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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.

Categories: ATP Tour Tags: ,

The Eternal Wonder of Nature

October 28th, 2013 10 comments

Basel, Final

(1) Del Potro d. (3) Federer, 7/6 2/6 6/4

Roger Federer this afternoon enjoyed the unusual sensation of entering Basel’s St Jakobshalle as the underdog, although perhaps ‘enjoyed’ isn’t the word. In truth he probably enjoyed it about as much as the Swiss crowd, which for the better part of a decade had been sustained on easy brilliance, but must now seek additional nourishment in hope, a notoriously fickle dietary supplement. Delpo Federer Basel 2013 -1It has been that kind of season, and in Juan Martin del Potro he was facing a fine player who has transformed himself into a fearsome contender on every surface, roofed or not.

Last year in Basel Federer performed about as patchily as he has this year, and eventually fell to del Potro in a reasonable three set final. At that time he was the world number one, and all the commentary centred on his doomed bid to retain his ranking until the end of the year. His return to number one had been masterful, and entailed visiting an unusual number of dispiriting losses on del Potro, indeed rather more than seemed necessary. As a consequence, Federer was still the strong favourite for last year’s final. This year he certainly wasn’t. Before the final, he hadn’t defeated another member of the top ten since the quarterfinal of the Australian Open, and was now ranked lower than del Potro. After the final, both those facts are still true. The interest this year lies in wondering whether he will qualify for the World Tour Finals, an event he has won six times. Sky Sports’ resident math-whiz Barry Cowan has run the sums, and reassured us that Federer will be there. Even so, it has, to put it mildly, been a horrible season.

Even that is misleading, though, since the concept of a single season in professional tennis is mostly meaningless. The suggestion that Federer is having a bad season glosses over the reality that he has been playing quite poorly for much longer than that. In fact, though I might be courting a measure of disapproval by saying so, I don’t think he has looked truly impressive since last year’s Olympics. This may seem a contentious point, given that soon after the Games he claimed the Cincinnati Masters without dropping serve, bagelling Novak Djokovic in the final. To the already potent mixture of injury and slumping form, one cannot help but add the question of desire. Overall, his hunger no doubt remains as undiminished as he insists when asked, but at those crucial moments in important matches when every choice must be razor sharp and the execution flawless, his instinct lately seems blunted, the old audacity dulled. Perhaps it is merely a question of confidence, the least tangible casualty of injury and prolonged poor form, and always the last to recover.

Still, Federer looked amply committed today, and wasn’t all that far from winning, and far from sanguine when he didn’t. It was a decent final, and tangentially diverting for how the shape of the whole match was thoughtfully captured in the first set, the way a tree’s form is reprised in each leaf, or the entire idiocy of pop culture is present in a single Kardashian. Nature’s wonder truly is eternal. Anyway, both players looked good early, before del Potro broke and moved ahead, but was broken back to love as he served for the first set. They reached a tiebreak, and Federer’s level plummeted while the Argentine’s didn’t. Federer stormed back in the second, as del Potro conducted an ill-conceived experiment to ascertain how well he’d do without a first serve. Not very well, it turned out.

Having satisfied himself of this, he set about proving the corollary in the third set, winning sixteen of the seventeen first serves he put into play. On Basel’s reasonably quick court, this rendered him all but unbreakable. If only Federer had been. Alas, the key moment came early in the set, as Federer forwent several chances of maintaining his second set momentum, and gradually gave away his serve. His only opportunity to break back came immediately, but del Potro held steady when it counted. The rest of the match turned out to be a long coda. Del Potro, afterwards, was ecstatic. Look for him in Paris, and London. Look for Federer, too.

Valencia, Final

Youzhny d. (1) Ferrer, 6/3 7/5

Mikhail Youzhny won’t feature in London, although by claiming the title in Valencia a short while later he has reinserted himself back into the top twenty, displacing a few others, and settling at number fifteen. Ferrer meanwhile will be in London, since despite losing today he remains comfortable at world number three. Mikhail Youzhny from Russia celebrates winning the final match against David Ferrer from Spain, at ATP 500 World Tour Valencia Open tennis tournament at the agora building of the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias in Valencia, Spain, Sunday Oct. 27, 2012. Mikhail Youzhny won 6-3, 7-5. (AP Photo/Alberto Saiz)I cannot help but think this lofty position does not reflect his current form.

Unlike Federer, the last twelve months have been the finest of Ferrer’s career, including a maiden Masters title, a Roland Garros final, and a career high ranking. Again I’ll court perversity, this time by arguing that Ferrer has achieved these results in spite of his form and not because of it. If anything this renders his achievement greater still, although I also suspect he has enjoyed a healthy slice of luck, which at the right dosage is hard to gainsay. Consider this: he won the Bercy title last year without playing a match in which he was not the clear favourite, a pretty unlikely scenario when you think about it. He reached the Australian Open semifinal only by the grace of Nicolas Almagro’s brain, while the Jo-Wilfried Tsonga whom Ferrer encountered in the Roland Garros semifinal was a mere shade of the majestic Frenchman who’d trounced Federer the round before. A similar case can be made for Ferrer’s run to the Miami final. I’m not one of those who take pleasure in deriding Ferrer. He’s likeable, is rightly commended for the extent to which he maximises his gifts, and all any player can do it take advantage of situations that fall his way. But I do think he was a much better player last year.

That being said, I also thought he’d beat Youzhny in the Valencia final. For all that victories over Almagro shouldn’t be considered a form guide for anything – even allowing for the degree to which match-ups between compatriots can go haywire – it seemed that Ferrer’s inherent advantages over Youzhny would only be rendered overwhelming by the environment. People euphemistically call Basel Federer’s court, but Valencia really is Ferrer’s court. He co-owns the event, which is staged in the Agora, an attractively stylised bone-cathedral that helps it feel like a novelty level from Topspin 4. One presumes Ferrer’s interests are at least partly responsible for the chemical miracle of Valencia’s surface, so far the world’s most successful attempt at rendering molasses into a shade of cobalt. Unlike Stockholm where the court rewards excellent value for shots, a fact Grigor Dimitrov eventually exploited by hitting a few of his in, the Valencia surface is notoriously difficult to penetrate. Like Ferrer, this court is built for retrieval. For an aggressive yet self-destructive player like Youzhny, whose passage through the draw had mostly entailed outlasting even flakier men than himself, it was a tough proposition.

However, while I maintain that there’s more that can go wrong with an attacking game than a defensive one, Ferrer this year is living proof that inherently defensive tennis still requires more than a pair of legs. He remains as quick as ever, but his retrieving lately has been nowhere near as accomplished as one might expect. Youzhny was superb, bold from the very beginning, from all parts of the court, varied in his approach, and fearless when pressed. Once he finds his groove there are few players more attractive, although his recurrent issue is that he can be degrooved so readily by a really tenacious opponent. Often the one extra shot is one too many, but today Ferrer only sporadically forced the Russian to come up with it.

There was a brief period in the second set when it felt like Ferrer would tear the match away. Suddenly Youzhny could barely win a point, and the local crowd found its voice as their man pulled ahead. But Ferrer’s momentum mysteriously faltered, and a poor service game saw him repeatedly out-rallied and broken back. Soon he was broken again, and Youzhny stepped up to serve for the title, after spending a precious minute pre-visualising it under his towel at the changeover. I cannot say whether it went as he’d planned, but it went as well as he could have hoped. His backhand up the line is unorthodox and beautiful, and today it was instrumental. The last point was thus an appropriate summary: Youzhny launched an attack, Ferrer scrambled desperately, and finally managed to get the ball safely up high to the Russian’s single-hander. The Russian, despite many excellent reasons to grow timid, launched a fearless backhand up the line. Ferrer could reach it, but not control it, and that was the match. Youzhny’s smile afterwards as he saluted the Valencia crowd – far more civilised than Madrid’s – was immense, but exceeded easily by that of his coach. Boris Sobkin doesn’t smile often, but it’s always worth the wait.

