The Blue Shift

Stockholm, Second Round

The news came in last night (over the wire) that Australia has secured a non-permanent place on the United Nations Security Council. For months we have been warned by a succession of government ministers that this was unlikely to come to pass, given that Australia had entered the race relatively late in proceedings, while our main competition – Luxembourg and Finland – had been lobbying vigorously for the better part of a decade. There were only two ‘available’ seats, and Luxembourg secured one. Australia took the other from the fancied Finns. This happened just days after Lleyton Hewitt defeated Jarkko Nieminen at the If Stockholm Open. Australian-Finnish relations have consequently attained an all-time low. There’s talk of invasion. Now that we’re on the Security Council, I assume we have that kind of power.

(Actually, while it has generally been assumed that securing this seat is an incontrovertibly good thing, and it probably is, now that it has actually happened people are wondering why this might be so. Meanwhile those prone to wringing their hands have commenced wringing. One local radio commentator queried how we can presume to pontificate on the world stage without having our own house in order, thus betraying a stunning misunderstanding of what the Security Council is, given that it counts China, the USA and Russia among its permanent members.)

Stockholm numbers among my favourite 250 level tournaments. Along with Basel’s sadly missed confected pink courts, Stockholm seems quintessentially of the European Indoors. But if Basel’s new blue is generic, and an unneeded concession to London’s O2 Arena, Stockholm’s old blue is pervasive and oddly gloomy, as though the powerful floodlighting hasn’t alleviated the darkness so much as tinted it. From my remote Australian vantage, even the air looks saturated by it, as though the action is occurring underwater, or very far away but hurtling towards me, like the advance guard of Finland’s ground assault. It also has a trophy that looks like a doomsday device. You cannot get more European Indoors than that.

The second seed in Sweden this week is Tomas Berdych, who two weeks ago sought to defend his Beijing title in Tokyo. The top seed is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who is working a similar trick by endeavouring to defend his Vienna title in Stockholm. Stockholm’s defending champion is Gael Monfils, but he isn’t playing anywhere any more, having lost in the first round. He has already committed the remainder of the season to convalescence. He’ll be back in the New Year, presumably as exciting, fragile and infuriating as ever. Anyway, the top two seeds are still there, and are ‘easing through’ the draw with a minimum of fuss. I’m especially looking forward to Berdych’s next match against Mikhail Youzhny, even if the latter has defied my advice by shaving his beard off again.

Otherwise today Marcos Baghdatis ‘eased past’ Alejandro Falla in only nine games, for the loss of none. The Columbian was injured, and wasn’t playing especially well even before he stopped playing entirely halfway through the second set. Straight after that Sergei Stakhovsky ‘eased past’ Feliciano Lopez – who looked strikingly misplaced in the luridly azure gloom – in a couple of tight sets. I still haven’t worked out precisely what ‘eased’ means, so I’m going to apply it to nearly everything just to be sure. From what I can tell, this is only the second time Stakhovsky has eased past the second round at tour level this season. Now that he has reached a quarterfinal, he might be interested to discover that his prize money will go up. He’ll certainly be interested to discover that he’s playing Tsonga.

Vienna, Second Round

Meanwhile in Austria, in the timeless Vienna that Tsonga abandoned, Tommy Haas has become just the fourth active player to reach 500 wins on the ATP Tour. The other three are Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and former Young Australian of the Year Lleyton Hewitt, who will command his nation’s military forces for the coming Finnish campaign. Haas is the 38th man to reach this milestone in the Open Era. I won’t list all the others, but you can have a go if you like. Perhaps turn it into a parlour game.

The tournament gifted Haas a Fiat 500 to commemorate his 500th victory, with the ATP’s logo and ‘500 Tommy Haas’ emblazoned on the bonnet. The German is rightfully proud of his achievement: ‘It makes me really proud and for sure this is one of my biggest achievements after everything that happened. The fact that it happened here in Vienna makes it very special. Getting such a gift on top of it makes it an amazing day for me.’ But I wonder if he’s proud enough to cruise around in his new Fiat without having it repainted. There’s pride, but there’s also feeling like an idiot.

For the record, his 500th win came quite easily against Jesse Levine, over five years after his 400th, which was against Agustin Calleri in Montreal 2007. It’s been a tough five years. I also can’t help but wonder what the contingency plan was had Haas somehow lost to Levine. Would the Fiat have followed him to his next tournament, which is Valencia, and would receiving it have been quite as special there? So many questions, fated to remain unanswered. Here’s another: what if Haas then embarked on a sustained losing streak worthy of Donald Young? The Fiat might come to feel like a rather bad omen. Perhaps they’d just change the 500 to a 499 and give it to him anyway, to bolster his spirits. Does Fiat make a 499?


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Champion Of Everything

Novak Djokovic will almost certainly finish 2012 as the No.1 ranked player in the world, or in the diffident parlance of the ATP’s marketing department, the ATP World Tour Champion. With only three weeks of the regular season left to play, he holds a race lead of 2,155 points over reigning world No.1 – but not reigning World Tour Champion – Roger Federer. In order for Federer to overtake Djokovic, he would need to win every remaining event into which he is currently entered, including Basel, the Paris Indoors and the World Tour Finals in London. Based on recent history, there’s no compelling reason to suppose Federer won’t win all of those. He did it last year, and almost managed it the year before. However, even if Federer once again cleans up indoors, Djokovic, by winning the Shanghai Masters, has ensured himself a reasonable shot at being crowned ATP World Tour Champion anyway. He only needs 846 points to put it beyond doubt. The real question, for me, is whether this accolade is really as important as its grandiose title avers.

