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We Might Run Out Of Words

August 19th, 2013 12 comments

Cincinnati Masters, Final

(4) Nadal d. Isner, 7/6 7/6

Rafael Nadal has won the Cincinnati Masters, defeating John Isner to claim his second Masters event in two weeks, and his third hardcourt Masters of the year. Prolonged domination by a single player presents a writer with peculiar difficulties, assuming the writer is at all disinclined to repeat themself. This was a real problem in 2011, when Novak Djokovic emphatically refused to stop winning. I wasn’t writing about tennis at the time, but I assume it would have been an issue in 2005 and 2006, when Roger Federer was nearly unbeatable, and very nearly unbeaten. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images North AmericaWimbledon aside, so it is proving this season with Nadal. I’d suggest  there’s no higher compliment than to concede that if he keeps going on like this, we might run out of words.

For example, there was little that could usefully be said after Nadal’s Rome triumph that hadn’t been said following the Madrid final a week earlier. His new Swiss opponent had greater pedigree, but won even fewer games. Similarly, today’s victory over a towering North American with a frightening serve and manoeuvrability on par with the Exxon Valdez more or less reprised last week’s. Last week it was local favourite Milos Raonic, whose trip to the Montreal final propelled him into the top ten. This week it was local favourite John Isner, whose passage to the final was if anything more impressive, and had the laudable effect of ensuring the United States has a man inside the top twenty for their home Grand Slam. Both giants progressed to the final after defeating Juan Martin del Potro in memorable fashion. Raonic, you will recall, generating fleeting controversy by delivering a series of roundhouse kicks to the net while cackling that he was ‘above the law’. Meanwhile Isner, more conventionally, saved a match point in a marathon. Isner also beat Raonic this week. The similarities mount, but ultimately amount to little. What really matters is that Nadal beat everyone, again.

Today’s final wasn’t the most memorable example we’ve witnessed this year, or even today, given that it was entirely upstaged by the women’s final that followed. Had it been a quarterfinal it would have already faded into the sepia backdrop of general forgetting: yet another example of a monstrous serve guaranteeing tiebreakers, which were then decided by the better player’s superior fortitude and technique. But it was a final, and so gains some lustre by default, and thus bears summation.

If for no other reason, it was an interesting study in how two sets can be numerically similar yet end up feeling totally different. The first set was quite exciting, featuring multiple set points for both men, mostly in the fraught tiebreaker. Isner saved those he faced with typically muscular points on serve, but failed utterly to impose himself on return. Mark Petchey was correct in commentary when he remarked on the strange contrast that Isner presents us with. On serve he has an ‘All-American attacking game’, yet on return is ‘negative and pushy’. He did get an impressive number of Nadal’s serves back, yet they never had much on them, and thereafter he won very few points. It didn’t help that he facing one of the most punishing baseliners ever to heft a racquet. Nadal finally got a set point on his own serve, and duly took it.

The second set, on the other hand, was frankly dull. If the first set demonstrated that tiebreakers are considerably more interesting when their arrival isn’t necessarily inevitable, the second set proved the corollary. Both men continued to serve magnificently, and return ineffectively. Nadal was more or less guaranteed a point whenever he switched up his serve wide to the deuce court, since the undeniable lethality of the American’s forehand requires that his feet are set. Nadal lifted and played a smart tiebreaker, and never looked in trouble. After victory he collapsed onto his back, and generally made it apparent just what winning Cincinnati means to him. It seems this tournament had featured on more bucket-lists than Serena Williams’s. The strange vase that Cincinnati passes off as a trophy proved every bit as awkward to bite as Montreal’s silverware had been.

This was, of course, Nadal’s first strange vase. One can essay complicated reasons why he has never won this title before, including surface speed and bounce, opponents, balls, proximity to the US Open, and the misfortune a couple of years ago to combine with Fernando Verdasco to thrash out one of the worst tennis matches in living memory. All of these factors have merit, and combined meant that no one was surprised at his lack of success here (as opposed to Federer’s oddly dismal record at Bercy until 2011). Nadal characteristically offered the simpler explanation that he’d simply never played well in Cincinnati, and that this week he did. It was a salutary reminder that complicated rationales aren’t necessarily wrong so much as unnecessary, and that elite athletes generally operate with a savant-like eschewal of nuance. This is how Roger Rasheed can function effectively as a coach while employing the lexical range of an inspirational fridge magnet. The manner of Nadal’s progress this week certainly bore his contention out. There was no match in which he wasn’t the clear favourite – including the quarterfinal against the defending champion Federer – in which playing to his strengths would more than likely ensure victory. He just had to play well.

This isn’t to suggest he didn’t have his difficulties. Federer came within a couple of games of winning, and Grigor Dimitrov boldly grabbed a set when Nadal allowed his focus to waver. However, this meant that in addition to savouring their hero’s triumph, the more martially-inclined portions of Nadal’s fanbase could indulge themselves in their most cherished conceit, which is that of the Spaniard as el guerrero imparable. After what amounted to a fairly unremarkable defeat of Dimitrov there was no shortage of chest-beating proclamations that Nadal had not been at his best, yet had ‘found a way to win’. Insofar as the ‘way’ consisted of ‘being better than his opponent at nearly every aspect of tennis’, I suppose it’s not inaccurate. What’s false is the emphasis. He didn’t win because of his warrior spirit, but because he’s a very good tennis player.

Indeed, anyone still insisting Nadal isn’t the very best tennis player in the world right now sounds increasingly deluded. He will arrive in New York determined to become the first man to sweep the US Summer since Andy Roddick ten years ago, and only the third man to do so ever (Pat Rafter also managed it in 1998, to Pete Sampras’s unstinting disgust). He will return to the number two ranking tomorrow, and could well return to number one if he sustains his current form for a few weeks in New York. Although the bookmakers in their wisdom have retained Djokovic and Andy Murray as US Open favourites ahead of the Spaniard, it will take a reckless punter to bet against him.

But that’s all in the future. For now, Nadal has won twenty-six Masters 1000 titles, including a record-equalling five this season. It’s an accomplishment that is only enhanced by recalling that none of the five were Monte Carlo, which otherwise exists only that he might augment his tally by one each year. Aside from that, the only other Masters event Nadal hasn’t won this year was Miami, which he didn’t play. In order to break the record, which was only set two years ago by Djokovic, Nadal will have to win either Shanghai or Paris. History suggests that he is unlikely to do so. Then again, the Spaniard has already spent the season showing history just where it can shove its suggestions.