Categories: ATP Tour Tags: , , ,

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: , , , ,

Some Kind of Madness

July 3rd, 2013 9 comments

The second Monday at Wimbledon is, by the reckoning of many, the single finest day of men’s tennis on the annual calendar, a status reflected in the apparently irresistible urge to append an alliterative descriptor to it. It has been variously dubbed Mad Monday and Manic Monday. I have it on good authority that American coverage even markets it as such, harnessing the all-purpose human impulse that has served us equally well for naming boastful rappers, Hogwarts professors, and cartoon poultry. And, it turns out, tennis players. Julian Finney/Getty Images EuropeAppropriately enough, Monday’s winners included Jerzy Janowicz, Kaia Kanepi and Sloane Stephens, who from memory defeated Marshall Mathers, Filius Flitwick and Daisy Duck. Mad Monday, indeed.

First, the historical angle.

It was a little mentioned fact that no Polish man had progressed to the quarterfinals of a Major tennis tournament in thirty-three years, at least compared to the endlessly reiterated stat that no British man had won Wimbledon since before the Wehrmacht ventured decisively east in its thirst for Lebensraum. Now two Polish men have done it within minutes of each other, and no German men managed it at all. It says plenty about this year’s edition of Wimbledon that this statistic is far from the most interesting we’ve seen. Indeed, even on Monday it was arguably overshadowed by the bizarre fact that Sabine Lisicki has now defeated the reigning French Open champion in each of her last four appearances. Her bravura performance against Serena Williams was unquestionably the key result of the day, the one that guaranteed Monday its madness, and that tied a second week that threatens to be light on surprises with a first week that knew little else.

On a day when fewer Poles progressed – in addition to the men, Agnieszka Radwanska pushed through, and hasn’t stopped – more might have been made of Lisicki’s Polish heritage, the way Caroline Wozniacki’s has been in the past. As an Australian I can vouch that when times are tough you take what you can get. That’s why Todd Woodbridge took to referring to Britain’s top-ranked female tennis player as ‘Melbourne-born Laura Robson’. Channel 7 viewers were treated to constant updates on the fortunes of Melbourne-born Laura Robson. Sadly for those Melburnians who’d indexed their happiness to hers, bleakness prevailed. She lost a close one to Kaia Kanepi. Polish and Estonian stars are on the rise.

Jerzy Janowicz was the first of the Polish men to progress, barely edging out Łukasz Kubot by a few minutes, minutes that he spent exulting languorously on the Court 12 turf, having only briefly risen to congratulate his opponent and the umpire. It wasn’t a surprise to see him so pleased, just as it isn’t really a surprise to see him attain Wimbledon’s named rounds. It was probably only a matter of time before he became a fixture in second weeks, although Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov can vouch for the meaninglessness of the phrase ‘a matter of time’. It’s only a matter of time until our sun explodes. Kubot’s progression was rather less ordained, for all that he’s a dangerous player on grass. Both Poles will now face each other in the next round, meaning that, barring any unforeseen catastrophes, there will be a Polish man in the semifinal of a Major for the first time ever. Who picked that? Magic Monday, is what it is. I hope someone placed a wager on that, and cleaned up.

Conversely, the many punters who’d staked their life’s savings on a men’s final between Tommy Haas and Mikhail Youzhny now face abject penury, and some searching questions from their loved ones. It was, admittedly, a long shot, especially with the top two seeds blocking their path. Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic have thus far appeared serenely immune to whatever malaise afflicted their peers. Neither man has dropped a set so far, including against Youzhny and Haas, who’d both looked sporadically brilliant en route to the fourth round, but rarely imposed themselves during it. Youzhny reached the quarterfinals last year, and will consequently see his points hoard diminish slightly. Haas, on the other hand, fell in the first round last year, and thus creeps perilously close to the top ten. My heartfelt wish is that he puts together a fine US Summer, and somehow qualifies for the World Tour Finals.

The reality is that any final configuration other than the top two seeds hasn’t looked likely since the second round, although it was admittedly no less likely than Nadal and Federer falling early to Darcis and Stakhovsky, or Williams falling later to the rampantly beaming Lisicki. Djokovic’s path from here is more difficult, in that there are several highly seeded players in his path, namely Tomas Berdych and David Ferrer (or perhaps Juan Martin del Potro). They are thus likely to be the same highly seeded players that he faced in the later rounds of the Australian Open, and look how that turned out. Now, as then, one imagines the world number one will have little trouble with Berdych, who was rather slow to get astride Bernard Tomic in the fourth round, though he got there eventually. Ferrer has sustained an injury, and del Potro probably has, too. This might help them against each other, but won’t be of great use against Djokovic. As to who will face Djokovic, I confess I can’t decide, notwithstanding Ferrer’s emphatic record against the Argentine and my recorded and foolish assertion that del Potro would not perform well at Wimbledon this year.

As ever when Tomas Berdych and Bernard Tomic play I’m struck by the near-mirroring of their names, a kind of ghetto spoonerism, which appropriately enough echoes their contrasting games (and also happily returns me to the earlier discussion of names, achieving the kind of facile circularity that no writer can resist). Berdych is all attack. Tomic isn’t, although he is back in the top fifty. Afterwards he admitted that it is high time he started putting together some decent results at smaller tournaments, rather than saving himself for Australia and England each year. It’s a laudable sentiment, but it’s also a cheap one we’ve all heard before.

If the top half of the draw looks hearteningly like the kind of thing you’d expect to see in the second week at a Major, the bottom half certainly does not. It looks more like Andy Murray fronted up in Nottingham for a lark. Twentieth-seeded Youzhny was the highest seed Murray will face en route to the final. He’ll next face Fernando Verdasco, who isn’t seeded, has never performed especially well on grass, and yet hasn’t dropped a set at this year’s tournament since his first one (against Xavier Malisse).

At any other Wimbledon, Verdasco’s resurrection and journey to the quarterfinals would be the tale of the tournament, especially given his corpse-like form in recent years, on every surface. This year it seems more or less par for the course; there are two dashing Poles in the quarterfinals, so why shouldn’t Verdasco be there, too? One doubts whether he’ll advance much further, given he’s required to play Murray, although I’m legally bound to mention their match at the 2009 Australian Open. Naturally this four and a half year old result has been exhumed by the British press, in order that the Spaniard might be reanimated as a threat, a suavely handsome zombie with great hair and a new Babolat endorsement. Murray has been urged not to get ahead of himself, for the love of all that is holy. He won’t.

A Monumental Accomplishment

June 10th, 2013 13 comments

French Open, Final

(3) Nadal d. (4) Ferrer, 6/3 6/2 6/3

Rafael Nadal has defeated David Ferrer in straight sets in the French Open final, thus becoming the first man in the history of tennis to win the same Major tournament eight times. That he has done this from only nine attempts tells you all you need to know about the extent of his sustained dominance at this event, and on this surface, and further suggests that the tally won’t stop at eight. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images EuropeAfterwards, cradling the Coupe de Mousquetaires while the martial strains of the Marcha Real wafted through the stadium, Nadal’s face reflected a profound and easy satisfaction. One might hazard a guess at what he was feeling right at that moment, but very few men or women must know for sure.

