned on Dimitrov’s backhand pass three points after the violation, which Baghdatis would never have reached no matter how sanguine he felt. Anyway, Baghdatis wasn’t warned for going over 25 seconds; he was warned for going over 30. He’d been consistently pushing 28 seconds without censure throughout the match, according to a shot-clock the broadcaster had up on screen. The umpire was already showing leniency.

It was a similar case with Matt Ebden yesterday. The umpire inflicted a violation because the Australian reached 28 seconds without commencing his motion. (As for Andy Murray’s contention that bouncing the ball constitutes the beginning of the service motion, Novak Djokovic successfully decoupled those two actions years ago.) As far as I can see the umpires are already being generous with the rule, and if anything they grow even more so in tight situations or after an especially tiring rally. I have yet to see a player violated at the 25 second-mark at a crucial stage of a match. But from the player’s reactions, you’d think they were being violated in a prison shower.

If it’s enforced, I’ve no doubt that players will learn to adapt. Murray wants the rule changed 30 seconds, but he wants it enforced absolutely. He pointed out that it already favours those who recover quickly. He has a point. If a player finds it hard to recover because he favours long points, then he’ll have to learn to finish points sooner, or recover faster. At some point he’ll need to make a choice. The intention of rules in sport, believe it or not, is not to make the game easier but harder, and thereby hopefully to force meaningful choices on the participants. That’s why we have a net – it forces the player to make a choice between power and control, even in this era of polyester strings. Shorter players don’t get a lower net, and nor is it lowered for them when they’re down set point.

The Same New Balls

December 4th, 2012 18 comments

Now that Bernard Tomic has attained twenty years of age – a milestone that was as restrained in its celebration as it was devoid of homoeroticism – there are once again no teenagers ranked within the ATP’s top one hundred, a shortcoming that has proved quite popular in recent times. Indeed besides Tomic there is only one twenty-year-old, although he doesn’t share the Australian’s penchant for canary yellow Ferraris.

Leaving one’s taste in garish sports cars to the side, this remains a serious problem. The age at which a player first ascends to the top hundred correlates strongly to their future success. As this article by Jeff Sackmann reveals, of the 25 players who broke into the top hundred between 2001 and 2011, 20 went on to reach the top twenty, while 17 reached the top ten. Of course attaining the top hundred so young is no guarantee that you’ll one day reach No.1, but failing to do so makes it all but certain that you won’t. Of all the No.1 players since the rankings began, only Patrick Rafter didn’t reach the top hundred before his twentieth birthday, which explains why the party was a decidedly glum affair at which he refrained from stripping off and wrestling his mates. It’s enough to make one wonder where the next top players are actually going to come from, or if they’ve even left the Juniors (there are some especially promising prospects in the class of ’96).

In the meantime I’ll confine my gaze to the youths who’ve already ensconced themselves in the top hundred. Given that an article summarising only Tomic and Ryan Harrison would be either too short or provide me with too much space in which to poke fun at them, I’ll expand the selection to those young men who are old enough to purchase alcohol in the United States. I can justify this by saying that in the current climate twenty-one still looks very young. In David Goffin’s case it looks downright embryonic. But it is still a largely arbitrary restriction, and I don’t mean to imply that the most notable twenty-two-year-olds – Jerzy Janowicz, Guido Pella and Evgeny Donsky – aren’t worth discussing. The number in brackets is each player’s ranking at the start of the season.

 

Milos Raonic

Current Ranking: 13 (31)

Milos Raonic barely qualifies for inclusion in this survey insofar as his birthday falls only two days after Jesus’, which will thereby propel him to the advanced age of twenty-two before the year is quite spent. He also stands out from this crowd for his tangible accomplishments, and for the way that in discussing him one isn’t obliged to deploy a term like ‘potential’, let alone precede it with ‘wasted’. This season he compiled a respectable 8-8 record against opponents ranked above him, and 37-12 against those below.

He has already won three tour titles, including two this year, reached several finals at 500 level, and beaten various top ten players, including a hobbled Andy Murray in Barcelona and a perfectly fine Murray in Tokyo. He saw off Tomas Berdych on a fast hardcourt, and Nicolas Almagro on clay. He also faced Roger Federer three times on three different surfaces, and on each occasion acquitted himself well in a narrow three-set defeat. There was also that marathon loss to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the Olympics, 23/25 in the final set.

His strengths and weakness are easily grasped. His impenetrable serve is ably supported by a commensurate forehand, and he generally remains undaunted under pressure. On the other hand his movement is poor, his backhand can’t do the things he tries to make it do, and his returning is of a standard that makes tiebreaks feel inevitable. More subtly, I suspect he still hasn’t quite worked out how to prepare for really big occasions in a really big venue. But he will. On the other hand, he won’t convince me that anyone besides the French should wear Lacoste.