I’ve never found it to be especially important, and, as shaky as my memory might be, I don’t recall ever hearing it mentioned at all through my first dozen years of following the sport. The first time I can really remember it being paraded as a noteworthy achievement unto itself was in 1998, when someone reminded us that Jimmy Connors had contrived to end the year as the No.1 ranked player no fewer than five times, and that Pete Sampras now had a decent chance to surpass this. Suddenly it turned out that year-end No.1 mattered.

The tale of Sampras’ quest has grown in the telling, with the prevailing mythology holding that in order to ensure he finished ahead of Marcello Rios that year he entered himself into any event he could find, no matter how obscure. It has been elevated to the status of a grimly heroic death-march. It’s true that once Sampras recovered from the injury he’d sustained at the US Open he played every single week, but the tournaments weren’t that out-of-way: Stockholm, Vienna, Masters events in Stuttgart and Paris. Mostly they were played on very fast carpet surfaces, which with Sampras’ serve meant that even the diciest matches turned out comparatively short by today’s standards. The pick of those matches, incidentally, was his loss to Richard Krajicek in the Stuttgart semifinals.

It’s probably worth mentioning that Sampras also sported a goatee through this period, possibly as a direct challenge to Rios, who usually had him covered when it came to facial hair. It is perhaps the only time that the world No.1 ranking has been fought over by bearded men. As it happened, Rios got injured and Sampras coasted over the line to become to only man to finish the season as No.1 six times. The fact that he did it six times in a row is a record that will presumably endure for some years yet. If Federer somehow manages to hold off Djokovic this year he will equal the total number of years, but they haven’t been consecutive. There have been gaps, which I will come to.

Fast forward a couple of years, to 2000, and the ATP has revamped the tour (you’ll note I’ve switched to a more urgent present tense). There is the New Balls Please campaign, and the Super Nine series has been rebranded as the Masters Series. The venerable 52 week rolling Entry System, which determines the actual rankings and is necessary to work out who gets into any given tournament, is deemed too esoteric for the average fan, and is nudged aside to make way for the more simplistic Champion’s Race. All players begin each year at zero points, and accumulate them as the year goes on. By the season’s conclusion, Gustavo Kuerten accumulates slightly more points than Marat Safin in the final match of the year, defeating Andre Agassi in the final of the Tennis Masters Cup in Lisbon before an adoring partisan crowd. At a single stroke he seemingly vindicates both the Race and the New Balls campaign. For the ATP, it is a tremendous coup.

It was also a tremendous coincidence. Finishing the year at No.1 means that you have accumulated more points than anyone else over the previous year, but then so does the Entry System. The rankings already function on a rolling 52 week system, and anyone who achieves the No.1 ranking at any time has done so based on a full year’s worth of results. In the simplest sense, the man who finishes No.1 is the one who just happens to have the top ranking in the week the season ends. It’s a rare and special achievement, but, I would argue, no more rare or special than holding the No.1 ranking in May or February. Given that the tour then enjoys an all-too-brief rest period, the putative World Tour Champion also enjoys the added perk of retaining that ranking uncontested for a month or so, but that’s about the only tangible difference. The tennis season isn’t really like those of other sports. It has a shape, but no momentum to the end, and you could just as easily say that it begins with the US hardcourts in July, and ends with Wimbledon. It would make little difference.

In any case, the calendar season following Kuerten’s glorious moment commenced, as they all do, with the Australian Open. This was won by Agassi, who defeated Arnaud Clement in the final. Reigning World Champion Kuerten bombed out in an early round, which was his usual tactic in Melbourne. Agassi therefore moved to the top of the Race, and Clement to second. Clement retained this position for months. Each week the ATP’s television program would announce the Race standings – with no mention of the actual rankings – with Clement in second spot, notwithstanding that his actual ranking had only moved up to No.12 (he eventually made it to No.10). It became glaringly obvious that the Race was quite irrelevant as a metric of anything until much later in the season, which is to say once the Race standings grew closer to those of the Entry System. This explains why the Race has largely been abandoned, and now only returns as an item of interest later in the season, when the ATP website starts trumpeting the Race to London, meaning qualification for the Tour Finals. The Entry System has long since returned to primacy as the most reliable means of ranking players.

In 2009 Federer became the first man since Ivan Lendl to regain the year end No.1 ranking, which I strongly suspect was as much news to Lendl as it was to me. It was talked up at the time, but seemed pretty abstruse even by the standards of Federer’s collection of records, some of which are obscure to the point of perversity. Upon hearing it, I wondered if I’d heard right. At first I thought they were saying he was the first player since Lendl to regain the No.1 ranking. This was obviously wrong, of course, but had it not been it would have been well-worth a comment. But it was merely as stated. He was once more World Tour Champion – the term is as tiresome to write as to consider – having relinquished it to Rafael Nadal the year before. I should note that Nadal in turn achieved the same feat in 2010. But I maintain that merely getting back to No.1 at all is the real achievement, regardless of the date at which you happen to do it. If Federer ends this year as No.1, he’ll become the only man to regain the allegedly coveted title of World Tour Champion twice. I’m not convinced that is precisely the accolade he is striving for, having recently become the only man to reach 300 weeks as world No.1, a record that surely means far more.