Before we could arrive at this moment, however, there was a final to be contested. Thankfully, this final ended up being a tightly fought affair, with players splitting sets, before the final set escalated through a sequence of tense holds. Triumph for the younger player came seemingly from nowhere, at 7/5. It was very exciting. The upshot is that Matthew Ebden is now the Nottingham Challenger champion, having narrowly edged out Benjamin Becker. A short time later there was another final played in Paris, though that one proved rather less memorable. The three sets might have had their kinks, but they always straightened out at the end, and Nadal, as expected, never looked qualified to lose.

The degree of satisfaction one experiences upon essaying a correct prediction correlates closely to its degree of difficulty. Days of smugness can be achieved by forecasting an outrageous event, such as a stock market crash or a quarterfinal run by Tommy Robredo. At the other end of the scale, there’s little to crow about when one correctly anticipates that the latest Vin Diesel film will lack adequate character development or that Nadal will handily defeat Ferrer in the final of the French Open. I’d suggested that the final would for Nadal be the equivalent of the Tour de France winner’s procession through the final stage. I was pleased enough with the analogy, though I hardly believed the sentiment behind it to be unique.

About the match itself, there’s depressingly little to say. My post on the semifinal was the longest I’ve ever penned, stretching to over two thousand words, and inviting a charge of prolixity against which I have no defence, except that I felt like there was a lot to say. This post won’t run anywhere near as long, although I’d like to head off any idea that this reflects dismissively on Nadal’s achievement. The size of the monument doesn’t need to match the monumentality of the event. (Cynical readers will note that I’ve just padded out this post by another hundred or so words. They’re not wrong, but even small monuments deserve a plinth.)

It says a lot that the liveliest moments in the final occurred during its interruptions, several times by protesters and once by rain. The protesters, we’re told, were passionately opposed to gay marriage, and had thus adopted the predictably trite path of championing children’s rights: ‘Won’t somebody please think of the kids?’ What they thought invading centre court with a lit flare would achieve that a public suicide in Notre Dame hadn’t is open for debate. In any case, security hustled him from the court with an alacrity that put even Wimbledon’s ground crew to shame. (It was asserted by some that had this occurred in New York, the fellow would have been dealt with more severely, presumably by being extraordinarily rendered to a secret facility, and there forced to endure Rob Schneider films with his eyelids taped open. Others suggested that had Serena Williams being playing she would have dealt with him herself.) Thus distracted, Nadal took the following point with a savage forehand winner. Forget the kids, wouldn’t someone please think of Ferrer?

By contrast, the rain interruption lacked any overt political motive, though it did expertly match the mood of the final, which had been a nerve-ridden, dreary affair even before the clay thickened into mud. Rather too much is made of Nadal’s distaste for such conditions – that perennial urge to erect new obstacles for him to overcome – with an implication that other players somehow thrive in them. Djokovic happened to cope with the rain better in last year’s final, but that hardly makes him an exponent of wet-weather tennis. The world number one has repeatedly demonstrated a capacity to elevate his level in any conditions, and I think people have too readily ascribed it all to the weather (rather like the role of the roof closure in last year’s Wimbledon final). Nadal is still a great clay court player even in the wet. He’s not as good as he is when it’s dry and hot, but he’s still leagues better than Ferrer. He hit nearly three dozen winners.

All the same, Ferrer had proved himself leagues better than anyone he faced en route to the final, a task he accomplished without dropping a set. For his runner-up troubles, he will return to the number four ranking, while Nadal, having won, drops back to number five. This is counter-intuitive, admittedly, though it’s explained by the fact that Nadal has ‘merely’ defended his title from last year, while Ferrer has improved on last year’s semifinal (in every way: in last year’s loss he managed just five game, while today he won eight). This, coupled with the way the All England Club determines its seedings, means that Nadal will be seeded fifth at Wimbledon in a few weeks. Some question whether this is fair. The answer is that missing half a season with injury has repercussions for one’s ranking. No doubt Nadal will return to the top four after Wimbledon. Plenty of people will be outraged on his behalf before then, especially if he’s drawn in a half with Federer and Djokovic.

Upon breaking for the last time – Ferrer’s final serve was a double fault – then comfortably serving out the title, the King of Clay collapsed briefly onto his back, before rising and jogging forward to receive his compatriot’s expressions of fealty. It was, understandably, a more muted moment than last year’s victory, though I don’t doubt it felt just as satisfying for the victor, and far less disappointing for the loser. Last year Djokovic’s campaign had concluded with a double fault and a dejected stumble towards the net. Ferrer appeared far more sanguine. I can’t imagine the older Spaniard had entered the match harbouring a realistic belief in victory. Even if he had, the last set had provided forty-two minutes in which to divest himself of such fancies.

Ferrer was characteristically gracious later on the rapidly deployed podium, praising Nadal in a ceremony enhanced by the unexplained presence of Usain Bolt and only slightly marred by the fact that he’d already said all of it to Cedric Pioline just minutes before. In fact the entire affair was very civilised, not to say stately, the way a procession should be. Nadal was as gracious in his response, delivering his speech with the consummate ease wrought by long experience. He’s been here many times before, more than any other man in history.

Categories: Grand Slams Tags: ,

No Feeling Like It

June 8th, 2013 31 comments

French Open, Semifinal

(3) Nadal d. (1) Djokovic 6/4 3/6 6/1 6/7 9/7

The final of this year’s Roland Garros will be contested by Rafael Nadal, who defeated Novak Djokovic in five supple and eventually thrilling sets, and David Ferrer, who saw off Jo-Wilfried Tsonga without much trouble at all. For Tsonga it was a discouraging manner in which to confirm the unhelpful assertion that no Frenchman can win his home Major, thus making it seem far more prophetic than it should be. For the world number one it was a crushing way to fall short of his career Grand Slam. For Ferrer the joy of reaching his first Major final was immediate and overwhelming, even if it is destined not to last. Clive Brunskill/Getty Images EuropeNadal has now won fifty-eight matches at this venue, from fifty-nine attempts, a statistic that is only enhanced by the consideration that today was only the second time in nine years he actually looked in danger of losing.

The early rounds at this French Open were a polyphonic snarl, with discernible melodies only emerging in the third and fourth rounds. Depending on one’s tastes, these tunes grew wearying or comfortingly familiar by the quarterfinals, although even then there remained plenty of novelty at which to marvel. How the pundits gaped when the round of sixteen featured eight single-handed backhands and an average age near thirty. These proportions were sustained even into the following round. The quarterfinals retained four of these venerable chaps, whom we could term atavistic throwbacks, except that they are clearly vintage models, some in surprisingly mint condition.

Normal service was soon restored: the losing quarterfinalists were in each case the older man, and in every case boasted a single-handed backhand. So much for the breath of fresh air, or even a wafting old breeze. The air remained all but unstirred. Indeed, had Federer defeated Tsonga the semifinalists this year would have been identical to last year. It seems that no matter the path we take, nor the conveyances employed, we somehow end up in much the same place. Like life itself, in which we shed the immortality of youth only gradually, the end point of Roland Garros now feels inescapable. To death and taxes we can once more add Rafael Nadal hoisting the Coupe des Mousquetaires. He has certainly earned it.

It all felt rather less inescapable when he trailed Djokovic by a break in the fifth set of today’s semifinal, having failed to serve the match out in the fourth. Djokovic had trailed for most of the match, even, or especially, in the sets he’d won. Indeed, it had been another of those matches in which to secure an early break in a set was to court disaster (although Djokovic, ever the gentleman, was the only one to see this courtship through to its bitter end). The Serb had recovered a break once in the second set, and twice in the fourth, but now found himself in the perilous position of leading the match for the first time.