 

David Goffin

Current Ranking: 46 (174)

David Goffin has been kicking around for a couple of years, but it was during his excellent run to the fourth round at this year’s Roland Garros that he established a broader appeal, first as he ended the career of Arnaud Clement, and then as he pushed Federer to four sets. While this provided Federer’s innumerable fans with a measure of unwelcome anxiety – traditionally grounds for excommunication – all was forgiven when Goffin professed himself to be among his opponent’s more ardent admirers, which earned him a hug at the net.

Although Goffin went 17-14 at ATP level, including a win over John Isner en route to the Valencia quarterfinals, he compiled a fairly healthy 44-25 record across all levels, including a pair of Challenger titles in Le Gosier and Orleans over a strong field. His game is built around light feet and great hands, offset by tremendously fine bone structure and a hairstyle straight out of That ‘70s Show, or contemporary Belgium. He rose almost 130 places over the course of this season, and it’s a reasonably secure bet that he’ll rise higher yet.

 

Grigor Dimitrov

Current Ranking: 48 (76)

Grigor Dimitrov remains tantalisingly close to a definitive breakthrough, as he has for several years now, although he continues to defy expectations that it will ever come all in one go. His biggest win this year came over Berdych in Miami, although he’d already acquitted himself well in Melbourne, taking Almagro to five sets. There was also that savage drubbing of Mardy Fish at the Hopman Cup, a few highly entertaining wins over Kevin Anderson in England, and over Julien Benneteau indoors. His best result came at Queens, where he fell in the semifinal to David Nalbandian in abhorrent conditions (and luckily before the blood rage took hold of the Argentine). He also reached the quarterfinals in Basel in fine style, especially in his straight sets victory over Viktor Troicki, which featured the officially endorsed shot of the year.

A blessed side-effect of Dimitrov’s more regular appearances at the business end of tournaments is that we’re increasingly spared the unrelenting comparisons to Federer. Apparently even commentators can tire of saying the same thing over and over. I’m as surprised as you are. It feels like Dimitrov now succeeds or fails more or less on his own merits, and references to ‘Baby Federer’ sound jarring and extraneous.

 

Bernard Tomic

Current Ranking: 52 (42)

It was always a long shot that Tomic would replicate his results from 2011, though there nonetheless remained a measured hope that he might compensate by playing well elsewhere, or at least by displaying some evidence of progress. What was a surprise was the extent to which his game stagnated, and how desultory he grew once the results ceased to flow. After January he did not beat a player ranked above him (0-14), and he is the only player on this list whose ranking failed to improve.

There was also confirmation of something many had suspected, which is that for all his undeniable talent, and immense racquet skills, his game will only trouble good players when they’re having an off day, and that the very top players would need to suffer a catastrophic day indeed, which by definition they almost never do. There has been endless talk about his poor application in New York and Shanghai, as well as his more spirited efforts in Gold Coast rooftop spas, but for me the definitive moment came in Miami when he faced David Ferrer. Given the gap in experience between the two men, there was no shame in it being a mismatch. But the gap between them was a chasm, and it wasn’t clear how Tomic might ever hope to bridge it.

 

Ryan Harrison

Current Ranking: 69 (79)

The first time I watched Ryan Harrison this year was from close range as he lost a practice set to Alex Bogomolov Jr the day before the Australian Open commenced. I next saw him the following afternoon as he wrenched a tough set from Murray in crippling heat, and looked for all the world like a different player, not merely from 2011 but from the day before. There was a maturity and boldness to his play that left everyone present in no doubt that he might have contrived a longer stay in Melbourne, had he only chosen his first-round opponent more wisely.

It would be unfair to say that the remainder of Harrison’s season was entirely disappointing, although it mostly was. Those of his fans with whom I’m personally acquainted have permitted their disappointment ample expression. Still, he reached three tour semifinals, although none occurred at an especially noteworthy event (San Jose, Eastbourne and Newport). More impressive was his run to the last sixteen in Indian Wells. All the same, Eastbourne forced him into the top fifty, while Newport pushed him to No.43, his highest ranking. Since then, however, he only won two matches, and they weren’t consecutive. Interestingly, Harrison’s overall record for the season stands at 23-25, but he is only 6-20 against players ranked higher than him, and 17-5 against those ranked lower. This suggests that, for now, his ranking looks about right.

He once insisted with special vehemence that he really hates to lose, with an earnestness that implied he’d invented the sentiment, as though no one had ever felt that strongly about it ever before. In other words, he sounded like a teenager. He has hopefully spent a year learning that the other guys don’t enjoy losing any more than he does, and that those passions he’d assumed were unique are common. That’s what growing up is.