Nonetheless, Federer apparently disagrees with me on at least one level, although he thankfully hasn’t come out and chastised me publicly. He clearly feels the World Tour Champion title is worth pursuing, although I’d venture that his continued toils owe as much to not wanting to give up the top ranking at all. I can’t imagine he played Shanghai merely to please Rolex, especially with death-threats adding unneeded spice. He has announced that he will indeed be defending his title at the Paris Indoors, despite a widespread assumption that he’d give it a miss this year. He needs those points. Djokovic, on the other hand, needs fewer points to make it certain, and isn’t playing until Bercy. If he wins it, he’ll gain 1,000 points, and be declared the champion of the year. If he doesn’t, the Tour Finals will gain some added excitement. I suppose that isn’t a bad thing.

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Weaponised Insincerity

Shanghai Masters, Final

(2) Djokovic d. (3) Murray, 5/7 7/6 6/3

‘Let’s use our cameras to capture this moment!’

The manic and skittishly bilingual trophy presentation is always a highlight of the Shanghai Masters 1000, propelled at break-neck pace by an off-camera compere who would, in a different context, qualify as the world’s most tiresome dinner-guest. He demonstrated how insincerity might sound were it to be weaponised, delivering curiously-nuanced stock-phrases with a velocity and intensity that was exhausting even from afar. Andy Murray, when he was invited to speak – ‘Is this thing on?’ – mostly looked bemused. It was better than he might have looked, given he’d just lost a quite phenomenal final to Novak Djokovic. As two-time defending champion, and with the wreckage of five blown match points and two tennis racquets littering the court around him, he might have looked heartbroken.

Contrary to the fervent hopes of the ATP, high-quality Masters finals were never that common, but in recent seasons they have grown very rare indeed. This year I can only recall Madrid – much maligned Madrid – providing a suitably exciting finale. It was therefore a special treat indeed that Shanghai’s final rose fully to its potential, rather than merely sinking to our expectations. Through its short history, this event has taught us not to expect much. Hopefully that has changed, not merely because of this match, but because of the fine efforts that have shaped the week, especially Tommy Haas’ and Radek Stepanek’s runs to the quarterfinals. Honestly, though, this match is the one destined to endure in the memory.

The final commenced at a pace sufficiently cracking to impress even the evening’s compere, and at a standard sufficient to leave everyone else breathless, except for the crowd, who were merely rendered voiceless from screaming themselves hoarse. It has suddenly become fashionable to talk up the ‘rivalry’ between Djokovic and Murray, but until now I’d remained sceptical that it would amount to all that much, no matter how often they run afoul of each other in the years to come. Before last year they hadn’t played each other very much at all, thanks largely to the perennial third and fourth seedings which saw them marooned in opposite sides of every draw. This year they’ve played each other quite a lot, but most of the matches came to little. The Australian Open semifinal was a fine encounter. But I submit that I’m not alone in believing that the US Open final was, for all its high drama and epoch-fracturing significance, not a particularly great match, owing in no small part to the weather, which was deplorable. Today in Shanghai the standard was much, much higher. The conditions were perfect, but beyond that it was a question of intent.

My main reservation with this match-up is that both Djokovic and Murray are inherently defensive. When neither is willing to attack the points can grow astonishingly long, but only very occasionally interesting, and usually then only in the last few strokes. Tonight it was mentioned, with a misplaced tone of wonder, that the US Open final had featured over 90 rallies of ten strokes or more, as though that was an intrinsically fabulous thing. I remember the match pretty well, and I vaguely remember the 75th ten-stroke rally feeling wearily similar to the 65th, and wishing that they’d just get on with it. The problem is that one of them must lead, or it merely becomes a battle of the legs, played out over an eternity. There’s always going to be a problem when two immovable objects collide.

Tomas Berdych had discovered just how immovable Djokovic was in the semifinal yesterday: ‘I like to play quite aggressive, and makes the others run. But this doesn’t hurt him that much.’ Meanwhile Murray had faced down a pair of attacking seniors in Radek Stepanek and Roger Federer, and thus had similar incentive to hone his defensive skills to a fine point. But the shift came in his semifinal against Federer, when Murray emerged determined to match the world No.1’s aggression. Especially on return, he was fearsome. Indeed, from the end of the first set there was almost nowhere for Federer to place a second serve that wouldn’t see it belted dismissively away into a corner. This turned out to be an ongoing concern for a guy like Federer who normally defends his second delivery so well, and who’d already broken himself with an anxious trio of double faults. Kickers, sliders, body-serves – they were all dealt with.

Murray began today’s final similarly inclined, but if there’s one thing Djokovic does well – there are in truth dozens of things he does well – it is to lift his intensity when pressed. The result, almost immediately, was that holding serve became nearly impossible for either man, and that the rallies were conducted at a phenomenal pace. The first set was composed of endless highlights, one of which was Djokovic taking some time to extravagantly destroy his racquet upon pushing a volley wide to be broken for 5/6, giving it four lusty blows on the surface and creatively incorporating a half-pirouette. He is a great mover. The rest of the highlights involved tennis. Murray served it out for 7/5.