Nadal’s firm service hold at 2/4 now seems decisive, although I don’t recall anyone saying so at the time. In hindsight, it granted him a measure of momentum in the next return game, although this wasn’t enough to force the break by itself. It required special assistance from Djokovic. At deuce Djokovic found himself at the net, Nadal well out of position, with an easy put-away. He put it away, but, in a moment that will probably inspire shuddering recollection in the small hours for years to come, fell into the net before the ball could be declared dead by waiting paramedics. Nadal helpfully pointed this out for the umpire, the stadium, and a global audience in the millions, but happily Pascal Maria was on his game, and awarded the point to the Spaniard. Djokovic protested a little, for form’s sake, but he knew as well as the rest of us what the rule is. It would have brought up a game point, which he might not have taken, but instead brought up break point, which Nadal didn’t take, either. Nevertheless, momentum had definitely shifted, and Nadal broke back a few points later.

The parallel to last year’s Australian Open final was clear, although the tracks ran in different directions. In that match Djokovic had been steaming to victory before a derailment in the fourth set saw Nadal extend it to a fifth. The Spaniard then broke early, before later handing it back with a loose shot. It’s funny how these things happen, but also suggestive that fortune will fall a player’s way when he’s operating in the seat of his power. Djokovic has now won as many Australian Opens as anyone in the Open Era, whereas Nadal’s record at Roland Garros is unmatched in any era. Or it could just be an amazing coincidence.

Parallel or not, today’s match was considerably better than the 2012 Australian Open final, which mostly proved that anything can be adjudged epic given sufficient length. This reflected Nadal’s approach. Whereas in Australia he’d opened aggressively before reverting to the endless rallying that largely defines this match-up – Djokovic is complicit in this – today he was superbly offensive. He struck 61 winners, and only 44 unforced errors. Winner stats can be misleading, of course, because they tell you little of how the winners eventuated. A winner coming at the end of a twenty-five stroke rally in which Nadal gradually pushes his opponent off the court several times is quite different to one struck immediately and audaciously. Today Nadal was audacious, and was clocking forehands and backhands early in rallies from neutral balls, and repeatedly catching Djokovic out. Given that Djokovic through long habit has grown accustomed to points unfurling in a certain way, this counts as a tactical victory for Nadal as well as a purely technical one. His forehand was struck early, hard and often up the line. His backhand held up well, and was often penetrating. There were only a few lapses, although for these he was invariably made to pay.

Djokovic’s early winners mostly came from one-two plays featuring wide serves to the deuce court, finished off with inside-out forehands. His inside-in forehand was frequently over-hit and the backhand up the line was either directed safely inside the sideline, or pushed rashly beyond it, a combination of tendencies that seriously reduced his capacity to prise apart the court quickly. Consequently he was obliged to build points, although midway through the first set he set about demonstrating that building a point isn’t necessarily the same as constructing one. Often the intent was muddled. The proven tactic of pounding on Nadal’s backhand until it leaks an error or a short response – the tactic that yielded such rich rewards in 2011 – was abandoned early, and only occasionally rediscovered. There was a widespread feeling that Djokovic had come out without a sufficiently clear plan, although Patrick Mouratoglou’s assertion that this cost Djokovic the match was reductive. The Serb did lead by 4/2 in the fifth set, after all.

Anyway, it was all building towards a fittingly titanic climax; Djokovic was holding repeatedly and masterfully to keep the match alive, while Nadal was in the happy position of knowing that under no circumstances would he have to serve out the match. As he has in the past on Philippe Chatrier, Djokovic was troubled by his footing at the back of the court; recall his constant slips in the semifinal against Federer two years ago. At the change of ends at 7/8 he and Pascal Maria engaged in a heated exchange about the need to water the court beyond the baseline, a request to which the umpire would not accede. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images EuropeFatally unfocussed, Djokovic stepped out, put together his worst service game in hours, including two unusual forehand errors, and was broken to love. Suddenly, like that, the match was over. Nadal looked pleased; Djokovic, less so. It was not, it must be said, a classic finish.

Whether it was a classic match is a nice question, although it’s one that should only be answered in time. It’s with a stultifying lack of surprise that I note the demands for a more immediate assessment. Even while it was going on un-level heads were proclaiming it the match of the year. For some reason this is important, as though the quiddity of a sporting contest must be nailed down at the time, lest it be rapidly forgotten. It could be that I’m out of the loop, and there’s a substantial cash prize awarded to the first person to prove the greatness of a given tennis match. But if there is no prize, I can’t see the advantage in eschewing the advantage of a longer view. Ignoring one’s sense of perspective is a kind of conceit. Not for the first time, and nor for the last, I don’t see how it matters.

Nadal will now face Ferrer, whose feat of reaching the final without dropping a set will be largely forgotten when he loses three of them on Sunday. It’s conceivable that he’ll win one himself, but even that seems unlikely. Naturally he’ll give it everything: that’s the thing that he always gives. But they played here last year, Ferrer gave it everything, and Nadal lost five games. That was a semifinal, and this is a final – Ferrer’s first at this level – meaning the gap in their respective experience has expanded to become an unbridgeable chasm. There is a sense in which the first of today’s semifinals was the real final. There’s an even more profound sense in which it doesn’t matter. Once again I find myself astonished by how much some people seem to think it does.

The initial outrage that Djokovic and Nadal might meet in a quarterfinal was quickly rendered irrelevant by the latter’s ranking and Andy Murray’s back. But even before the French Open began this discontent had already expressed itself via stentorian proclamations that any meeting before a final would constitute an offence unto the gods. This view has hardly lost steam now that the match has turned out to be as grand as had been hoped for. Twitter, tapping into this, flexed its comedic muscle by loudly wondering when the trophy ceremony would get under way. (Somehow this query didn’t grow funnier the more it was said.) I can understand why television executives maintain a strong opinion on the matter, since they’re obliged to experience tennis through the drearily smudged lens of ratings. For everyone else, it’s hardly cause for lamentation.

Lopsided draws have always been a factor, although they’ve grown rarer in the current era of top-four domination. At the 2001 Australian Open Andre Agassi and Pat Rafter duked it out for the chance to beat up Arnaud Clement (or Sebastien Grosjean) in the final. In 2005 at this very event Nadal and Roger Federer fought for the chance to thrash Mariano Puerta (or Nikolay Davydenko) for the title. In one important sense it worked out for the best: for all that the finals were anticlimactic – notwithstanding Puerta’s early challenge – the semifinals in every case had the potential to be great, and largely delivered. Perhaps I’m unique in this, but I’ll always take two intriguing matches followed by a foregone final over a pair of duds and a close final. Imagine for a moment that Nadal and Ferrer’s places had been swapped in the draw, a configuration that would almost certainly result in a Nadal – Djokovic final. Also assume that any match between the world number one and the defending champion was going to be pretty good, or at least very long. I’d rather have two chances at memorable matches on the last weekend than one. Of course it didn’t work out that way, which is a shame. (I blame Tsonga, although probably not as hard as he blames himself.)

Anyway, there is another notable advantage to having a final whose result is already known. The Tour de France discovered long ago the ceremonial value of making the last round a procession rather than a contest. Facing Ferrer for his eighth title will be for Nadal the equivalent of a cruise down the Champs-Élysées in the gold jacket. Everyone who’s done so insists there’s no feeling like it.

Categories: Grand Slams Tags: , , ,

The Sound of Inevitability

June 6th, 2013 11 comments

French Open, Quarterfinals

It was probably naïve to believe that the drama, excitement and quality that so enriched the first four rounds of this year’s Roland Garros would be sustained all the way through to the end. Such things are sadly not designed to last. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images EuropeThere was bound to be a letdown at some stage, and it was always likely to come when those who’d earned their passage via desperate heroics collided with those who prove their readiness for travel every week.