 

Evgeny Kuznetsov

Current Ranking: 78 (222)

This time last year Evgeny Kuznetsov didn’t attempt to qualify for the Australian Open, instead confining himself to Futures events in Russia and Egypt  two of which he won. This time round he will gain a comfortable direct entry into the year’s first major. This is despite compiling a 2-5 record on the main tour (with both wins coming against lower-ranked opponents in Umag), and owing entirely to an outstanding season on the Challenger circuit. In all he won four Challenger events, for a record of 42-13 at that level. After winning three in a row in September, he steeled himself for an actual ATP tournament in Moscow, and promptly lost in the first round. It was a similar story at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon, where he fought through qualifying only to exit in the first round, although I can well recall how desperately contested the loss to Florent Serra in London was.

I have to wonder just long he can maintain a ranking of No.78 without starting to compile results on the main tour. We saw a similar story play out with Cedrik-Marcel Stebe, who roared into the top hundred after winning the Challenger finals last year, but subsequently found the transition to the main tour overwhelming, and then fitfully subsided.

These Callow Brutes

July 15th, 2012 No comments

Båstad, Semifinals

(1) Ferrer d. (6) Dimitrov, 6/2 7/5

I am always intrigued by the odd narratives that congeal around a given tennis player.

David Ferrer won his fiftieth match of 2012 in luscious Båstad today, although I should clear up any grammatical confusion by pointing out that only three of these victories actually occurred in luscious Båstad, and only one of them happened today. He is the first man to achieve this feat, in Sweden or not. The fiftieth win (Båstad, today) came against Grigor Dimitrov, who played the Spaniard close for a set, but then collapsed meekly, an eternally popular strategy with young players. This result seemingly bears out one of commonly cherished ideas about Ferrer, which is that as far as Dimitrov and his peers are concerned, the Spaniard remains an unpassable yet highly mobile barrier to the elite level, a lethally-efficient sentry, patrolling the grounds with tireless attention, and a crossbow. The callow brutes have grown belligerent, but for now a stern talking-to is invariably enough to scare them off, especially when it is delivered in sufficiently rapid Spanish.

Available statistics appear to bear this assumption out. In the last twelve months, Ferrer had tough words with young players ten times, and only once did one of them actually stand his ground, and then for no longer than a set.† Three times he was pushed to a tiebreaker (always against Milos Raonic), without dropping any. He saw off Raonic, Dimitrov, Bernard Tomic and Kei Nishikori, among others. (I can extend this timeframe by another month to include his victory over Ryan Harrison at last year’s Wimbledon, in which Ferrer dropped two sets and a tiebreaker, although he did defeat the then-22 Benoit Paire in straight sets the round before.) Being stats, these numbers are of course misleading.

The fact is that unless you’re ranked above him, Ferrer hardly loses at all. In the course of compiling this year’s fifty wins, he has contrived to lose nine times, but only twice to someone ranked lower than himself (Denis Istomin at Indian Wells, and Thomaz Bellucci in Monte Carlo). Yet he is 1-7 against the top four, with the only victory coming over Andy Murray at the French Open. He often plays Murray close, and Djokovic. But he has never beaten Federer in several thousand attempts, and takes sets from Nadal only slightly more often than he wins matches. If nothing else, it suggests that his ranking of No.5 is perfect, although really he could as easily be ranked at six or seven. I assume he would be, had Robin Soderling’s sojourn ended sooner. (This is a fitting moment for such a contention, since it is almost precisely twelve months ago that the Swede thrashed Ferrer in a Båstad final.) Owing to the structure of tournament draws, Ferrer rarely collides with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Tomas Berdych at larger events. He has beaten Juan Martin del Potro twice this year with little difficulty, or, rather, with exactly the kind of difficulty he relishes. What is truly amazing about Ferrer is the barely remitting consistency with which he plays to his abilities.

On the other hand, the bellicose youths aren’t exactly making Ferrer’s alleged role difficult. Their version of crashing the party mostly involves standing around in the front garden, begging to be allowed in. After today’s matches at Newport and Båstad, players born in 1991 or later are a combined 0-9 in ATP level semifinals. This group includes Harrison, Tomic, Dimitrov and Krajinović.‡ (Again there’s statistical trickery afoot. Extending the timeframe would see Raonic and Nishikori included, both of whom have won titles. But for anyone pushing a barrow, stats are a useful way to grease the squeaky wheel.)

For all of them besides Raonic, the main issue seems to be pace. Their shots don’t have enough, and Ferrer’s feet have too much. Dimitrov today couldn’t get enough balls past Ferrer, particularly on clay. He couldn’t serve big enough for long enough, although I suppose one might dub some of his unaccountably slow first serves change-ups, if one were feeling charitable. Too often the Bulgarian’s attack slackened when too many good shots came back – about two – which Ferrer rightly treated as an invitation to move up, from which point he hardly ever relinquished control. Dimitrov strengths are considerable, but few of them are defensive.