Relentless breaks gave way to a tightening pattern of holds in the second set, which only served to ratchet up the tension to the point where several crowd members exploded and had to be removed by emergency services. Murray broke through in the seventh game for 4/3. Soon after that he stepped up to serve for his third successive Shanghai title. He moved to 30-0, quickly by the standards of the day. Robbie Koenig insisted on air and on Twitter that the next point was the one upon which the final truly hinged, a scrambling and urgent all-court skirmish that Djokovic finally took with a tweener and drop shot. ‘Oh, stop it!‘ he blurted once it was over. But I’m not entirely convinced that the match turned there, since that merely brought it to 30-15 in Murray’s favour, and the Scot achieved his first championship point soon after.

I can concede that the Djokovic that raised his fist and smiled after that point was a dangerously familiar sight, however. It was the reckless and complicated gallows smile he saves for when he has almost given up on winning, and begins to play like there’s nothing left to do but have fun. It was the smile of last year’s US Open semifinal, and this year’s Roland Garros quarterfinal. But it’s not as though the Serb galloped away with the match from there. He saved a match point in that game before eventually breaking back. The subsequent tiebreaker was a minor classic within the larger one, and more crowd-members succumbed. Another four match points came and went, and a clutch of set points. Eventually Djokovic took it 13-11 on a forehand drive volley. Murray’s racquet was also removed by emergency serves, but proved on diagnose to be inoperable.

As it progressed, the final set became a question of movement, in particular of Murray’s movement. At the best of times he relishes nothing more than groping awkwardly and constantly at his thighs – I expect he does it in his sleep, though I lack the means to confirm it – but now he appeared to have reasonable cause. He hobbled during points rather than merely after them, and his second serve lost its bite. It would be vague rather than inaccurate to say that Djokovic sensed this. He certainly saw it, and began to press on his returns, finding outright winners that Murray merely stumbled towards, if that. As had happened all day, the break came in the seventh game, and it seemed clear that it was decisive. Murray was now obviously shortening the points, which was the right thing to do in the circumstances. He just wasn’t winning enough of them. Boldness saved a couple of match points, but not a third. Murray’s final backhand landed long and Djokovic had won his third Masters title for 2012.

Afterwards both men endured a procession of hastily-named dignitaries and hastily-bestowed gifts, which included the trophies and a new Rolex for Djokovic. All of this took up about two minutes, narrated in double-quick Mandarin and unctuous English. After that Djokovic and Murray were commanded in no uncertain terms to pose for photos, no wait, move slightly, more photos. Only when every last camera in the Qizhong Forest Sports City Arena had captured the moment were the players invited to speak. They did, but sounded comparatively diffident, and had little to add. And like that the Shanghai Masters and the Asian Swing was over for another year.


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Beneath Stylised Blades

Shanghai Masters, Third Round

Viewed from the outside, the main court at the Qi Zhong Tennis Centre in Shanghai bears an uncanny resemblance to a sports stadium mimicking a lotus flower. Viewed from within, the floral implications are less overt, especially when the roof irises shut to form a sinuously menacing mosaic. It looks more like the stylised blade of gigantic food processor, or part of the machine city from the third Matrix film, either of which which must be relaxing to play tennis under. Unlike Hamburg’s Rothenbaum, over which the retractable sails seem liable to billow away given a sufficiently cataclysmic zephyr, the closed roof of Qi Zhong’s centre court makes its immense weight apparent in a display of engineering bravura. If, heaven forfend, the roof was to collapse, the victims would at least perish knowing they were crushed by science. Just how many victims there would be is another question.

Lower down, and the seating betrays a more European influence in the expensive sections adjacent to the court. Many Continental tennis arenas contrive to look half-empty even when they’re rambunctiously full, by the cunning placement of low hoardings between each row (Philippe Chatrier), or by barricading off discrete little sections (the Caja Magica). As one glances quickly over the crowd, the resident biomass is visually broken up by lines of colour in a way similar to rows of empty seats. Elsewhere, lacking the funds or wherewithal to pull this off, they work a similar trick by simply not having anyone show up, like in St Petersburg. Shanghai has pursued this solution for the outside courts, with considerable success. If tennis is booming in China, why aren’t more people turning up to see it?

They’ve at least been turning up for the last few night sessions, mostly because that’s when Roger Federer has been scheduled to play. Even those who know nothing about tennis know about him. I know people who couldn’t pick Rod Laver out of a police line-up, yet whose bucket lists include seeing Federer play, right there between swimming with dolphins, reading War and Peace, and other clichéd shit. However, on Wednesday night Federer played Taipei’s Yen-Hsun Lu, and was therefore faced with the unusual situation of not being the crowd’s clear favourite. This was hardly a unique event, however, even though some commentators apparently believed his legendary equanimity might be irreparably shattered. But he has played Nadal in Madrid, and Hewitt in Melbourne, and Murray in London, and it wasn’t as though the crowd was actually hostile. They were mostly pleased that Lu gave a decent account of himself, and proved more than happy to see the world No.1 get through in straight sets.

The crowd – although I should stress that it was probably a different crowd composed mostly of different people – was rather more excited last night when Federer narrowly survived against an initially inspired Stan Wawrinka. Having narrowly survived, he then set about flourishing as his compatriot – the Swiss who loses – fell in a sorry heap. The upshot of this victory is that Federer will now certainly retain his top ranking for yet another week, and that this will be his 300th such week at the top. Federer had remarked before the match that 300 doesn’t really mean that much more than 299. Jason Goodall and Doug Adler debated the thruthiness of this statement on air, with the result being, I think, that 300 is a more important number to Doug Adler.