Stanislas Wawrinka, Tommy Haas and Tommy Robredo had each eked out the narrowest of victories in the rounds before, only to arrive, haggard and ragged, at the station, and there discover three elite players who’d never looked like losing. The latecomers were promptly shoved onto the tracks, there to await their doom. The exception, in every way, was Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who’d easily out-paced his early round opponents, reached the station at a dead run, and barely paused as he barrelled into a distracted Roger Federer, who was busy tying his shoelace. That onrushing roar was the train they’d intended to board; the sound, Hugo Weaving once insisted, of inevitability.†

All four quarterfinals ended in straight sets, and none of them took very long. The whole affair could only have been quicker if had Roland Garros scheduled them all to be played simultaneously. To be fair, the tournament did its level best. As it was, the baffling decision to run two of them side by side combined with the sense of crushing inevitability – except in the case of Federer, whose defeat was crushing for other reasons – to ensure that a hitherto fascinating tournament foundered mid-way through its final week. One hopes, with diaphanous naivety, that things pick up for the semifinals.

(6) Tsonga d. (2) Federer 7/5 6/3 6/3

The concern coming into the quarterfinals was that Federer’s imposing early performances had come against undeniably weak opposition – a pair of qualifiers and a hobbled Julien Benneteau – thereby distorting one’s perception of his form. Even in struggling to see off a gallant Gilles Simon, the Swiss had looked easily superior when he was playing well, although he’d worryingly punctuated these periods of dominance with a patch in which he could barely have played worse, thus padding the match out to five sets. The hope among his innumerable fans was that this merely reflected the issues he traditionally has with this particular Frenchman, and that they would evaporate when faced with another particular Frenchman. To the contention that Federer had not yet faced a player like Tsonga in this tournament, the reasonable response was that nor had Tsonga faced a player like Federer. At least it had seemed reasonable.

As it happened, I doubt whether Tsonga had ever faced a Federer quite like the one he encountered on Tuesday. If he had, he would certainly have won more than three of their twelve matches. On the other hand, Federer has encountered this version of Tsonga before. It was glimpsed for a few sets in Melbourne in January, and for three definitive sets at Wimbledon two years ago. It is the version in which Tsonga swings as hard as he can at everything, and doesn’t miss. Word is that conditions were playing fast, but it’s hard to imagine conditions that would play slow when a guy this powerful and athletic sustains that calibre of attack, from both wings and everywhere in the court. The only clue that this was clay court tennis lay in the visual evidence that they were actually playing on a clay court.

Federer led by a break early in the first set, but that provided little comfort, since it had come entirely in defiance of the run of play. The four points Tsonga had lost on serve to be broken were almost the only ones he’d lose for the set (there was one other on an unlucky netcord). He served near eighty per cent throughout the first set, and never dropped below seventy per cent for the match. Meanwhile Federer barely had an easy service game all day: Tsonga, typically a weak returner, was virtuosic even in this area. Federer admittedly didn’t serve well – both pace and percentages were low, and I cannot recall another match in which he served no aces – but this was largely in keeping with the rest of his game. It vaguely recalled the heavy losses in Indian Wells and Rome. However, whereas the first of those was heavily influenced by a back injury, and the second by suicidal aggression, this latest was simply a matter of playing badly against an opponent when only the best would have sufficed. In truth, Federer has hardly played well since Cincinnati last August, which he won without dropping serve. Since then he hasn’t won a title, and is now 3-10 against top eight opponents. Those who point to Federer’s poor season would do well to lengthen their perspective.

Hope for Federer briefly flared when he broke Tsonga at the start of the third set, but it was only a break back, and it only monetarily delayed a result that was by now seeming inevitable as well as crushing. Interviewed afterwards, Federer, amidst heartfelt praise for his opponent, professed himself ‘sad’ at the way he’d played. It was an unusual but not inappropriate description: not angry, or disappointed, or frustrated, or chagrined, but saddened. Tsonga, on the other hand, was jubilant; he does jubilation as well as anyone, although Roger Rasheed’s proud tears ran him close. What was especially gratifying about his performance was how consistent it was, not merely throughout the duration of today’s match, but with his other performances this week. He’d looked great already, but he hadn’t faced anyone like Federer. Now he has faced someone like Federer, and he still looks great.

(4) Ferrer d. (32) Robredo, 6/2 6/1 6/1

One hopes he still looks great against David Ferrer, whom he faces next. Ferrer accounted for Robredo with an ease that would be termed effortless if it was anyone else. It was effortful, but inexorable, although I wouldn’t say it was necessarily very interesting. When Ferrer moved ahead by two sets to none, commentary and social media united in entirely expected proclamations that Robredo now had him precisely where he wanted him. This provided momentary interest, in that it invited the question of whether a joke is fundamentally less funny when everyone makes it at the same time. The answer, we now know, is that yes, it is. There isn’t much more to say about the match – believe me, I’d like to – except that Ferrer did all those things he normally does, and that he’s better at all of them than Robredo is. He’ll fancy his chances of pushing through to the final, although I’d be neglectful if I didn’t point out that he, like Federer, hasn’t faced anyone like Tsonga yet.

(1) Djokovic d. (12) Haas, 6/3 7/6 7/5

Novak Djokovic had faced someone like Haas just the round before, in the form of Philipp Kohlschreiber. They’re both gifted German shotmakers, though they of course have their differences. Kohlschreiber, for example, managed to grab a set from Djokovic before submerging into a deep dirty puddle of squandered break points. Djokovic was better today than he’d been on Monday, especially early, and was thus better-equipped to fend off another gifted German shotmaker making shots. He never looked like losing: it wasn’t anything like as close as the scoreline suggests, since all the excitement was confined to the German’s service games, at least until the end.

Before the match there’d been sufficient talk of Haas’ victory over Djokovic in Miami that were we given the merest hint of the hype that would have accompanied a third round encounter between Nadal and Lukas Rosol, inspiring one to thank heaven and Fabio Fognini that this match never eventuated. Djokovic had already gone through it with Grigor Dimitrov, to whom he’d lost in Madrid a few weeks ago. I’m not sure if people really expect lightning to strike twice, although it’s probably just a feeble effort to drum up interest by pretending that the men who audaciously upset the world number one in a best of three Masters event would somehow reprise that effort in a Major. Naturally anything can happen in sport, but Djokovic had reached the semifinals or better at eleven consecutive Majors, and this is the one he now desires the most.

(3) Nadal d. (9) Wawrinka, 6/2 6/3 6/1

At least Haas had actually beaten Djokovic a few times. Wawrinka hadn’t taken a set off Nadal in ten matches, the most recent of these in the Caja Magica last month. On a day in which the all the results felt pre-ordained – Maria Sharapova’s strange first set notwithstanding – this one felt the least intriguing of the lot. And so it proved. Again, I’d love to say more, but like Ferrer’s win over Robredo, this match consisted of Nadal doing all those things he does well in general, but especially well on clay, and incredibly well at Roland Garros. He started slowly in his first three rounds, but seems to have abandoned that strategy, probably for the better. Today he started quickly, and never faced much opposition from an over-matched Wawrinka. The Swiss had survived a very long match the round before, but any chance that his resultant weariness would affect today’s outcome was rendered negligible. Perhaps with more spring in his legs he might have leapt aside as the train bore down, but really, there simply wasn’t time.

† While we work through that image, take a moment to consider how fabulous an addition to the Radio Roland Garros team Agent Smith would make, especially calling Kevin Anderson’s matches.