Categories: ATP Tour Tags: ,

A Cautious Soul

April 15th, 2013 No comments

Houston, Final

Murray / Peers d. (1) Bryan / Bryan, 1/6 7/6 12-10

(5) Isner d. (1) Almagro, 6/3 7/5

‘Jamie Murray, by far the less heralded of the Murray brothers, helps upset the most heralded brothers in the sport – the Bryans.’

It is entirely forgivable when lumpen phrases emerge half-formed in the heat of play – spontaneity trumps sonority – but the delayed timing and measured delivery of this one suggested the commentator had been chiselling away at it for a while. Intoned after the Houston doubles final in that plodding, myth-making metre favoured by American sports-callers, such lines grant easy ammunition to those who dismiss English as an ugly language. Certainly it’s a language that doesn’t yield up its music casually. Murray Peers Houston 2013 -1 The same phrase in Italian would no doubt sing, and by the time Verdi was through with it, it’d probably have you singing along. But coming from an ambitious yet tone-deaf English-speaker with no sense of cadence, it merely made me sigh.

Still, I cannot fault its content. Jamie Murray, ably assisted by the even less heralded John Peers, had indeed defeated the resplendent Bryan brothers, recovering from a first set hiding and saving a championship point before triumphing 12-10 in the deciding match tiebreak. Their recovery in the second set tiebreak was particularly stirring, as they came back from 0-3 to win seven consecutive points.

It was certainly the most exciting tennis match I saw this week, although for sheer drama it was narrowly topped by the US Masters play-off at Augusta. Adam Scott – too heralded, if anything – has therefore eclipsed Peers as the Australian sporting story of the week. For his troubles Scott was hustled to an anachronistic log cabin and draped in a spiffy green crested blazer, whereas Peers and Murray were obliged to dive-bomb into a pool. Horses for courses, I suppose.

A day later John Isner was elegantly gliding into that same pool, having defeated Nicolas Almagro in the Houston singles final. It’s one of the nicer rituals at the US Men’s Claycourt Championships: having toiled away for a week on a court that looks like it has been sluiced with used dishwater, the victor is permitted to cleanse and cool his worn body. Although it wasn’t a long final, it had been a warm and sunny day in Houston, and the giant American was cramping such that he hadn’t been able to sit down during the press conference. A sudden plunge into cold water was surely just the thing. Isner Houston 2013 -4It always makes for a slightly awkward moment once the players are actually in the water, with the pool ringed around by tournament staff and media. Should one swim around for a bit? Perhaps crack some jokes? Or just get straight out? Isner got straight out.

Even if he’d wanted to dog-paddle about languorously, there wasn’t time. He and Almagro are even now slumbering miles above the Atlantic Ocean, en route to Monte Carlo. Their heralds have preceded them, trumpets a-blast. Isner belatedly requested a wildcard to the Masters, which was duly awarded. He was roundly criticised for skipping the event last year, with many pointing out that the undoubted glory of being named the US Men’s Claycourt Champion was worth less in the long term than maintaining crucial momentum in Europe. Some felt he might legitimately challenge the best players in Madrid, Rome and Paris, but that by returning to the United States so soon he would achieve little besides distracting himself. In the end Isner lost in the Houston final, pronounced himself exhausted, and didn’t return to Europe until Madrid, where he lost in the first round. His results hardly picked up from there, and by the time he crashed out of Wimbledon no one regarded him as a contender anywhere. It’s probably a stretch to say skipping Monte Carlo brought about his terrible summer, but this season he’s taking no chances. The Monte Carlo tournament is already under way, and he’ll be compelled to hit the ground at a full loping run. But as he himself said, he might be tired, but he’s also coming in on a five match claycourt winning streak.

Interviewed after the final, Almagro was decidedly less upbeat about his prospects in Europe, and about his form in general. I wonder how much of that reflects disappointing results through the so-called Golden Swing, the part of the season in which he traditionally thrives. The Spaniard certainly wasn’t at his best in Houston; although he’d hardly been pressed after his tough opening match with Gael Monfils, he’d remained peevish and distracted through the week. Even today he appeared beset. (Meanwhile Isner ambled around with typical languor, at one point earning a time violation warning, whereupon he took the unprecedented step of not going bananas at the umpire.)

Almagro commenced impatiently, and grabbed the early lead by breaking in the third game, which is usually enough to guarantee the set against Isner. He made it to 3/1, yet from there lost five straight games, broken twice. The first of these was especially poor, and seemed to galvanise the American. It’s more or less a given that Isner will serve well and move badly, but this was the most assertively he has struck his groundstrokes in some time. Almagro Houston 2013 -3The slowness of the surface enabled him gradually to manoeuvre his feet into position, whereupon he’d anchor them and lean into his forehand. Light balls and a hot day didn’t hurt, and nor did an opponent too content with crosscourt patterns.

Like everyone else, I have no idea why Isner doesn’t play like this all the time, even when he’s short on form, especially because his form-slumps seem to affect his back-up game just as profoundly as his primary one. Even if nothing goes in, the result will be the same either way, and he won’t be tired. Despite being eight-foot-whatever and the boasting the capacity to kick serves into a second storey window, there seems to be a cautious soul trapped somewhere inside Isner. After he defeated Roger Federer in Fribourg last year, following Jim Courier’s insistence that he remain recklessly first-strike at all costs, Isner conceded that he is supposed to play like that all the time. This week he has said several times that he has finally turned a corner. Hopefully that means he’ll go back to playing like he should all the time, all the time.

Almagro was finally broken again in the eleventh game of the second set, in which he heroically saved four match points, before bringing up a fifth with a forehand error, and losing it with another off the backhand. He summarily dispatched a ball over the stands, and watched on with the rest of us as Isner served it out. The American fell down 0-30, but then recalled his fabled ability to smash serves very hard into the corners of the box. This wasn’t quite as impressive as sinking an eight metre putt in a Masters play-off, but it did the trick.

Categories: ATP Tour Tags: , , , ,

There Will Be Mud

January 2nd, 2013 3 comments

Mikhail Youzhny yesterday recorded his first career match win over Benjamin Becker in Doha, which would admittedly be of scant interest even to me, if it wasn’t simultaneously the Russian’s 400th career match win over anyone anywhere. One night earlier Philipp Kohlschreiber saw in the New Year by seeing off Ivan Dodig handily on the same court. Photo credit: Jody D'ArcyMeanwhile in Perth Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was last night imperious in defeating John Isner. I won’t insult anyone’s intelligence by pretending I’m unenthused by any of these results, for all that I have no issue with the men who suffered losses.