If much of professional tennis is being conducted in new soulless arenas, it is also being energised by old soulful men. Federer, as we all know, is 31. Radek Stepanek is even older at 33, and he has now defeated a couple of top 15 twenty-somethings in Richard Gasquet and John Isner to reach the quarterfinals. In the opening round he also saw off Lleyton Hewitt, although the Australian veteran is truly more machine now than man. Stepanek is more gargoyle than man, and can dress like a lost dare from the eighties, but when he’s on he still brings an attractively attacking game, and doesn’t seem to have slowed particularly in his advancing years. Stepanek, as is the way of things, has turned increasingly to doubles of late, but he remains a force when on his own. He has found form seemingly at the right time, with the Davis Cup final looming in the middle distance, where he will almost certainly be required every day. It’s worth remembering that Stepanek once won a Davis Cup singles rubber in which his opponent Ivo Karlovic served the then-record number of aces for a match. That record is now held by Isner, and yesterday Stepanek withstood his monstrous serve with apparent ease. Once the ball was back in play, the Czech was almost embarrassingly superior.

Tommy Haas is even older than Stepanek, and by thrashing Janko Tipsarevic last night ensured he will return to the top twenty for the first time in over two years. Actually, a thrashing wasn’t technically required – the rankings don’t work that way and a mere beating would have sufficed – but Haas was in a stern mood. Tipsarevic, it should be said, didn’t seem in a particularly competitive mood, and some of the many breaks were conceded quite perfunctorily with an easy recourse to the double-fault worthy of Fernando Verdasco. It wasn’t quite the fight fans might expect from the world No.9, although his staunchness in the face of German aggression still looked Churchillian compared to Bernard Tomic’s. Upon winning Haas delivered a strangely non-erotic and very slow pelvic thrust, although I couldn’t say which of the few dozen people in the stands it was intended for. Most of these formed into a knot behind the player’s chairs, and began loudly and aggressively demanding that ‘Tommy’ sign their belongings.

With this victory Haas moved to 499 career wins on tour. To reach 500 he’ll need to beat Novak Djokovic today (or I suppose somebody else some other time). Less likely things have happened, although I’d need to Google them. Djokovic has been in excellent form these last few weeks, and although he has had issues with Haas in the past, they were mostly a long time ago and mostly on grass, notwithstanding their terrific dust-up in Toronto a few months back. But this Shanghai court is grippy and slow and abets a sturdy defence, and there is none sturdier than the Serb’s. Nonetheless, even reaching the quarterfinals of a Masters events, and returning to the top twenty, constitutes a marvellous effort for Haas. Just 16 months ago he wasn’t even ranked. Now he’s back in the top twenty, and he didn’t get there by being merely satisfied with marvellous efforts.

I haven’t even mentioned Andy Murray, Marin Cilic, Tomas Berdych or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Consider them mentioned. They’re lovely.


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An Adoring Roar

Tokyo, Final

(8) Nishikori d. (6) Raonic, 7/6 3/6 6/0

Kei Nishikori defeated Milos Raonic in the final of the Rakuten Japan Open Tennis Championships, thereby becoming the first Japanese man to do so in the tournament’s four decade history. I cannot imagine that anyone seriously disputed Nishikori’s status as Japan’s greatest ever male tennis player, but if they did, I assume they don’t now. It seems beyond reasonable quibble. Indeed, it was a pretty good afternoon for Japanese sports in general. Only an hour earlier Kamui Kobayashi achieved his first podium finish at Suzuka, narrowly edging out Jensen Button for third. With patriotic euphoria in the air, the capacity crowd in Tokyo’s Ariake Colosseum was perfectly justified in roaring their approval the precise moment Raonic’s last forehand drive volley found the net. Suddenly, there was noise.

The idea of preternatural Japanese politeness is of course a cliché, but it is one that is tethered firmly enough to reality. During the last game of today’s final Nishikori was pushed wide to his forehand, whereupon he went for broke on a winner down the line. It was initially hard to tell if the ball was in or out, and, with no clear outcome to react to, the crowd went instantly and eerily silent as they anxiously awaited the outcome of the inevitable challenge. The outcome was that Nishikori’s forehand had found the exact corner, and the colosseum erupted. To undisciplined Western ears, it almost sounded rehearsed in its precision, even though I don’t question the spontaneity.

Given the afternoon’s prevailing vibe of well-drilled inevitability, the fact that the final was delayed by some minutes seemed almost calamitous. Firstly it was raining, which meant the doubles final had to be played indoors.  Then it stopped raining, which prompted the tournament organisers to retract the roof – Wimbledon take note – although this encountered problems when the roof gave it up as a bad lot part way through. The gabbing faces on Sky Sports were forced to kill time, and typically sought to do it as painfully as possible. There was some leaden-fisted banter about the Japanese ironically being masters of technology – ‘ho ho ho’ – since any nation capable of building the shinkansen should apparently be immune to mechanical failure. They also essayed some confident predictions regarding Raonic’s likely victory. These predictions were hard to argue with at the time – although it’s surprisingly easy now that he has lost – given he’d beaten Andy Murray only twenty-four hours earlier.