Heraclitus’ Children

June 3rd, 2013 13 comments

French Open, Day Seven

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and David Ferrer both progressed to the Roland Garros quarterfinals today, defeating Viktor Troicki and Kevin Anderson in respective straight sets, but that wasn’t the story of the day. Nor was it Roger Federer’s five set tussle with a gratifyingly enterprising Gilles Simon, for all that their match was tremendously diverting. Clive Brunskill/Getty Images EuropeThe day’s centrepiece was the electrifying encounter between Nicolas Almagro and Tommy Robredo, in which the older Spaniard recovered from a two set deficit, while the younger once more proved Heraclitus’ dictum that character is destiny, and destiny character.

(32) Robredo d. (11) Almagro, 6/7 3/6 6/4 6/4 6/4

With his limits thus circumscribed, it’s entirely appropriate that so many of Almagro’s matches seem scripted by Aeschylus. The Spaniard certainly fits the part, with his preternaturally clear skin, careworn brow and boundless capacity to generate disaster. If there isn’t a statue of Almagro somewhere already, there should be; it should be carved from finest Carrara marble, and depict the precise moment he has irreversibly blown a seemingly impregnable lead. (Perhaps it’s one for Kickstarter; sillier statues have gained funding.) In Melbourne Almagro blew the lead against Ferrer, who he at least had never beaten. In Paris he did so against Robredo, to whom he’d never lost. Against Ferrer he served for the match repeatedly, but not well. Today he led by a break in each of the three sets he lost. I wasn’t alone in wondering why he bothered, since breaking early was so clearly a recipe for failure. Hope may spring eternal, but destiny cannot be gainsaid, especially when it springs from within.

Robredo in his turn has become the first man since the Battle of Marathon to win three consecutive matches from two sets down. His heroics in merely reaching the fourth round were noteworthy, especially since one of his victories had come against a resurgent Gael Monfils. But Almagro was surely a different creature, if not a divergent species. Before today Robredo had taken only a single set from Almagro, and that was in their first meeting six years ago. As he clawed his way back in that third set, eventually serving it out, the prospect of yet another audacious recovery was aired. Commentators of course do this all the time; no fifth set can attain 6/6 these days with Isner-Mahut being brought up. On the face of it the idea appeared ludicrous, especially when Almagro broke again near the start of the fourth set. Alas, for him, it didn’t stick. They traded breaks again in the fifth, but Almagro, despite his superior firepower, somehow couldn’t finish off enough of the crucial points. Robredo, defying the odds and his age, was getting to everything. His legs, along with Almagro’s brain, were arguably the story of the match. His passing shots were particularly fine. Almagro’s visits to the net – dicey at the best of times – became exercises in futility, and he was passed again and again.

It must be nice for the commentators when their bold early move to establish a narrative pays off so handsomely. They get to look particularly prescient, although not as prescient as Heraclitus, who, transported by misanthropy and a diet of grass and manure, managed to anticipate a Spanish tennis player two and a half millennia in the future. Jason Goodall isn’t quite at that level, but he still sounded eminently satisfied as Robredo expertly served out the match. Afterwards, the crowd went crazy and a global audience wondered aloud why so many broadcasters besides Eurosport were staying with Tsonga’s frictionless procession on the main court. Robredo could barely contain himself (there were tears). He’ll next face Ferrer, meaning a fourth consecutive two-set comeback is impossible. Just like the third one was.

(2) Federer d. (15) Simon, 6/1 4/6 2/6 6/2 6/3

Mats Wilander made a convenient slip in his introduction to today’s other five-setter, between Federer and Simon, initially describing the Frenchman’s game as ‘dull’, before backpedalling sharply. This was later revised to ‘one-dimensional’. One cannot quibble with either description. Simon’s defenders insist that his matches reveal a profound grasp of strategy at play, but I’ve watched a lot of them, and as far as I can see they mostly consist of lots of running and near-infinite patience. The length and outcome of most rallies are usually determined by the endurance of his opponent, or potency of their attack. When the opponent is of a similar predisposition to Simon, and has nowhere else to be, the match can go on forever. Clive Brunskill/Getty Images EuropeHis encounter with Monfils in Melbourne this year is still whispered about. It might well rank among the most famous matches no one will ever watch again, although there are rumours the CIA uses it to extract confessions from those who’ve grown inured to traditional forms of torture.

Naturally, Simon isn’t the only person who plays like this. Indeed he is rare only in the success he has enjoyed doing it, and the extent to which it seems to be a matter of choice, not necessity. For a conscious choice it seems to be. He doesn’t need to play this way, and demonstrates this two or three times each season: he’ll take to the court in a fey mood, and go after all his shots, varying angles and paces, using the net, and generally controlling the baseline. It’s downright exciting to watch, but as suddenly as it appears, it vanishes, not to be seen again for months. From the perspective of a tennis fan – especially a fan of attacking all-court tennis – it’s as though Simon has unrestricted access to a treasure room, but rarely ventures inside, despite the only requirement for entry being the ability to notice the door and the willingness to turn its handle.

Thankfully, today he did turn the handle, and thus helped to transfigure a match that might have been close anyway – he often troubles Federer regardless – into one that many will want to see again. Most match recaps have made the point that Federer began very strongly, but that everything changed after his heavy fall in the second set (Federer himself said he shed a lot of confidence at that point), and that Simon wisely chose this moment to assert himself. I don’t think that’s quite right. Simon was already pretty aggressive in the first set; it’s just that he wasn’t doing it very well, yet, and Federer was dialled in nearly from the get-go. Simon’s unusually high number of errors in the first set (17) attests to this. Whatever the case, he certainly took control from midway through the second set, and maintained it until the fourth, by which stage he was in the happy position of leading two sets to one.

As ever, precedent was sought, and as ever easily found. The sport of tennis isn’t so infinitely multifarious that something doesn’t always immediately remind you of something else. For me the hollow echoes of 2009 rumbled loudest, particularly Robin Soderling inflicting Rafael Nadal’s only loss at Roland Garros, despite having been demolished by Nadal just weeks earlier in Rome. Bear in mind that Federer manhandled Simon quite thoroughly in Rome a few weeks ago, so thoroughly that even those Federer fans accustomed to proclaiming Simon a danger-man permitted themselves to relax when the Frenchman popped up in their favourite’s quarter. In 2009 Nadal had never lost at the French Open. Federer hasn’t lost before the quarterfinal stage at a Major since 2004. As ever, a precedent was readily found, but as usual it didn’t tell us much. As Federer once retorted when invited to contrast one loss with another one: ‘Why compare?’

The match was defined by large and decisive shifts in momentum, and the last of these occurred in fourth set. Federer had looked increasingly feeble and beset for the last dozen games, but now began to assert himself once more. Suddenly he found that place in which he resembles no one else, and in which hardly anyone can stay with him. From 3/2 in the fourth set, he won half a dozen straight games, and would never yield back his break in the fifth set, although he did barely survive a nervous final game. Nothing should be taken away from Simon, however.

Federer has now reached his thirty-sixth consecutive Major quarterfinal. For the second time in a row, he is obliged to play Tsonga for a place in the semifinals. In Melbourne they staged an unforgettable five set exhibition of attacking hardcourt tennis, which Federer won. Their destinies are coming to feel intertwined, for all that their characters are not alike. Heraclitus might respond that they’re complementary. In addition to the Australian Open they’ve also met at this stage at Wimbledon and in New York, meaning they’ll now complete a Grand Slam of quarterfinals encounters. Such achievements are admittedly more pleasantly diverting than revealing. Here’s another: last year Tsonga reached the quarterfinals in Paris only to fall to Novak Djokovic , despite holding four match points. As these match points tumbled by, and the crowd in Philippe Chatrier hurled its outrage and delight at the heavens, Federer was crawling painfully from a two set hole against Juan Martin del Potro on Suzanne Lenglen. A sweet moment of simultaneity, probably signifying nothing, but perhaps signalling that, ultimately, this meeting was destiny.