Doha

Aside from Youzhny’s fabulous rally and a small pothole that is somehow shadowing David Ferrer – possibly the world’s first case of a negative space stalking a professional tennis player, or indeed any sportsperson – the main issue in Doha has been the stricter interpretation of the time rule. The existing ATP rule is that the time between points must not exceed twenty-five seconds. This is not a new rule, although it has been altered in that the penalty is now capped at a fault for an offending server and a dropped point for a tardy returner. Previously the penalties would escalate almost indefinitely, up to and including a frozen bank account and salting of the family land. Umpires, burdened with human empathy, were understandably reluctant to impose such punishment.

Indeed, the truly original part of the new rule is that umpires have shed their erstwhile reticence to enforce it. This was undoubtedly the aim of softening the penalties. Players are now being warned all over the place. Feliciano Lopez was the first to exceed a warning, and he was either unlucky or injudicious in that he allowed it to happen while serving to save set points against Lukasz Kubot. Having tarried in his post-point preening, he was finally set to serve when the umpire called ‘second serve’. Lopez, incensed, won the point, but thereafter dropped his bundle and lost the set. He then remonstrated with the umpire at considerable length, pointing out that in all the years he’d been on tour he’d never experienced the like, which suggests he was at least halfway towards discovering why everyone persists in calling it a new rule.

Lopez then wasted little time in losing the second set, although Kubot’s flair in attack certainly helped. His fellow Spaniards – Pablo Andujar and Ferrer – afterwards rallied around him on social media, and presumably in the players’ lounge. Earlier in Brisbane Tommy Robredo averaged twenty-seven seconds between points against Ryan Harrison, for which he was duly admonished, although he retained the wherewithal to win in straight sets. The temptation for the Spanish men to position themselves as victims of a crusade will inevitably prove considerable, but I hope the ATP doesn’t allow itself to be browbeaten if it comes to it. AP Photo/Osama FaisalWith more players ranked in the top ten, fifty and hundred than any other, it’s not as though Spain lacks clout, and historically their federation is not slow to lobby on its players’ behalf. It’s also the kind of issue that readily devolves into partisan bickering. All of which is to say that there will be a debate, and there will be mud.

(Update: Gael Monfils last night was also docked a serve for luxuriating too long with his towel, at which outrage he promptly blew his top and the second set. His defence was that he needed longer to dry himself, because black people sweat more. As I say, the debate was always going grow muddied, and it only took a few days for the race card to be played.  That’s an impressive rate of decay, even by the lofty standards set by the internet, in which a discussion about knitted doilies will descend into racial slurs within a page.)

The real test will come when the umpires are obliged to penalise any of the top four in a crucial match, such as a later round at a Masters event. I should point out that since this is an ATP initiative the same revised rules will not apply at Grand Slam level, since the Majors play by their own rules. The time-limit at the Majors is twenty seconds. If the contestants once more collude to make the Australian Open final ten per cent more epic than it needs to be, then it will be up to the umpires to stop them, umpires who’ve thus far proved unequal to the task.

Hopman Cup

Tsonga d. Isner, 6/3 6/2

Being an exhibition, the Hopman Cup is equally untroubled by ATP requirements, which means that not only can the players idle indefinitely between points, their results will not figure on the official record. Officially, Tsonga is still riding a two-match losing streak against Isner. Unofficially, the Frenchman celebrated the slackening of Perth’s apocalyptic temperatures by thrashing Isner in a shade under an hour, breaking him three times and rounding off a frankly terrible day for American men.

Tsonga’s victory mostly testified to a new-found determination not to blow a lead. Although he appeared no less exuberant than usual, it was encouraging to see that his characteristic flamboyance did not translate into eagerness to sacrifice victory for mere entertainment. He was unfailingly judicious in his shot-selection – even the preternaturally cautious Fred Stolle could find little to quibble at – and played within himself despite any number of excellent opportunities to conclude rallies with excessive panache. Rasheed Cahill HC Ball 2013 -1The flamboyance was limited to footage of him carving up the stage at the Hopman Cup New Year’s ball the night before, which was shown after the match on the Perth Arena’s screen, apparently with no other goal than to make the Frenchman blush. He covered it, as ever, with the sport’s broadest smile.

Throughout a patchy and stuttering finish to 2012 Tsonga had appeared unfocussed when he didn’t simply look unhappy. There seems to be a new purpose to his play, and it would be unfair of me to suggest that his appointment of Roger Rasheed hasn’t played a part. The endlessly knowledgeable Darren Cahill said as much in commentary, relaying a conversation in which Rasheed admitted that special attention was being payed to Tsonga’s attitude and conduct when he was ahead in matches. Too often he lost focus when he needed it most, and never quite seemed concerned enough to recover it.  By forgetting how to win Tsonga had consequently misplaced his hunger to. It is early days in the new season, but I’m surely not alone in hoping that by rediscovering the means, Tsonga has also rediscovered the desire. If Rasheed’s appointment gains Tsonga nothing else, it will have been enough.

Categories: ATP Tour, ITF Tags: , , , , ,

The Far Side Of The World

August 27th, 2012 6 comments

Winston-Salem, Final

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

John Isner yesterday spent almost two and a half hours defeating Tomas Berdych in the final at Winston-Salem, eventually saving three match points in the third set tiebreaker. The American has therefore defended his second title of the year, but he wasn’t permitted long to wallow about in glory. Owing to previous commitments, the subsequent trophy ceremony had to be cut short. Both Isner and Berdych were immediately hustled aboard a chartered Learjet to New York, where they were scheduled to deliver the first in a series of public lectures entitled ‘How to Prepare for a Slam’. They will be joined by Nicolas Almagro, whose work in this field is unparalleled. One presumes that Isner has grown so accustomed to early-round exhaustion at majors that he figures he might as well arrive in that state. We could say that this saves time, but time is exactly what it doesn’t save.

If the final wasn’t the most exciting match played in Winston-Salem this week, it was certainly the most exciting one I saw. Admittedly I only watched four, and most of those would have been objectively dull even if the coverage hadn’t conspired to make them almost unwatchable. One of the outside courts apparently didn’t have a camera installed, and so instead relayed the feed from a geosynchronous satellite orbiting some 200 miles directly above. Ernests Gulbis’ inevitable implosion against Marcel Granollers proved far less enthralling from this remote perspective. I couldn’t even get worked up about his extravagant racquet smash in the third set, a tactic that otherwise throws me into a frenzy.