As it happened, Raonic’s defeat of Murray only twenty-four hours earlier, and of Janko Tipsarevic just a day before that, did prove decisive in its way. Both those matches had gone to third set tiebreakers, and required that match points be saved. This had exacted a physical and mental cost. As the final’s last set spiralled rapidly beyond his grasp, it was little wonder he began to grow ragged. This is not to imply that he would have won had he been fresh, since Nishikori was by this stage playing with a reckless virtuosity that at times lifted to unplayable levels, but I doubt whether a fresher Raonic would have been bagelled.

He had been broken only once in the tournament before the final, by Murray, but he was broken without relent by the end. Nishikori was now reading Raonic’s monstrous serve well. ‘Body’ serves that almost decapitated him in the first set were now reflexed back into play, but fewer of them were finding the service box. Kick serves to the ad-court that would have earlier dragged Nishikori into the crowd lost a little of their bite. The Japanese man still had to leap for them, but not quite so far.

If Raonic’s final ended enervatingly, then it began nervously. He was broken in his opening service game, from 40-0 up. It set a pattern early, which was that Nishikori would return almost anything he could lay a racquet on, and that if any point thereafter attained a neutral state, he would likely go on to win it. There was an early scare when the trainer and tournament doctor appeared on court to administer to Nishikori, who had sustained some corneal trauma from looking too closely at Raonic’s Lacoste ensemble. A less-disciplined crowd might have groaned from consternation, but not this one. He was pronounced fit to continue, whereupon he was broken back. The locals remained mostly composed even then, and when Nishikori went down 0-3 in the eventual tiebreaker.

I suppose they were right to be confident. Nishikori came back to take it, on his fourth or fifth set point. Then Raonic took the second, convincingly. But then Nishikori took the third, in the most convincing manner possible. It is the second year in a row that a three-set Tokyo final has ended in a blowout, a meaningless coincidence that only seems more coincidental by the consideration that either blowout, on paper, was supremely unlikely. It is Nishikori’s first 500 level title, from his second attempt (he lost to Federer in Basel last year), while Raonic falls to 0-3 in finals at this level. Well beyond that status afforded it by the ATP, however, is that fact that it is a richly-pedigreed and very prestigious tournament in its own right. And beyond that is the fact that it is Tokyo, and that no Japanese man had ever won it before. David Ferrer has remarked that winning Barcelona, a similarly-rated tournament in his home country, would mean the world to him. For Kei Nishikori, that must have been exactly how it felt in that moment, as fifteen thousand of his staunchest compatriots rained down an adoring roar that was, finally, unrestrained.

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The Red And The Blue

Beijing and Tokyo, Quarterfinals

Perhaps it’s just me, but I find it helpful that the Japanese and Chinese Opens are colour-coded. This enables those of us with multiple streams open to tell at a glance which city the action is taking place in. For the record, Tokyo is red and Beijing is blue, although the latter tennis centre, according to the official line, is green all the way.

Both events are staged in impressive and imposing facilities with vast central stadia worthy of hosting a Major final. Even respectable crowds are apt to get swallowed up, no matter how lustily they cheer, or how often they gasp at every single last dead netcord.  Both facilities feature hectares of space around and behind the actual court, which some players find off-putting. It can be dispiriting when first serves that normally slam into the backdrop are now bouncing twice before they reach it. In the Beijing Olympic Green Tennis Centre the show-courts have been given evocative titles like Diamond Court, Lotus Court, Moon Court, and Court 1. At Tokyo’s modestly titled Ariake Colosseum they’ve opted for more traditional names. The centre court is called Center Court.

(8) Nishikori d. (2) Berdych, 7/5 6/4

Tokyo’s Center Court is the only court Kei Nishikori is likely to play on for the immediate future. As Japan’s highest ever ranked male player (by some margin), he features heavily in the promotional material for the local shindig. His nation is justifiably proud of his achievements, and certainly even more so now that he has upset Tomas Berdych to reach the semifinals with a quite wonderful display of aggressive hitting. Berdych was the defending champion at the blue tournament, but this year made the switch to red. One assumes a hefty appearance fee facilitated this decision, which the organisers might have regretted had the Czech not lost to the local favourite. David Ferrer, on the other hand, had switched from red to blue, but then withdrew in the first round against Yen-Hsun Lu. There was presumably a decent amount of money abetting that decision as well. Not all investments pay off. Indeed, the way the players tend to switch between the two tournaments from year to year is part of what makes them blend into each other, thus making the colour-coding useful. Anyway, Nishikori will play Marcos Baghdatis in the semifinal, which is not only winnable, but eminently so. Local hopes are high.

(1) Murray d. (7) Wawrinka, 6/2 3/6 6/2

There was never much doubt that Andy Murray would return to Tokyo to defend that title he took so completely last year, when he (eventually) dealt Rafael Nadal the most consummate of hidings, allowing the Spaniard just four points in the final set. Curiosity in Murray is intense, given that this is his first tournament since winning the US Open last month. There seems to be a prevailing expectation that his game would have changed somehow, that winning that maiden Slam was deeply transfigurative. It’s an expectation I don’t have much time for, and Murray thankfully seems unaltered. The commentators, however, could barely keep the wonder from their voices that the Scot’s second serve is still his weakest stroke, and that Stan Wawrinka was merciless in going after it. But, but . . . everything was supposed to be different now. It allowed the Swiss to grab a set. In the overwrought parlance of the times, this means that Murray was given a ‘scare’, the implication being that dropping a set propels any of the top four into a blind funk. Earlier in the week, in blue Beijing, Novak Djokovic was reduced to a quivering panic by Michael Berrer, though he somehow got through in the end.