Nor are they mental. In the second set, serving at 4/5, Ferrer fell to 15-40. Dimitrov blew both set points with poor backhand returns. From there he never looked in it, and was broken the next game. He lost the match on yet another crosscourt backhand exchange, with the last tumbling flaccidly into the net. It is far too early to call Dimitrov the best player yet to win a title. That accolade probably belongs to Julien Benneteau for the moment. But it is something for him to aim for. To avoid it, he’ll probably need a generous draw that lacks David Ferrer.

Newport, Semifinals

(1) Isner d. (6) Harrison, 7/6 6/3

Some hours later on a remote continent Ryan Harrison fared no better when faced with John Isner, although the problem was a radically different one, originating from a loftier place, plummeting terrifyingly, and scooting through disturbingly when it connected with the surface, which was cunningly fashioned from thousands of blades of grass. It was a problem perfectly tailored to Harrison’s particular weakness, which is that he is not very good at returning tennis balls when they are served at him. He certainly would have fared better returning Ferrer’s serve than Isner’s, whereupon he would have lost more quickly but no less thoroughly. But the Spaniard apparently missed his connecting flight, and the younger American was obliged to play the hand he was dealt. It was a very large hand, and it was holding a howitzer aimed at his chest. What can you do?

Not much, but he still could have played it better, especially in the tiebreak. He could have watched Benjamin Becker earlier in the week, whose upset of Milos Raonic reflected an astute appraisal of the Newport surface, which responds well to low slices, in much the same way that very tall men do not. Instead he supplied Isner with any number of waist-high balls, which Isner gleefully dispatched into the corners. If Harrison found himself at the net, or – more problematically – if Isner found him there, then the balls went past him faster and at waist height. It was a different view, at least. I suppose in the end it didn’t matter much. Harrison won three points on Isner’s first serve, and although not all of those were unreturned, a lot of them were – enough that he finished with a perfect 0/0 return on break points.

Harrison is now 0/5 in ATP semifinals. He played David Ferrer in none of them. But his time will come. And Ferrer will be waiting.

† A young player is here defined as under 23 years.
‡ These stats are from menstennisforums.
Categories: ATP Tour Tags: , , ,

Of Curses and Inspiration

May 24th, 2012 8 comments

Nice, Second Round

It is apparently the best kept secret in professional men’s tennis that the Open de Nice Côte d’Azur is cursed. This is the only reasonable explanation for why otherwise astute professional men’s tennis players keep turning up, despite knowing that victory here leads inexorably to incurable insanity and short-term tragedy. For all that this is just its third year, the event has an impeccable record.

Richard Gasquet claimed the inaugural title in 2010, thereby foolishly believing that he had gained valuable momentum heading to Paris. This momentum carried him through two sets in the opening round, but was then cruelly withdrawn. From two sets up, he fell to Andy Murray. Being Murray, we thought no more of it. It was just one of those things. We shook our heads (our own heads), shrugged with arch-Gallic offhandedness, and said, ‘That’s Reeshard for you.’

Nicolas Almagro – the premiere clay-courter at 250 level tournaments where no one better attends – won Nice last year, despite the fact that he gained no benefit from the points whatsoever, having already maximised that component of his rankings. One might argue that it was, again, all about securing momentum for Roland Garros, especially given his characteristically poor showing at the prior Masters events. Again, he galloped through a pair of sets in his opening round, but then capitulated with noisy industry to Lukasz Kubot in five. Now, Kubot has his qualities – Ivo Karlovic can attest to this – but he is no Murray. Alarm klaxons blared. Shrugging, and declaring ‘That’s Nico’, simply wasn’t going to cut it.

There is no way around it. Nice is cursed, and the dazzling splendour of the setting only renders its horror noirish. And yet, like that obviously haunted house on the hill that teenagers somehow cannot stay out of, players keep coming back. Even Almagro is back this year, suggesting that the curse also has a memory wiping component, or that the Spaniard simply cannot be taught. Perhaps he has a thing for blue. Literally everything about the event – except, amusingly, the court – occupies that part of the spectrum: the sky, the sea, the hoardings, the uniforms of the officials. It seems like an opportunity missed for Ion Tiriac, a legitimate shot at tout d’azur. Think of the visibility.