It’s true that the full excitement of a live sporting event is never entirely captured by a telecast, especially an event as exuberant as Winston-Salem undeniably was, where as many as twenty locals at a time turned out to watch the early round matches. But if I’m going to be awake in the middle of the night – the usual window in which Australian tennis aficionados operate – I’d prefer it to capture some of what it is like to be there. For those of us at the far end of the earth, the coverage provides the medium in which live tennis unfolds. Even it if can’t be unforgettable, I’d like it to be watchable. But I’d prefer unforgettable.

The first tennis tournament I ever watched was Wimbledon in 1986, when an eighteen-year-old Boris Becker became the first teenager to win the title since he’d won it the year before. I myself was only ten, and so wouldn’t have my shot at winning it as a teenager for another few years. My mother, who has always been a mad sports fan, was working late nights as a waitress at the time, and she asked me to watch the tennis for her each night. I was happy to oblige, since it meant I got to stay up late. (If she had to work the day-shift, then I was instead obliged to watch Days of Our Lives, which I enjoyed less, although I don’t think it had any lasting ill-effects. It certainly doesn’t explain why I’m mainly attracted to women who turn out to be their own long-lost twin sister, with amnesia.)

Anyway, following Becker’s progress through the draw proved entrancing. That shock of red hair, that strange swaying service motion, those pale trunk-like thighs emerging from scandalously brief shorts, the diving. He was exciting, which may come as a surprise to those who came to tennis later, and mainly know him for his tireless contributions towards the sum total of Twitter’s inanity. His Wimbledon title the year before had been audacious and accomplished, especially for one so young (although he didn’t seem so young to a ten-year-old, even one whose yearnings had been darkened by daytime soap operas), but the second time round he tore into the tournament with breathtaking vigour.

Meanwhile Ivan Lendl, the uncontested world No.1, ground his way mercilessly through strong opposition in the draw’s top half. To a lad growing up in the eighties, with the cloying threat of nuclear holocaust overlaying everything, the idea that Lendl was really a terrifying robot from beyond the Iron Curtain found a ready recipient. He’s since proved otherwise, but at the time he combined the on-court panache of Berdych with the sartorial elegance of Radek Stepanek. I couldn’t bear the thought of him winning. He and Becker, the plucky young West German – remember this was pre-Unification – were destined to meet in the final. Mum and I watched it together, late at night, and Becker won. We danced about the room. I was hooked, and have never stopped associating the sport with exhaustion and elation and darkness pressing against the windows. A year later, this time in Sydney, Mum and I watched as Pat Cash defeated Lendl in the final, and inaugurated that modern practice of bounding joyfully into the stands. My mother wept openly.

Years later, I was in Vietnam when Gustavo Kuerten defeated Magnus Norman in the 2000 Roland Garros final, watching on rapt in a jazz bar in Hanoi’s French Quarter. I’d been backpacking just long enough that my sense of value was skewed, and so the Long Island Iced Teas we were drinking felt like an extravagance, for all that they only cost 45,000 dong, which was about three dollars. It was the first tennis match I’d watched since the Miami final some months earlier (a wonderful encounter between Sampras and Kuerten), and it produced the strongest urge to be home in Australia, which isn’t quite the expected effect of observing a Brazilian and Swede battle it out under a dreary sky in Paris. I felt dislocated. And, admittedly, pretty drunk. I liked Kuerten, and was thrilled when he won. I celebrated with another drink.

The following year’s French Open final was horribly marred by strong winds, although this helped Alex Corretja make it close against Kuerten, who was now the beloved world No.1. I was 25, and had arrived in the Far North Queensland rainforest that very afternoon. It was now late at night, and my father was snoring at his typically nightmarish intensity. It almost competed with the volume of the jungle at night, which anyone who has experienced it will tell you is the most unholy racket imaginable: squawks, crackles, cackles, grunts, crashings, flappings, growls, gurgles, screeches and thuds. There’s no cacophony like a jungle in the dark. I tried to ignore it as Kuerten defended his title. I was very happy. He was now my favourite player.

The 2001 US Open quarterfinal between Sampras and Andre Agassi was considered by some at the time to be the greatest match ever played, and certainly it felt like it as it happened. It was an evening match in New York, one of those late night classics the tournament is justly famous for, which meant it was late-morning in Melbourne, where I was now living. If Kuerten was my favourite player, Sampras wasn’t far behind in my regard, and my unlikely affection was only heightened by a natural antipathy towards Agassi and the fact that Pistol Pete’s decline was by now well-progressed. He hadn’t beaten Agassi in almost two years. Indeed, Sampras hadn’t even won a title since Wimbledon the year before, and his task in New York was monumental. In order to reach the final, he would have to defeat every US Open champion besides himself from the last nine years. I wasn’t moving from my television for anything. Then, three games in, the power went out in my suburb. Disaster.

This was an era when the internet was largely pornography – unlike now, when it’s mainly cats and whatever the hell Pinterest is supposed to be – and even that couldn’t be streamed live (I’m told). Presumably there were smartphone apps, but there were no smartphones upon which to run them. Thinking fast, I pedalled maniacally to the University, where they had a small 51cm television in the foyer of the Sports Centre. There were already three or four people lingering there, and I grabbed the last remaining white plastic chair and planted myself. By the time the fourth set tiebreaker came round and the Flushing crowd spontaneously interrupted play with a sustained standing ovation, that foyer was packed. There had been no breaks of serve, and the standard of play was otherworldly. Students and staff had happened by for any number of reasons – to book a squash court or go to the gym – had glanced at the screen, and then hadn’t left. No one had left. As Sampras took the final point, and the Steadycam swooped in and circled his exultant figure, a spontaneous cheer went up on the far side of the world, in the Melbourne University Sports Centre foyer.

It didn’t last. It was now early afternoon, and everyone had somewhere else to be, somewhere they should have been hours earlier. The excitement leaked away, and the crowd broke apart. I remained in my plastic seat, savouring the fleeting moment, which is all an anxious tennis fan can afford. After all, Sampras had Safin up next. It was no time to relax.

On that note, I think I’m ready. Bring on the US Open.

Three Minute Songs About Girls

August 12th, 2012 No comments

Toronto, Semifinal

(14) Gasquet d. (8) Isner, 7/6 6/3

By defeating John Isner in straight sets in today’s Toronto semifinal, Richard Gasquet has reached his first Masters 1000 final in six years. As ever, a long gap affords us a long view, and an opportunity to reflect on how much has changed over that time, and to marvel at how little hasn’t. The last time Gasquet made it to a Masters final Roger Federer was the world No.1. Think about that.