Vying with ‘scare’ for the status of most over-used summary term is ‘eased’, as in Janko Tipsarevic eased by Gilles Simon. Aside from how often it is used, there is also some confusion over precisely what it means. Sometimes it is applied to a quick and simple 6/2 6/1 type thrashing, in which case I suppose it just means ‘easy’. At other times it seems to be more or less synonymous with ‘gingerly’ or ‘carefully’, as in: ‘With the foal in breech position, the farmer eased his callused hands into his prized mare’s birth canal.’

(3) Tsonga d. Youzhny, 6/3 6/3

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga therefore eased past Mikhail Youzhny in the former sense, which was a shame for those of us hoping for a more protracted and dramatic affair. Through its initial going, to 3/3 in the first set, this match had the potential to become a classic, though after that it mainly served as a warning against getting your hopes up. Tsonga was snatching at his backhand, and Youzhny was ripping his, prompting Robbie Koenig in commentary to yodel an extended hymn in praise for that stroke. He said it was the hardest backhand he’d ever faced. With pleasant simultaneity, Wawrinka was even at this moment sacrificing Murray to the Lord of Eternal Terror by taking the second set. For aficionados of one-handed backhands, it was an embarrassment of pleasures. Even Tsonga got in on the act, removing his left hand on a few passing shots. The tennis was wonderfully all-court, but from the middle of the first set it was all Tsonga. He was typically athletic, and impenetrable on serve, meaning the Russian had no way back when the odd horrible game saw him broken. His beard is looking very fine, though, even if it hasn’t quite regained the impressive volume and density of the season’s early going. In Zagreb there were unsubstantiated reports of local children going missing in it.

(6) Raonic d. (3) Tipsarevic, 6/7 6/2 7/6

Back on the red court, and several hours earlier, Milos Raonic called on his samurai experience – and those, depressingly, are his words – to ‘ease past’ Tipsarevic in a third set tiebreaker. This was ‘easing’ in the second sense, although I suppose there’s nothing gentle or circumspect about the Canadian’s serve. It is careful in much the same way that performing a non-anaesthetised root canal with a pick-axe is. He saved a match point, but it was on his own serve, so it doesn’t really count. Tipsarevic then did the same. Then Raonic had had enough, and ripped an enormous backhand winner down the line, the equivalent of reaching in with both hands and yanking the foal out in one go. I have it on good authority that this almost never works. But it did, and Raonic predictably served it out with an ace. He’ll play the vestigially-terrified Murray in the semifinals. Easy.

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A Certain Gallic Aplomb

The tale of the first week of the 2012 Asian Swing – ‘swing’ is still a term I employ only grudgingly – has been that one Frenchman won his seventh ATP title, while another still hasn’t won any from seven attempts. It’s the kind of coincidental symmetry that makes for a nice opening sentence, but probably reveals little beyond that. I suppose it does reinforce the more commonly-held perceptions of the men involved, and therefore rebuts those who take pride in refuting those perceptions. There’s always some value in that: sometimes it’s nice when truisms are true. Maybe that’s a complicated point, or maybe it’s just a complicated way of putting it.

Bangkok, Final

(2) Gasquet d. (4) Simon, 6/2 6/1

Richard Gasquet, who yesterday won his seventh title in a refurbished barn in Thailand, has always laboured beneath the onus of excessive national expectations. I suspect that’s why his shoulders now slope so sharply downward. His story is well enough known, and among those who know it well the standard line is that all the hype was really overhype. Based on Gasquet’s performances at Major (or even Masters) level, it is a hard point to refute. He was heralded as a world-beater, and by that standard he has certainly underperformed. If the world has been beaten, it wasn’t by Gasquet. He has never won a Masters, and, most problematically, he has only once been past the fourth round at a Slam. Without question he has underperformed, but I’m not convinced it has been by all that much. He doesn’t have much of a serve, his forehand is patchy and his remote court positioning is invariably exposed by quality opponents willing to exploit it. But, still, he has won seven titles, which is more than most players manage. Is the problem with Gasquet, or with poorly calibrated expectations?

Nationalism, which we call patriotism when we want to be nice about it, is useful for some things, but helping you maintain a sense of perspective isn’t one of them, and it always obscures more than it reveals. In Gasquet’s defence, I don’t recall him declaring he’d beat the world. He isn’t Bernard Tomic. The problem, partly, is that when he wins well, he wins very well. He wins so well that you find yourself wondering why he doesn’t do it more often, and wishing he would. Fitness is part of the answer. Mental fortitude is another part. There are technical and tactical deficiencies, but all of these don’t quite add up to a whole. I suspect this true for every player when we look close enough, that in each case we’ll search vainly for that thing that makes them win or lose more than they should. But in the case of French players we look especially close, determined to uncover that common issue that has seen them claim only one Slam in the Open Era.