(Q) Baker d. (4) Monfils, 6/3 7/6

As I rule I’m wary of inspirational stories emanating from the United States, where a vast and lucrative flea market exists for the trading of such baubles. The market’s demand is sufficiently voracious that guaranteeing adequate supply has grown to become an industry unto itself, causing a profitable line in the manufacture of heroes, and a consequent dilution of the very concept of heroism. We call this industry ‘the media’. For the most part these inspirational stories inspire nothing beyond depression. Enough of them escape the US borders that we in the benighted parts of the globe can guess at the power of their source, and wonder: if this is the stuff they export, what do they keep for themselves? I’ve have undertaken two road trips across the breadth of the continental United States in order to experience this phenomenon from up close. It was hardly de Tocqeville, but by the end of each journey, there was a real danger of over-inspiration. Your heart can only soar so many times before it is grounded indefinitely. How do Americans get anything done? (It’s questionable whether Australia or Britain are really much better. If we are better, it is probably only because we lack the wherewithal to be worse. Australia could never produce a slags-to-riches story like Kim Kardashian, for all that my compatriots seem eager to consume her. Elsewhere in the world, she would, quite rightly, be manning a cash register, with hourly tutorials in its operation. In America she became a beacon of hope for millions around the world.)*

I hesitate to call Brian Baker a hero – especially not of Kardashian’s calibre – but I cannot deny that his story, by any reckoning, is inspirational. Even from half the world away, the qualitative difference is clear, especially from the way it has cut through. Scant weeks ago, no one was talking about this guy. Personally, I had forgotten he existed, despite the fact that I actually watched and enjoyed his victory over Gaston Gaudio at the 2005 US Open. (To balance the ledger, I don’t think Baker, if pressed, could tell you much about my achievements, such as they are.) His story was sad – another great talent crippled by injury – but it hardly seemed comparable to say, Mario Ancic or Joachim Johansson. But then he came back, basically from nowhere. I won’t go into the details here, since everyone probably knows them by now. If you don’t, here’s an excellent article from the Wall St Journal. As I say, it’s stirring stuff, and it has cut through.

Yesterday he defeated Sergei Stakhovsky in the opening round in Nice, his first victory at ATP level in approximately forever. Tonight he beat Gael Monfils in straight sets. It was a tremendous performance, and a quite magnificent advertisement for Baker’s game, which combines easy power with excellent court sense and a very solid return. Late in the piece, deep in the third set tiebreaker, he saved a set point with a gutsy second serve ace, suggesting that the entire package is anchored by an iron will, or balls of steel. To those who contend that Monfils wasn’t at his best – and he wasn’t – how do we know that Baker was? What does his best even look like?

If nothing else, it proves that the French Open wildcard he earned is totally deserved. He’ll play Mikhail Kukushkin tomorrow in the quarterfinals, which means that a semifinal is entirely possible. Even if he progresses no further, his ranking has leapt well inside the top 200, and he has, quite literally, nothing to defend. If his body maintains some structural integrity – and I can imagine no dicier ‘if’ – he is unquestionably bound for the top hundred. The main trick will be not to win the tournament this week, since there’s no telling what its capricious retribution will be.

Baker’s performance today contrasted tellingly with those of the lauded new guard. Bernard Tomic twice blew double match point in the deciding set against Kukushkin. The Australian will be seeded next week in Paris, and it’s hard to cavil at his results throughout the clay season, since they are a significant improvement over last year’s. Still, he should have won, and a quarterfinal against Baker would have been one to savour. Meanwhile Grigor Dimitrov went down barely fighting to Gilles Simon, without incident or endeavour. The Bulgarian, frankly, is languishing. He is far too young to be, but I can think of no better word.

* Kardashian’s Wikipedia entry declares her to be, among other things, a celebutante. I confess I had not heard this term before, for all that subsequent investigation yielded up a rich history spanning over 70 years. Microsoft Word, for the record, does not recognise it.

A Mild Hangover

April 24th, 2012 No comments

The week following Monte Carlo always feels like a small hangover after a modest bender, the queasy Saturday morning you spend lining your stomach with bacon and eggs ahead of the planned Bacchanal that night. We’ll all be riotously drunk on clay soon enough. Rafael Nadal’s latest trophy feast at the MCCC has been duly digested – exultantly or wearily depending on one’s constitution – and his inevitable victory in Barcelona is still days away; a curious echo, or a short satisfied belch. The presiding genies have thoughtfully bulldozed his draw, smoothing any stray bumps on the path before him. These bumps initially took the forms of Tomaz Bellucci and Tomas Berdych. Both are now unrecognisably mangled, and have been carted away.

Barcelona, First Round

(11) Raonic d. Falla, 6/4 7/6

The ATP website has commemorated Milos Raonic’s first round win over Alejandro Falla with typical literary panache, running the by-lines ‘Good step forward’ and ‘My serve was key.’ Amazing. On that note, they recently promoted a profile of Matt Ebden with the revelation that ‘I’ve made good progress’. While I’ll concede that neither of these guys is an aphorist on par with, say, George Bernard Shaw or Roger Rasheed, the ATP needs to work harder to help them sound less like cavemen.