All the Tension Sluiced Away

May 13th, 2013 18 comments

Madrid, Final

(5) Nadal d. (15) Wawrinka, 6/2 6/4

Rafael Nadal today defeated Stanislas Wawrinka in straight sets to reclaim the Madrid Masters title, winning a final whose almost complete lack of drama proved a fitting conclusion to a tournament whose outcome felt more or less foregone by the quarterfinals. There wasn’t even a Will Smith to enliven proceedings. Nor was there the usual dose of Ion Tiriac. Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images Europe Say what you like about him and his various ‘innovations’, but he at least allows tennis fans to indulge in their most cherished activity: vociferous moral outrage over highly trivial things. Alas, there was none of that.

Nonetheless, Nadal didn’t have it all his own way. He actually dropped a set this week, in total contrast to last week in Barcelona, where he dropped none. (That’s a worrying trend. He might conceivably drop two sets in Rome, and three in Paris.) Nadal’s key moment, we have been informed at soporific length, came when David Ferrer led him by a set and 6/5 in their quarterfinal, with the favourite serving to stay in the match. Ferrer achieved his desired short ball with Nadal hopelessly stranded on his backhand side. Ferrer, obeying his sly inner voices, opted against hitting the ball into the unoccupied acreage in Nadal’s ad court, and thereby gaining a few match points, which are the kind of points he should be interested in obtaining. Instead he hit it straight back to Nadal, who improvised an excellent reflex lob and subsequently won the point.

This point illustrated several things. Firstly, by so comprehensively stuffing it up, Ferrer lent further credence to the belief that he is destined always to blow it in such situations. Secondly, Nadal’s desperate shot to stay in the rally was a good example of what great hands he has under pressure, and showed why he is so difficult to beat: all he needs is half a chance. Thirdly, it usefully demonstrated that skill and luck are not mutually exclusive. Skill makes certain outcomes possible, or less unlikely, but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee them. Skill gave him half a chance.

The only thing less surprising than Ferrer wasting his half-chance at victory was that, even up a set against a curiously wayward Nadal, it would prove to be his only chance. However, one shouldn’t make more of this moment than it merits. There’s a reason we don’t maintain statistics on all those who win titles after nearly facing match point. As soon as Nadal won that point, the match was as good as over, and all the tension sluiced away. The third set was a bagel. So was the first set of his semifinal against the unlikely Pablo Andujar, who’d sustained his audacious run by upsetting Kei Nishikori in the quarterfinals. Andujar is probably the least likely Masters semifinalist in recent times, and Nadal quickly set about demonstrating how little his compatriot belonged in the last four at this level.

Wawrinka’s path the semifinal had been altogether more fraught, since he’d been obliged to overcome two top ten players, including last year’s finalist Tomas Berdych in the semifinals. This was probably the match of the tournament (although others had run it close, such as Grigor Dimitrov’s dramatic upset of Novak Djokovic, Ferrer’s over Tommy Haas, and Daniel Gimeno-Traver’s victory over Richard Gasquet). It ensured that Madrid’s final weekend at least had one match worth remembering, which is sadly about all we can hope for these days. Both of Wawrinka’s victories had taken three sets, as had the one against Dimitrov, and each had boasted its share of enervating drama. This probably wasn’t going to play in Wawrinka’s favour against Nadal.

Introducing today’s final, Sky Sports led enthusiastically with the statistic that Nadal had never lost to the Swiss in eight previous meetings, and that he hadn’t dropped a set in any of them. They then reiterated precisely how exhausted Wawrinka must be, given his heroic toils en route to the final, and how nervous, in just his second Masters final. His only hope, it was intimated, was the altitude, which Madrid has a lot of, and which Nadal, we were constantly told, doesn’t much care for. Regrettably, Wawrinka’s feelings on the matter weren’t canvassed, and no tactical advice was forthcoming on how he might turn this astonishing geographical phenomenon to his advantage.

Although Nadal had won seventeen consecutive sets against Wawrinka, none of them were bagels. At least Wawrinka can hold that over Ferrer, for the time being. Still, it was a close run thing when Nadal leapt out to a 4/0 lead. Wawrinka thankfully managed to hold, and then held again for 2/5. But holding was all he was doing and it wasn’t anything like enough. Nadal had yet to drop a point on first serve, and closed the set out easily. We were whisked back to the Sky studio, where the visual evidence was confirmed: Nadal was indeed playing exceptionally well, in spite of the altitude.

Wawrinka faced break points in the opening game of the second set, but made the key adjustment of saving them all, which produced the happy result of him holding serve. Nadal held more emphatically, but at least some kind of battle had been joined. It was still a hopelessly lopsided battle, but it was something. I think Nadal was taken to deuce on one of his services games, which was very exciting. (When you’re searching for narrative tension, you have to take what you can get.) Wawrinka threw in a truly appalling game at the set’s midpoint, sealing his own fate with a pair of double faults. I assumed it was the altitude, and that those serves would have found the service box at sea level, but the experts working for Sky offered no insight. Nadal held comfortably for the title. Clearly that earlier deuce game had weighed on his mind; as Wawrinka’s final shot landed long, the Spaniard collapsed onto his back, exultant at closing out a match he’d never once looked like losing. The stats told the tale. Nadal won ninety per cent of first serve points (as ever he landed the majority of them), while Wawrinka achieved a perfect return on break opportunities: 0/0.

Afterwards, while Nadal searched for a part of the Ion Tiriac trophy he could bite without sustaining injury, it was reiterated just what an achievement it was for him to win this week, in spite of Madrid’s allegedly trying conditions. It was all growing rather tiresome. The conceit, unquestionably, is that even when Nadal wins easily there’s a requirement that he must be struggling against something. The discourse of el guerrero imparable is too pervasive to be casually set aside, and thus most analysis is made subservient to it. Nadal’s incredible technical skills on a tennis court, buttressed by tens of thousands of hours training, are constantly glossed over in favour of the preferred narrative that he wins through sheer spirit despite the putatively crippling flaws in his game and atmospheric conditions designed to test only him. I think this does nothing but diminish Nadal as a player, in pursuit of a trite story.

According to this story, not only does Nadal battle the exterior elements – wind, rain, altitude and roofed-courts are his perennial adversaries – but his own inner demons as well. Thus we are treated to constant assessments of Nadal’s ‘confidence levels’. After today’s final we were reminded that this victory would give him a great deal of confidence heading to Rome, as though winning it six times already wouldn’t do that, and as though it matters much either way. No other player’s results are so closely tied in with this nebulous concept of ‘confidence’. Indeed, the current confidence-level can even be measured in real-time based on the depth on his groundstrokes: the shorter they fall, the less confident he is. I have never heard any other player’s shots discussed in this manner; mostly they hit balls short because striking a tennis ball is an imperfect art and no one can hit a perfect shot every time. Sometimes you have a bad day, and less of your shots go where you want them to. Once again, it comes down to the widespread eagerness to downplay Nadal’s technical mastery in favour of his capacity to overcome adversity. In fact he dropped a decent proportion of forehands short in today’s final: in the last few games alone there were plenty that didn’t clear the service line. The difference is that Wawrinka, unlike Djokovic, couldn’t attack them, and Nadal is a superb counter-puncher who deals severely with any assault less than perfect.

The apparently unfathomable truth is Nadal wins matches and tournaments because he is a great tennis player. He wins a vast number of clay court matches not because of some indomitable warrior spirit, but because his exceptional game is even more exceptionally suited to that surface. His forehand is ferocious, his movement is exceptional, his serve is effective and difficult to attack, and he is generally quite deft around the net. Part of this is also mental and instinctive: he reads the play well, and, like Djokovic, has an astonishing capacity to alter his patterns at crucial moments.