I will leave to others the broad question of whether the world is a better or worse place than it was six years ago. This being the internet, I imagine a hastily wrought opinion on the matter won’t be hard to come by, although the opinion itself will depend on the particular rock you overturn. The Athenian shopkeeper labouring under austerity measures undoubtedly believes that our best days are behind us, but then so does the knuckle-dragging militiaman camped out in the forests of Oregon, incensed at his president’s determination to provide healthcare to those who presume to need it. Investment bankers must look back fondly at those heady days when their seven figure bonuses weren’t scrutinised before being handed over anyway. On the other hand, Justin Bieber’s innumerable fans may well insist that life has never been better: their idol maintained a relatively subterranean profile in 2006, and generating useful content across his various fan-sites had been a daunting task before he revolutionised music by singing three minute songs about girls.

In August 2006 Gasquet was only twenty-years-old, and still on the make. He had gambolled into public consciousness the year before when, as an eighteen-year-old, he beat Federer in Monte Carlo, before going down fighting to Rafael Nadal in the semifinals. He followed that up by making the Hamburg final the following month, where he lost to Federer. Although he was young, it’s important to remember that back then eighteen wasn’t considered quite so embryonic as it is these days, when we’re obliged to regard 23-year-olds as up-and-coming, even as they struggle to survive qualifying. Indeed, by the time Gasquet reached the final of the Canadian Open in 2006, and again lost to Federer, the prevailing sentiment was that his pre-ordained ascent to the top of the sport was taking rather a while. A year later he made it to the semifinals of Wimbledon, and finished 2007 ranked No.7. This was taken to be another very gradual step in the right direction. We realised the sky was the limit, but could he please get a move on?

Justin Bieber had well and truly arrived by March 2009, and the world we’d known and cherished had vanished. People with no credit rating and no assets beyond a pickup truck were suddenly finding it hard obtain mortgages, while those who’d gotten in earlier discovered their mortgages to be ‘sub-prime’, and that their houses now belonged to the bank. Gasquet, likely driven wild by Bieber’s lascivious exhortations, kissed a woman on the lips in a Miami nightclub, and was later interested to learn that her lips had been spiked with cocaine. His subsequent ban didn’t help his career, but really he’d been on the slide for some time already. He’d exited the top ten almost a year before that, and hasn’t been back since. His career was already becoming sub-prime.

The five years since Wimbledon 2007 have mostly witnessed a gradually downward revision in our expectations for Gasquet. Now 26, he has finally shed the Baby Federer tag (although it’s probably fairer to say that it was forcibly taken from him and grandly bestowed upon Grigor Dimitrov, with predictably crippling results). It takes a special calibre of talent whereby you can still be dubbed talented after so long on the tour, just it requires that that talent has mostly gone unrealised. Realising your talents tends to make you accomplished, and Gasquet is hardly that. The question rages in France over who is the most talented out of Gasquet, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils, and whose perennial underperformance has therefore let the nation down the most. It’s probably a question of taste, but I don’t think I’m courting controversy by saying that Gasquet has achieved the least. The reasons why this is so have seen ample discussion, with the main culprits being his weirdly-gripped forehand, his wavering commitment, his fitness, his remote court-positioning, and his patchy application in big matches. It’s quite a lot to have working against you, even with all the talent in the world, and the world’s prettiest backhand. On balance, a ranking perpetually in the teens feels about right.

Gasquet spent the last two rain-marred days in Toronto overcoming these hitherto unmanageable issues, or at least proving that a sufficiently lethal backhand really can render them irrelevant for a time. In a touch over twenty-four hours he saw off three current or recent top tenners in Tomas Berdych, Mardy Fish and John Isner. By the end of his quarterfinal against a waning Fish he’d entered that ridiculous mode in which he cannot possibly miss the court, the mode that used to help make the Federer comparisons feel a little less laboured. He didn’t quite attain that level in today’s semifinal – Isner’s arrhythmically lurching game hardly allows it – although he was very good, and served superbly. He survived the match without facing a break point, although this was also a testament to Isner’s returning which, to put it mildly, needs work. For all that verse epics are composed in praise of Gasquet’s backhand, the true barometer of his form has always been the forehand. At his worst he appears incapable of regulating its depth, which dovetails perfectly with his hopelessly deep positioning to yield all initiative to his opponent. At its best, however, the forehand grows fearsome, and permits audacious winners to be struck from anywhere in the court, or, more commonly, from anywhere behind it.

It would be wilful to pretend Gasquet hasn’t benefited from a decidedly generous Toronto draw, one that never included Federer or Nadal, and from which Andy Murray excused himself early on. But this isn’t to say he hasn’t earned his spot in the final, since all the guys who were left wanted to win it as well, and it has been long years since Gasquet was prominent among them. In the final he will discover the bankably prominent Novak Djokovic, who is also the world No.2 and the defending champion. Gasquet can take some measure of comfort in this, despite a fairly hopeless record against the Serb, and despite in the dire predictions of the bookmakers. While in two previous attempts Gasquet has never won a Masters Series final, he has never lost at that stage to anyone besides Federer. The lesson seems clear. Gasquet just needs to believe. After all:

Everything starts from something,
But something would be nothing;
Nothing if your heart didn’t dream with me.
Where would I be, if you didn’t believe?

Categories: ATP Tour Tags: , ,

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: , , ,

Perfect Cadence

June 1st, 2012 6 comments

French Open, Day Five

Fognini d. (28) Troicki, 6/2 3/6 4/6 6/3 8/6

Fabio Fognini saved two match points while defeating Viktor Troicki today – 8/6 in the fifth set – and it is reasonable to suppose he played the second of them with a cracked frame, having hurled it to the court upon conceding the previous point. This has traditionally signalled the moment at which Fognini grows interested, so it proved something of a surprise when he subsequently broke for 7/6, and then served it out at love. Those of us who had hunkered down for an epic could be forgiven for feeling a little short-changed. Where was Troicki’s counter break, amidst a flurry of foot faults? No cramps? Even the self-directed tirades, for all that they roamed through the more florid regions of several romance languages, were mostly delivered sotto voce.