Nevertheless, it was a decent match, and no one can say that Raonic was wrong: his serve was, without question, key. Falla, whose leg was taped so comprehensively that he initially resembled a swarthy Phillip Petzschner, toiled with great heart. He produced some tremendous passing shots. One running forehand, had it been struck by Nadal or Federer, would have featured in YouTube compilations for years to come. But it wasn’t, so it won’t.

Bucharest, First Round

Malisse d. Dimitrov, 6/4 6/2

Someone will undoubtedly win the mercifully rescheduled BRD Nastase Tiriac Trophy in Bucharest. Based on current form it won’t be the defending champion Florian Mayer, which is a shame. Nor will it be Grigor Dimitrov, who has already fallen to Xavier Malisse. Flash forward a decade, and imagine the Bulgarian’s careworn face: that ingravescent brow, and those tired eyes, still searching for that breakthrough win. Or flash back a decade, and picture the Belgian: gaze dew-laden with hope, calm with the knowledge that a trip to the Wimbledon semifinals guarantees big things to come. Sometimes, all the talent in the world isn’t enough. For a match so fraught with perspective and portent, today’s was mostly without incident, until the end, when character became density. Thus weighed down, Malisse blew a 5/2 lead, and a few match points. Dimitrov blew a break point in the final game, utterly buggering a simple return. I was less exciting than it sounds.

Elsewhere

Flash back just a year, and the week following Monte Carlo was dominated by the Spanish tennis federation’s set-to with the USTA over the surface for the Davis Cup quarterfinals in Austin, which they insisted was illegally fashioned from oiled glass. It was a complete non-story – which grew farcical when Spain took the tie easily on the allegedly unplayable court – but this is the kind of week for that kind of thing. Thankfully this week has produced actual news. As expected, the San Jose 250 event has been relocated to Texas. Concerns that this will cruelly overload the already inadequate facilities at the Racquet Club of Memphis have been allayed by the decision to sell the Memphis 500 to IMG, and haul it off to Rio de Janeiro. Those who were worried that IMG has too little say in tennis, and that they don’t own enough stuff, can rest easy for the moment.

This will mean that the so-called Golden Swing – or as I prefer it, the Nicolas Almagro False Hope Parade – will boast two 500 level events. It will also mean that the United States only has one. I’m satisfied with both of these outcomes, although the USTA, justifiably given their mandate, isn’t overly thrilled. Apparently they’ve written a letter. But Memphis, honestly, was a dud 500, and invariably served up a far more malnourished field than the concurrently run 250 in Marseilles. The USTA has expressed fears that US players will now venture abroad in the lead-up to Indian Wells. Even if Mardy Fish’s disastrous adventure in Marseilles wasn’t a salutary warning to his compatriots, Monte Carlo last week proved just how realistic the USTA’s fears aren’t. There was one American in the main draw, and none in qualifying. However, that lone American was Donald Young, who was dealt with severely. Hopefully he has learned his lesson, and that it is a lesson to others.

Update: The lesson has indeed been learned. Mardy Fish’s aversion to leaving the States has grown so consuming that he has opted to skip the Olympics, and play Washington instead. Lleyton Hewitt controversially did the same in 2004, and went on to win Washington and Long Island against piss-weak fields, before running to the US Open final without dropping a set. Then, famously, he was destroyed by Federer 6/0 7/6 6/0.

Categories: ATP Tour Tags: , , ,

When Only Gods Remain

March 26th, 2012 2 comments

Miami Masters, Third Round

Dimitrov d. (7) Berdych, 6/3 2/6 6/4

Unlike last year, when Miami suffered a minor Götterdämmerung that saw handfuls of lesser deities cut down in the early going, the divine ranks have this year held together remarkably well. Only three of the top thirty-two – Feliciano Lopez, Marcel Granollers and Juan Ignacio Chela – failed to reach the third round. However, having devoured the last of the mortals, it was inevitable that the gods would turn on each other, and that the greater powers would now feast on the lesser. When only gods remain, the weakest of them are fated to perish.

The exception, in so many ways, is Tomas Berdych. If he’s a god, then he is a deus ex machina, in the literal sense, although today, conveniently, he fulfilled that role in the dramatic sense as well, providing the plot contrivance whereby the stalled saga of Grigor Dimitrov might be permitted to develop. It hardly needs saying that Dimitrov’s story has been in sore need of a kick-start. His biggest win this year came at the Hopman Cup against Mardy Fish, which used to feel like a big deal. Unfortunately, the Hopman Cup lacks any ATP affiliation, and this performance was therefore of no use to his ranking, which has recently slipped back outside the top hundred. By reaching the fourth round in Miami, Dimitrov will rise to somewhere around No.85.  His humanity is evident in his smile and his infinite capacity to err, and for now he remains the only mortal to reach the Miami fourth round.