But most of his matches don’t have a crucial moment, because his level is almost invariably so high that he never gives the other guy a look-in. Confidence doesn’t enter into it. Since returning this season he has reached seven finals from seven events, and won five of them, including two at Masters level. Indeed, he has now won twenty-three Masters titles, which is two more than anyone else in history. I wonder when analysts will accept that he wins because he’s really, really good at tennis, and not despite the fact that he isn’t.

By winning Madrid, Nadal has closed to within twenty-five points of the number four ranking, and will assume it if he defends his Rome title next week and Ferrer fails to reach the semifinal. Wawrinka, meanwhile, returns to the top ten, an excellent return for his recent fine form.

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A Different Kind Of Drama

April 1st, 2013 13 comments

 Miami Masters, Final

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

Andy Murray has won the Miami Masters 1000 title, in the process claiming his first trophy at this level in about eighteen months, reclaiming the number two spot from Roger Federer, and taking a hacksaw to David Ferrer’s enduring soul.Ferrer Murray Miami 2013 -1The score tells us only that there was a third-set tiebreaker, which Murray won easily. It emphatically fails to mention that getting there required fifteen breaks of serve, wounded backs, cramped legs and crampier brains, almost five-score unforced errors, high drama and the most ill-advised challenge in the short history of Hawkeye. Murray happened to be the man standing at the end, although they’d both spent some time sprawled on the court earlier.

There’s a view that Ferrer, whatever his ranking, is clearly the fifth best player in the world. It’s an uncontroversial view, and heavily supported statistically and anecdotally. The iconoclast in me would love to say it’s nonetheless wrong, and that I have found irrefutable proof that Fabio Fognini is actually mankind’s great hope. But I can’t – the evidence for Ferrer keeps piling up. Consider this: at the last four Masters level events where only two of the Big Four turned up, Ferrer has reached the final at three of them (Shanghai 2011, Paris 2012, Miami 2013) while at the fourth one he himself didn’t play (Montreal 2012). Then again, he subsequently reached those finals after the higher ranked player was knocked out by someone besides himself: he has never defeated an elite player in a semifinal or a final, at any level. Today he at least came within an inch or two.

Shanghai 2011 is well-worth bringing up, since it marks the only other time Ferrer and Murray have contested a final, and because, over all, this edition of the Miami tournament has closely reproduced the contours of that earlier event. In both cases, as mentioned, only two of the sport’s four best players turned up: here Federer and Rafael Nadal are absent, whereas in Shanghai it was Federer and Novak Djokovic.  In both cases there were a pair of unlikely semifinalists: Richard Gasquet and Tommy Haas this week, Feliciano Lopez and Kei Nishikori in Shanghai. And in both events the top seed fell early to a plucky German (Haas now; Florian Mayer then).

Haas of course fell to Ferrer in the semifinals in Miami, thereby kicking off the theme of the day, which was for the mercurial stylish player to establish an early lead, and then to see it ground inexorably to nothing. Haas is doubtless kicking himself for not holding his nerve better in that semifinal, since he would have fancied his chances against Murray today. Haas winning a Masters event at his age and with his history of injury, knocking off Djokovic en route, would have been the story of the year. Alas, he didn’t, so it is merely the story of the week. He led by a break in the third set, but couldn’t maintain it for long, therebyFerrer Miami 2013 -8 establishing another fascinating theme, which Murray and Ferrer today developed to its fullest extent, consequently exhausting its possibilities for later generations.

Of the fifteen breaks in today’s final, fully eight of them came in the final set. Most of them were sealed with errors, although a few of these errors at least came quickly, sparing viewers another interminable three-quarter pace rally. Murray’s back, which had seemed tight to open the match, became more of a factor as the third set wore on, especially on his serve. Meanwhile Ferrer was succumbing to cramps, and began scheduling a massage for each change of ends. Robbie Koenig and Jason Goodall, excellent as ever on the world feed, joined Murray in questioning the strict legitimacy of this. Astute fans might recall Stan Wawrinka employing a similar tactic at the Australian Open against Djokovic, although that at least had the benefit of ensuring a superb match wasn’t decided by a fatal cramp. For today’s final to have ended that way might have been a mercy killing.

Murray served for the title at 5/4, but the added tension, unsurprisingly, did not inspire him to elevate his level. He was far too passive, nursing his serve – his vertebra had by now fused – and duffing a couple of makeable passes. He was broken to 30. It was the last break of the afternoon. ‘It’s a different kind of drama to spectacular shotmaking,’ exclaimed Koenig, securing this week’s understatement award. Ferrer then held, availed himself of another leg-rub, and almost won the match.

Much has and will be written about the next game. Murray moved to 40-15, but then lost three points to fall down championship point. Another rally ensued. Murray went after a rare forehand, which Ferrer got back. Ferrer then halted play to challenge, apparently believing the ball had gone long. Hawkeye showed the ball catching the line, Ferrer lost the point, and with it the game and the match. My immediately response was that Ferrer’s reply to Murray’s forehand had been so feeble and short that Murray was probably going to knock off the next ball anyway, and that Ferrer had challenged because why not? Murray Miami 2013 -9Of course, both guys had just spent two and a half hours demonstrating their inability to put anything away, so perhaps there’s no reason to believe Ferrer was entirely out of the point.

Two further moments from earlier in this game should be noted, since they probably had some influence over Ferrer’s split-second decision to yank at his ripcord. Firstly, he’d tried to challenge at 15-15, but was told he’d taken too long, whereupon he and Cedric Mourier altercated briefly. (The television replay showed that Murray’s shot landed flush on the line.) Secondly, at 40-30 Murray went after a forehand to almost precisely the same spot, hit it long, then challenged unsuccessfully (and also bought himself time to change his sweatbands). I do wonder to what extent these points pushed Ferrer to his crucial challenge, and even whether it mattered. Afterwards Ferrer made it clear how much it did matter, precisely by emphatically refusing to talk about it. Murray held.

At this point CBS, the American network holding the rights to the last weekend of the Miami event, cut away to the NCAA basketball. The Miami coverage switched to the Tennis Channel, who were relaying the world feed. This was great news for those who subscribe to the Tennis Channel, but bad news for those who didn’t but remained curious to watch this final play out. Those of us labouring away in the rest of the world were left to wonder again at the weird American obsession with university-level sports. (I’ve had it explained to me, and I still don’t really understand it. I’m not aware of many other countries where such interest occurs. Having represented one of Australia’s largest universities at sport, I can personally attest that no one here cares at all.)

Anyway, in order to ensure this situation doesn’t recur, the Miami Masters final will next year commence earlier in the day. To put it another way, the top tennis players in the world are obliged to play a morning final in order to accommodate a university-level event. I could understand if it was the NBA play-offs. I also understand that tennis is a marginal sport in the States. But given this status, why CBS is interested in the first place? Perhaps they just like to feel involved. After all, they’ve resourcefully fucked up the US Open schedule for years.

Truth be told, those who missed the end didn’t miss much. That botched challenge accomplished something even Ferrer’s near-complete evisceration in the Acapulco final hadn’t – it broke something deep within him. Whether it was physical, mental or spiritual, I won’t speculate, but he mustered no further resistance. He collapsed to the court heavily after the sixth point of the tiebreaker, and two points later looked about as despondent as I ever seen him.

Murray, having romped through the tiebreak 7-1, looked almost apologetic, though not very much and not for long. After all, it’s hardly every day you win a Masters title, and it’s rare indeed to win one playing like that. Praise be for small mercies.

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