If fans cannot rely on The Fog to instigate a melodramatic and farcically-extended classic, wither should they turn? Who remaining in the draw even had the pedigree? A short time later John Isner strode onto Chatrier, where he would remain for over five and a half hours. Denied the services of Nicolas Mahut, who is scheduled to face Roger Federer tomorrow, Isner had instead enlisted the equally unlikely Paul-Henri Mathieu. When Big John really has time to kill, it seems only aging also-ran Frenchmen need apply, although once you’ve met those basic requirements it’s apparently a case of first come, first served-at. (Arnaud Clement, busily terrorising ball kids, missed his chance by mere hours. Utterly despondent, he immediately announced his retirement.)

(WC) Mathieu d. (10) Isner, 6/7 6/4 6/4 3/6 18/16

By now you doubtless know how it turned out. Doing anything more than recounting the scores does any of the first four sets too much justice. Each provided a timely reminder – timely is almost certainly the wrong term – that Isner’s classics are not to be delectated for their individual moments, but only appreciated in their totality, like an extended work by Philip Glass. No one emerges from a performance of Einstein on the Beach unchanged, but nor do they necessarily recall that delightful bit in the third hour, unless it’s years later, during therapy. Steve Tignor, who was courtside, correctly suggested that a match like this one evokes the fleeting transience of human existence. He should try doing it through a frigid Melbourne night. Somewhere in there May became June, and it felt like it. A month had passed.

The match lurched to a kind of life in the fifth set, likely a ghastly simulacrum. Those parts of Mathieu’s career not taken up with surgery and recovery have been mostly devoted to establishing his reputation for gagging at the big moments. He kicked things off nicely in the 2002 Davis Cup final, when he blew a two set lead – in Paris – to Mikhail Youzhny in the fifth and deciding rubber. For disappointment that’s hard to top, which isn’t to say he hasn’t tried to at least match it in the long decade since. Still, he appears to have turned a corner of sorts. Two days ago he recovered from a two set deficit for the first time. Today he held his nerve admirably. Isner, it turns out, should have vetted his aging also-ran Frenchmen a little more closely.

When a fifth set lacks a tiebreaker – as it should – it’s inevitable that fitness becomes decisive, especially on clay. At 6’9’’, Isner will never be able to run all day. But Mathieu is still in the preliminary stages of his latest comeback, so there was no reason to believe he could either. Blunt weariness was thus decisive, but for a wonder it was the Frenchman who was holding more comfortably, and whose groundstrokes retained their sting. Isner should have been taking bigger cuts on his return games, undoubtedly, but Mathieu was admirably steadfast. And he was making Isner toil mightily to hold, doing everything he could to counter the American’s beastly kick to the ad court. I don’t wish to imply that the tennis was suddenly breathtaking. It wasn’t, but at least Mathieu’s break points were now match points, each holding out the promise of a final perfect cadence. Alas, this was Glass in a capricious mood, and every time the dominant chord would resolve imperfectly, sliding cruelly away, back into the churning minimalist coda. Isner saved six match points.

He didn’t save the seventh, and Mathieu looked slightly less elated than stunned as Isner’s final forehand drifted wide in the gathering murk. He too had given up hope of an end. His feet were in terrible shape – one of his toes is broken – and he must have been close to collapse, but he looked numb rather than wounded. They both did, but Mathieu, once it had sunk in, was the one permitted to raise his leaden arms aloft for the delirious crowd.

If we weren’t constantly reminded, it might be easy to forget that Isner was considered an outside chance to take the French Open this year. I was never sure whether this brazen assessment was based more heavily on his stirring Davis Cup efforts against Switzerland and France or his heroic first round loss to Nadal here last year. Either way, he has emphatically failed to impress since returning to Europe. It is with some dismay that we must admit that a strong run at the US Men’s Clay Court Championships back in Atlanta does not necessarily guarantee triumph at Roland Garros. I suppose we had to find out sometime. Juan Monaco, who will face Milos Raonic in a few days, maintains some hope it doesn’t therefore guarantee failure. Isner looked quite upset at this discovery, although initially his analysis remained measured, as though he was reading it from a coaching handbook: ‘I felt like I got caught in patterns that weren’t idea for me.’ The issue, he suggested, was one of confidence. Fair enough. Then, finally, his disappointment broke through: ‘I am just going to go home. I don’t want to think about tennis right now.’

Mathieu has been denied the same luxury, for all that he must crave it at some level. Unfortunately, he is already home, and he won’t be granted the freedom of oblivion. He must do it again in a few days, much of which will be spent in an ice bath, traditionally a difficult – although not impossible – place in which to savour victory. Whether that victory will prove Pyrrhic is the question. Fabio Fognini knows all about those, as does John Isner. Now Isner knows that they’re still better than a loss.

Categories: Grand Slams Tags: , , ,

Used Dishwater

April 16th, 2012 2 comments

Houston, Final

(4) Monaco d. (2) Isner, 6/2 3/6 6/3

Juan Monaco today earned himself a career-high ranking of No.14, the right to call himself the US Men’s Clay Court Champion (ladies), and a potentially decisive bone-weariness as he decamps for Monte Carlo, where it will be compounded by jet-lag. Thus debilitated, he will face Robin Haase almost immediately, and can therefore feel confident that either a win or a loss will come quickly. There is a very real possibility that he will be out of the tournament before I overcome my annual, facile delight that Monaco is playing in Monaco, nearly.

Come what may in Monaco (the principality), Monaco (the player) proved unbeatable on Houston’s drab clay – apparently it is hosed down with used dishwater each morning – cracking open the hitherto impenetrable serve of John Isner three times. Both players bore the indelible marks of yesterday’s semifinals. In the case of Isner, the excruciating win over Feliciano Lopez expressed itself in a surplus of lactic acid, which lent the American’s characteristic air of pedestrian exhaustion a certain authenticity, at least through the opening set. (To be fair, none of us emerged from that semifinal psychically intact, but at least our physical recovery was brief.) In Monaco’s case, he was typically spry, and doubtless buoyed by the knowledge that, come what may, the final could not be as lethally dull as his win over Michael Russell had been. What followed was a modestly engaging yet ultimately forgettable final, in which Isner served poorly and Monaco ran lots. Monaco afterwards celebrated by submerging himself in the dishwater tank, which, as health risks go, still ranks somewhere below the Yarra.

With the Championships completed for another year, this will be the last we see of the US Men for a while, unless you live in the United States, where they are still permitted to roam free. By reaching the final, Isner has supplanted Mardy Fish as the highest ranked US Man, the twelfth chap to be so honoured. (With that pressure lifted from his shoulders, there is surely hope for a change in Fish’s fortunes. He probably won’t win much more, but at least his failures will generate less commentary.) Tennis.com, typically, contrived to spin Isner’s achievement into a lament for American tennis:

‘The first four men to hold the top U.S. ranking—Stan Smith, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, and Andre Agassi—combined for 25 Grand Slam singles titles. The middle four of Michael Chang, Brad Gilbert, Jim Courier and Pete Sampras combined for 19 major titles, while the last four—Andy Roddick, James Blake, Fish and Isner—own just one Slam in singles, Roddick’s victory at the 2003 U.S. Open. Neither Blake, Fish nore [sic] Isner has reached the semifinals of a major.’