Today’s victory over Berdych is also Dimitrov’s first official win over a top ten player. There is a fervent hope among his followers that it is the break-through long anticipated, not to say prophesised. It certainly felt ordained, as though he couldn’t actually lose, no matter how many times he double-faulted – nine in all – or fell over, or generally faffed about. Berdych was having none of it, and went about his assigned task of becoming the Bulgarian’s break-through win with what might be termed single-mindedness, if it wasn’t so clearly a case of errant code producing a self-defeating feedback loop, a very crappy ghost in the machine. Last week the Czech was bagelled by Nicolas Almagro. It’s past time he was recalled to Ostrava for urgent maintenance from his team of Tengineers.

(Incidentally, doesn’t The Tengineers of Ostrava sound like a light opera from the nineteenth century, by Lehar or, more appropriately, Smetana? Imagine lots of twee ensemble pieces about building the perfect tennis robot. Talk about rich comedic potential. Unfortunately, a visit to Wikipedia has revealed that idyllic Ostrava is an industrial dump, among the most polluted cities in the EU, and that it was dubbed during the communist era, with typical whimsy, ‘the steel heart of the republic’. I now envisage a more avant-garde operatic treatment for Berdych, perhaps a constructivist take on The Golem. But I digress.)

(2) Nadal d. (25) Stepanek, 6/2 6/2

Speaking of golems, Radek Stepanek was due on court later that day, destined to provide no more than a light snack for Rafael Nadal, who’d barely whetted his appetite on Santiago Giraldo the round before. I’m sure both men were ravenous by the time they arrived in a main stadium from which Ana Ivanovic and Daniela Hantuchova had systematically drained all energy, via a match conducted at spectacularly low intensity. I’ve already remarked that the Miami crowd won’t rouse itself for anyone that isn’t from Latin America or the United States (Rafa and Roger excepted), but you’d think at least the men would find something in a match between two renowned beauties who’d taken the time to coordinate their outfits perfectly. Alas, no.

As the second set tiebreak ground down to match point, the crowd began gradually to rouse itself, their fitful yawns combining with the frantic gurgles of those sleep apnoea sufferers still trapped in slumber. The lucky few that woke in time saw Ivanovic seal the match with a mighty forehand winner, and might have felt a moment’s regret at the match they had just slept through. I’m happy to put their minds at ease, and reassure them that they hadn’t missed anything. The 17 points before that were all decided by unforced errors.  I only wish I was exaggerating.

Radek Stepanek was the oldest man remaining in the Miami draw, which is saying something, given the weary antiquity of the current top fifty. I would say he was evergreen, if he didn’t so closely resemble an old tree-root. Still, he’s very fit, and a dangerous prospect for many. The immense variety in his game means that Stepanek has a number of decisions to make when facing Nadal. Should he hang back and attempt to rally with the world No.2, and therefore lose fairly quickly? Or does he rush the net, get passed constantly, and lose very quickly? Decisions, decisions . . .

Through the first five games, he opted to trade ground-strokes, often successfully, and generally to the Nadal backhand, which was patchy. Any shot into the open court was followed in. This pattern lasted for almost five games, until Stepanek fought to break point on Nadal’s serve. The Czech built his attack thoughtfully, and worked his way forward with a scathing combination of strokes, ending with a backhand up the line. Nadal sprinted to his right, and nailed the backhand pass. From there, it didn’t matter much what Stepanek did. Nadal took firm control of a match that had really been so unlosable that even he could probably admit it, if questioned under duress. The Spaniard won the next seven games, and the last couple. Some of his passing shots, especially on the forehand and especially on the run, were magnificent.

I am consistently amazed at Nadal’s accuracy when catching the ball off-centre (slow motion replays attest to it). The Babolat AeroPro Drive GT is admittedly generous in this respect – I use this frame myself, and the sweet-spot is immense – but it is still remarkable, especially given the work he puts on the ball. (Regrettably Robbie Koenig was not on hand to talk us through the RPM graphics that flashed up on screen.) The most prodigious shot of the match was a darting forehand pass, struck at the full stretch, that he curled off the outer part of the strings (I doubt it would have been possible if he tried for the centre), that curved up and over and in. The crowd loved it. Stepanek, hopefully, learned a valuable lesson: if you approach to the Nadal forehand, and you’re certain it’ll be a clean winner, you’re wrong.