I’m not sure precisely who they’re angry at here. Perhaps it is merely a generalised fury that their recent top players chose their era so unwisely.

Monte Carlo Masters, First Round

Dodig d. Ljubicic, 6/0 6/3

Play has already commenced in Monte Carlo, although in line with official policy only those actually attending are permitted to see the early rounds. There is, apparently, a real risk that players outside the top twenty will gain dangerous exposure if televised, leading to civil unrest. As with Miami, when no one saw Fernando Gonzalez’ last match, this issue has become particularly pressing in Monte Carlo, where no one saw Ivan Ljubicic’s. The Croatian today lost in the first round to compatriot Ivan Dodig. The ATP released a commemorative video. There was a presentation on court afterwards, which was, by all accounts, rather moving.

It was also rather short, since the event needed the court urgently. There’s been rain aplenty in Monte Carlo over the weekend – literally tumbling from the sky – and the qualifying schedule is sodden and rent. Most players were on court twice today, assuming they won their first match, which precisely half of them didn’t. Grigor Dimitrov did win his first, but lost his second to Mikhail Kukushkin. Arnaud Clement, who is older even than Ljubicic, lost his first. How does he keep going? The day’s remaining first round matches saw the necessary losses of the two local wildcards, Jeremy Chardy and Benjamin Balleret. They were valuable wildcards that could have been better spent. I wonder if Dimitrov feels aggrieved he didn’t receive one. I’m not suggesting he deserved it.

Categories: ATP Tour Tags: , , ,

The High Point of the Season

April 13th, 2012 4 comments

The Monte Carlo draw isn’t out until tomorrow, but, alone among tournaments, this offers no reason not to analyse it. The two salient features are already known: Rafael Nadal will play, and so will Novak Djokovic. Just this once, we can permit ourselves to pre-tape the weather report, so to speak. Anyway, what’s the alternative? To talk about Houston, and the bombastically titled US Men’s Clay Court Championship (named with typical restraint; this is a nation that calls its baseball competition the World Series. Don’t get me started on Miss Universe)? The draw is admittedly more cosmopolitan than, say, Atlanta’s, although there is still a preponderance of locals. This is their right, of course, since they’re US Men, and this is their championships.

Endless threnodies on the shortage of American clay court prowess are not unmerited. Formally, they’re all passacaglias on the same theme, and it’s a theme that rings true. The reigning US Men’s Clay Court champion is Ryan Sweeting. It’s debatable which surface Sweeting is a specialist on, but I’ll hazard that this isn’t it. He’s through to the quarterfinals, having beaten Bobby Reynolds, who despite knowing better, I usually picture as Richie Cunningham. Michael Russell, who once led the mighty Gustavo Kuerten by two sets at Roland Garros, has finally earned the upset we believed was in him, by seeing off Mardy Fish. Fish was the top seed, but he isn’t well. Most reports are citing fatigue. Some are insisting that it’s chronic, and a syndrome. Fish is still ranked No.9, but in the 2012 race he’s a lowly No.37, one spot below the illustrious Bjorn Phau. Nadal’s yearned-for two year ranking system would delay Fish’s departure from the top ten by months, which is surely a pretty succinct argument against it.

The match of the tournament so far was Kevin Anderson’s three set win over Sam Querrey today. Querrey’s coach Brad Gilbert appeared on Twitter remarking that his charge won more points and games, and yet still lost, apparently having just discovered this is possible. Hopefully, empowered with this new knowledge, Gilbert can teach Querrey that some points are more important than others, and that the very important ones habitually congregate in the third set tiebreaker. Lose those, and little else matters. Still more people are treating this as an upset, despite Anderson being ranked 70 places higher. Querrey remains stranded at No.103 (ten spots below the illustrious Bjorn Bhau). Where do these expectations come from? Phau, incidentally and illustriously, lost 6/1 6/0 to Carlos Berloq. Bummer.

The unfortunate fact is that only John Isner has displayed much aptitude for dirt lately (don’t imagine that as an Australian I feel at all superior about this). The decision to play Houston was thus baffling – one assumes the appearance fee played as definitive a role as the ‘love’ he professes to feel – especially since it has resulted in the predictable and foolish decision to pull out of Monte Carlo next week, despite his Davis Cup heroics just last week. I’ll always be the last one to say that Monte Carlo matters, but it should matter more than Houston, even if the latter is a National Championship. As I write, Isner has just seen off Horacio Zeballos in three sets. Ryan Harrison is also through to the quarterfinals, having defeated a ‘pair’ of Russians in Alex Bogomolov and Igor Kunitsyn. Harrison was also in Monte Carlo last weekend, and is not going back.

This aversion to European dirt merely reinforces a tendency that has lately hardened into a policy among US men. In the six years since 2005, only once has an American entered the main draw for Monte Carlo (Querrey in 2008). For all that Monte Carlo is the only Masters tournament that isn’t mandatory, and although its value as preparation for Roland Garros is questionable, this statistic still reveals the extent to which American players have largely given up on clay. They subsequently turn up in Europe by ones and twos during Madrid and Rome, but even then they don’t seem to take it very seriously. Of course, they’re unlikely to win these events, especially Monte Carlo, but there’s such a thing as playing to improve, and mastering all aspects of the sport. There’s a great deal to be said for professionalism. As a consequence, the top American players – Roddick, Fish, previously Blake – never look adequately prepared for Paris. The year’s second major seems merely to be something to be endured before Wimbledon. From that perspective, Houston’s status as the US Men’s Clay Court Championship is not overstated at all. For the US men, it really is the high point of their clay court season.

Anyway, back to the Monte Carlo draw . . . Oh, we’re out of time.

The Thing About Assumptions

April 9th, 2012 2 comments

Davis Cup, Quarterfinals, Day Three

Czech Rep. d. Serbia, 4-1

Berdych d. Tipsarevic, 7/6 7/6 7/6

In twenty years’ time, someone poring over old tennis scores might chance upon today’s Davis Cup results, and might make certain assumptions – entirely erroneous – as to how the matches played out. (Positing this theoretical future ‘historian’ entails a simultaneously bleak and optimistic view of the future, in which poor lonely bastards are permitted to pursue their pointless whimsies freely, and aren’t simply harvested for their organs. This suggests that at some point in the next two decades the west might enjoy a break in conservative governance. But I digress.)

Of course, a score line of 7/6 7/6 7/6 is an easy one to draw the wrong conclusions from. Being straight sets, one might assume it was straight forward. With every set ascending to a tiebreak, one might also, as with the famous US Open quarterfinal between Sampras and Agassi, assume it was tight. But you know what they say about assumptions: ‘they have an established tendency to make you and I look foolish.’ (They don’t say what happens in the case of pre-existing idiots, but assumptions probably don’t help.) Janko Tipsarevic, however, doesn’t need to assume anything in order to look foolish. He just needs a tennis ball in his hand, and the opportunity to serve for a set.

Tipsarevic served for both the first and second sets, and both times he was broken back by Tomas Berdych without achieving set point (although he did find one in the second set tiebreak, and promptly discarded it). However, the most telling moment came at 5/3 in the first set tiebreak, as Tipsarevic left a ball that landed in, a moment that told us that in lieu of genuine belief, he had only haggard, desperate hope.

Having established his credentials for gagging a lead, Tipsarevic essayed a different approach in the third set. Figuring that serving for a set was a doomed enterprise, he instead saved his big push for the inevitable breaker, although not before blowing a couple more set points on Berdych’s serve at 6/5. The Serb established a commanding lead in the tiebreak, and at 6/3 held three set points. Belief might have won him one, but, as I say, he had none. Berdych saved them all, and took the set, and the match, and the tie. The Czech Republic moves through to the Davis Cup semifinals.

It would be foolish to suggest this match was ever going to be a simple affair. Keen disciples of The Tipsarevic will recall his urgent, and painful, loss to Berdych in the Tour Finals last year, when the Serb wasted a match point in the second set tiebreaker. Or how about two weeks earlier, at the Paris Indoors, where Tipsarevic led 5/1 in the first set, only to lose it 5/7, and 4/2 in the second, only to go down 6/4? The point is he has form.

But nor should we pretend that Berdych has been amazing of late. He hasn’t. This is only his second top-ten victory of 2012, the other being the infamously feisty win over Almagro at the Australian Open, in which we discovered that while the Tin Man may not have a heart, he does have a certain flair for melodrama, as he collapsed as though pole-axed upon sustaining a ball to the arm. Nevertheless, Berdych clinched all three wins this weekend (he paired with Stepanek in the doubles), and there is some hope that recent upgrades will see him prove competitive through the clay and grass seasons to come.

USA d. France, 3-2

Isner d. Tsonga, 6/3 7/6 5/7 6/4

Comical scenes in Prague had earlier taken over from emotional ones in Monte Carlo, where the USA had completed a strong victory over France. Guy Forget announced his retirement from the captaincy on court afterwards, thereby reducing the French players to open weeping. Llodra and Benneteau took it particularly hard, perhaps because their doubles loss yesterday proved instrumental in accelerating Forget’s departure. For Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, this news merely compounded his disappointment at losing the decisive rubber to John Isner.

He was right to feel disappointment, but he’d be fooling himself to feel shame. Tsonga played well under immense pressure to keep the tie alive, but few men could have withstood Isner today, who is now clearly the No.1 American player in all but ranking, and who wears the responsibility lightly and calmly. Tsonga is a categorically better player than Gilles Simon, but Isner handled him comprehensively, remaining crushingly assertive on all but one of the key points, and only rarely allowing the Frenchman to set his feet. There is always a constricting pressure when facing a titanic server, even one like Ivo Karlovic who doesn’t exceed mere adequacy in any other of the game’s facets. However, Isner has fashioned himself into an imposing all-court figure. The forehand is notorious, but today it was outrageous. He seemed to go whole sets without missing one, which was particularly impressive given the demands he was imposing on it. I can barely recall a forehand that was played safely, and every time he lashed one, Tsonga began running. He was solid on backhand, reckless on passing shots, and imposing at the net, winning 37/49.

Before Forget took the microphone, there was a wonderfully genial moment as Isner went over to the opposition bench and shook hands or embraced each member of the French team. The local crowd applauded warmly. Time will of course tell, but there is a real sense that a weekend such as this might be the making of Isner. If he can go on to achieve a result commensurate with his frame and his game – such as winning a major – he is sufficiently charming that he might achieve a truly trans-national popularity, of the type that Fish lacks, and that Roddick is systematically eroding. Speaking of which, it was heartening to see Novak Djokovic out supporting the Davis Cup players, even if he wasn’t playing, and even if the players weren’t his compatriots (who were hundreds of miles away proving they simply cannot do without him).

The Americans have now won consecutive ties away from home, on European clay; in a gloomy barn in Fribourg, and at the most picturesque tennis club in the world; on stodgy Catholic dirt and hedonistic Mediterranean silt. The choice of surface when facing the USA has been a no-brainer for years. Assuming your players are at least half-decent on it, you always go with clay. Now, with the US flourishing under Jim Courier’s captaincy and spearheaded by Isner, the decision has become rather more fraught. Unless, of course, you’re Spain. As coincidence would have it, it will be Spain, in Spain. Almost certainly, it will be clay. Without question, it will be interesting.

Argentina d. Croatia, 4-1

Del Potro d. Cilic, 6/1 6/2 6/1

Our future lonely historian will look back at this one, and will feel sure that this was not a particularly close match. He or she will be entirely correct, and can be permitted their smug glow of satisfaction, since they probably don’t have much else going on. Juan Martin del Potro won 95 points to Marin Cilic’s 52, although Cilic if pressed could point to some impressive numbers of his own: before today’s match he had already spent over ten hours on court this weekend. On clay, in Argentina, there was sadly no way this one was going to be competitive. It was just baseline slugging – del Potro won 0/0 points at the net – scored to wildly catchy patriotic chanting, mostly between points. For del Potro, his elation contrasted nicely with the desolation following last year’s final.

Still, it provided interest in that it sustained one of the key themes of the weekend, which was that the doubles rubber is pivotal in close ties. Spain, whose tie wasn’t close, is the exception, and has appeared content to sacrifice the middle Saturday for a while now, without discernible impact on their overwhelming success. But hard-fought victories in the doubles provided clear momentum for the Czechs, Americans and Argentineans, and they all wrapped up their respective ties in the first of the reverse singles.

Argentina will play the Czech Republic in the semifinals.

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