Kiss Cam strove but sadly failed to add much to proceedings. It didn’t help that through the early rounds Miami has lacked the star power of Indian Wells, which was always going to be the case since famous people notoriously prefer deserts to swamps (I think David Attenborough covered this in an episode of Life on Earth). I only bring this up because of an incident back in California, in which Kiss Cam allowed Ben Stiller  to prove the maxim that celebrities are better than normal people, as he lunged without hesitation past his wife and kissed the lady next to her. He has kind of ruined it for everyone else.

Categories: ATP Tour Tags: , , ,

The Unwatchables (Part Two)

March 23rd, 2012 No comments

The Miami Masters tournament is underway, although you might not know if it if your engagement with professional men’s (and women’s) tennis was somehow limited to watching it; if you’d somehow dodged the unusually dull lead-up coverage and the ubiquitous draw-dissections, and had therefore avoided exposure to the most potent soporific known to man (or woman). As was the case at Indian Wells, the initial days at Key Biscayne are not televised.

There is little to say about this that I didn’t say last week. Both events continue to outdo each other in strident declarations of their status as the unofficial ‘fifth slam’. But the other four slams don’t gift all 32 seeds a first round bye, and they provide coverage from the get-go, including qualifying. (So does the Dallas Challenger, for that matter.) There is invariably simmering discontent over this, since it disadvantages the lower ranked players, who would surely appreciate some extra exposure. This year, however, fan frustration has been compounded by the retirement of Fernando Gonzalez, who’d been given a wildcard into Miami for his final tournament. He was then scheduled to play the final night match on day one, meaning that only those present bore witness to the Chilean’s last match, which he lost 5/7 6/3 6/7.

Nicholas Mahut was the villain of the night. To the contractually-stipulated reminder that the Frenchman was the guy up the other end when John Isner won the most absurd match ever, commentators may now add the fact that he was last man to survive the game’s most menacing forehand. Mahut is a pretty intriguing character in his own right, boasting a niche fan-base all his own, but at this rate he is destined to be remembered as the guy up the other end when big things happened. It can be a tough role to shrug off. Just ask Benjamin Becker.

Apparently, and characteristically, Gonzalez bowed out with class. Reporters embedded in the raucous first night crowd have confirmed that his final match was as exciting as one could have wished for. He saved three match points, and even hugged Carlos Bernardes in lieu of a handshake. There was an on-court presentation, and a tribute video in which most top players wished him well. Immediately afterwards, as the well-wishing tweets swelled to a cacophony, Gonzalez simply announced ‘Game Over’. It was hard to top for succinctness. He will be sorely missed, not merely by the other players, but by the same worldwide audience that couldn’t watch his final match.

Other doings of note that almost no one saw: Ivo Karlovic beat Lukasz Kubot for the first time in four meetings. There are such things as bad match-ups in tennis, and sometimes they’re difficult to fathom. Kubot had never before lost a set to Karlovic, and had beaten him four and two last week in California. Speaking of which, for the second time in two weeks, Kubot lost after serving for the match. Last week it was to Andy Roddick, which can arguably be excused on the grounds of pressure and the vast experience of his opponent. But today . . . Whatever Karlovic’s considerable charms off-court, and the fearsome array of serves at his disposal while on it, there are surely no worse returners in the top hundred.

Speaking of match-up issues, Nikolay Davydenko posted his first win over James Blake in eight meetings – another match that surely no one wanted to see, especially in this era when fan’s veneration for veterans partially drives the sport’s popularity. Grigor Dimitrov actually defeated a player he should in Mikhail Kukushkin – and quite handily, too – and will consequently return to the top hundred. Baby steps, I suppose, but the giant leap will surely have to come soon. If his ranking slips further, he may have to qualify for Roland Garros and Wimbledon, mountainous hurdles for a guy who has proved he can stumble over mole-hills.

Bernard Tomic, meanwhile, saw off Sergiy Stakhovsky in straight sets. Tomic’s ranking remains in the mid-thirties. His immediate goal should be No.32, and a seeding for the year’s second major. Mention must also be made of Cedrik-Marcel Stebe, who today recorded his first tour-level victory of the year, and his first ever on hardcourt. Stebe – some may recall his tussle with Lleyton Hewitt at the Australian Open this year – provokes interest for a number of reasons. Firstly, his game is fairly attractive in its own right. Secondly, this is a guy who has wrung nearly every possible advantage from the Challenger circuit, including his quite improbable win the the Challenger Championships last year. He can barely win a match at tour level (surprisingly), yet his current ranking of No.91 is one spot above Mahut, who attentive fans may remember was the guy up the other end for Gonzalez’ last match.

The second round begins tomorrow, and the cameras will finally be turned on. Hooray.

My kind-of tribute to Gonzalez can be found here: Remembering Gonzo.

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