The cliché is that the best French male players are flashy stylists who lack sufficient substance to apply themselves through an entire Major event, and that in a crucial moment or match they will find a way to blow it. It is so obvious a generalisation and so blatantly reductive that I’m offended when it is continually proved accurate. Long-time readers are doubtless aware that I’m resistant to casual generalisation at the best of times, even as I admit that there’s something seductive about a reality that conforms to our easy assumptions. But I refuse to shake the feeling that it must be more complicated than that, that the continual failure of French men to win big titles resides more in the specificity of each man and each moment than in any airy national set of characteristics. Even the idea of the typical French stylist breaks down under scrutiny. Leconte, Pioline, Grosjean and Gasquet are all undoubtedly stylish tennis players, but if they weren’t all French would we even think to connect them? Throw in Santoro and Tsonga if you like. Even Escude had his moments. Then you have Gilles Simon, who surely isn’t considered a stylist even by his most ardent supporters.

Gasquet struggled all week in Bangkok, having to stage desperate and therefore uncharacteristic recoveries against Grigor Dimitrov and Jarkko Nieminen, yet he roundly trounced a sup-par Simon in the final. For some (unfathomably Gallic) reason Gasquet’s head-to-head with Simon is 6-0 in his favour. It was one of those notorious days when Gasquet could do no wrong. He’s already in Beijing, where he may find a way to lose dispiritedly Matthew Ebden in the first round. If that eventuates we could say that both performances were typically French. But I think it’s fairer to say that both would be typically Gasquet, and leave it at that. He’s won seven titles, though. That’s not bad.

Kuala Lumpur, Final

(2) Monaco d. (7) Benneteau, 7/5 4/6 6/3

Julien Benneteau, if he was homicidally inclined, would surely kill for just one title. There’s no telling what he’d do for seven of them. Perhaps he’d beat the world. Nothing earth-shattering was ever really expected of Benneteau, and not only by John McEnroe, who proved not a whit abashed at not knowing who the Frenchman was. Even among those who have heard of Benneteau – anyone with a passing interest in men’s tennis outside of the Majors – there is a sense that even reaching seven finals is commendable. Of course, far worse players than Benneteau have won titles, and so I don’t want to imply that he doesn’t deserve one. I’d be delighted if he did. I’m just not surprised that he hasn’t, and will remain unsurprised if he never does, despite the fact that I have a lot of time for him as a player.

Being likeable, he is well-liked, but he has never been held in the same lofted regard as his ostensibly more talented compatriots, such as Gasquet, Tsonga, Monfils or even Simon. But for all that I try to reject the notion of a typical French player, I have to confess that I appreciate Benneteau precisely because he doesn’t seem typically French to me, except facially, and in his taste for awful Lacoste shirts. (I admit that is inconsistent.) He can be imposing without being demonstrative and aggressive without being flashy. But when the pressure is greatest, or the heat turned up the highest, he is prone to losing his shape. We could say that this is a French tendency, but then we’d have to award Fernando Verdasco the Légion d’honneur. Really the capacity to lose form in the crucible of a tour final merely makes Benneteau a world citizen.

Benneteau was never likely to break any records, and so learning that he holds the Open Era record for most lost finals without claiming a title (7) was a pleasant discovery. I suppose if he was ever to insinuate himself into the history books, I think that was a reasonable accolade to aim for – difficult and obscure, yet achievable, despite a genuine risk that he’d beat Nieminen in a low-grade decider in Sydney earlier this year. (The Finn’s record in finals is nearly as poor as Benneteau’s.) Yesterday in Kuala Lumpur against a handsomely shorn Juan Monaco there was also some danger that the record might slip away – especially since Benneteau had been so marvellous in beating David Ferrer in the semifinals – but fading fitness and a surging opponent did for him in the end.

Indeed, it was nice to see this pair battling it out in a decent final in Malaysia, given the last time they’d been mentioned in the same space was when they’d been stretchered from the Monte Carlo centre court, each having injudiciously trod in a cunningly concealed pothole. That was many months ago, and they’ve had their individual moments since, in what has amounted to a career year for both. Monaco has won four titles. Benneteau, by continuing to win none, may well have secured his place in history.


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False Start

This, I will hazard, will be a short post about a week of firsts, and a bad day for Italian men’s tennis. It is rare for me to write anything all the way through from start to finish, but I’m going to give it a go. For one thing I’m still away on holiday, and for another it might be fun. Most of my posts are composed modularly, in such a way that the parts can be flat-packed – thus saving me thousands on transport costs – and then arranged and reassembled at the end. But not today. Today I’m going to start from the beginning and see what comes out. This explains how an introduction like this one came about. Believe me it wasn’t planned.

St Petersburg, Final

(3) Klizan d. (4) Fognini, 6/2 6/3

The firsts this week occurred in St Petersburg, which is has been shunted forward from its traditional position just after the Asian swing, and Metz, which has lurked in this part of the schedule for a few years. In St Petersburg Martin Klizan won his first ATP title, and became the first first-time titlist this season, and the first Slovakian to win a tour event since Dominik Hrbaty in 2004. As droughts go, it wasn’t quite up there with that of the British men and their Arthurian quest never to win a Major title again – which was progressing nobly until Andy Murray wrecked everything – but it was still something, I suppose. Or so the ATP would have us believe. I personally don’t recall it being a hot topic, but then I am Australian, and we have our own problems.

The most amazing thing about Klizan’s victory in the final was that he had won the semifinal the round before, although my research department informs me that this is not an uncommon way to progress through a tournament draw. What is amazing was that he’d had much left after a semifinal in which he’d eventually overcome Mikhail Youzhny in three hours and 47 minutes. It was therefore the fourth longest best-of-three match ever played (assuming a non-advantage third set), and the second longest that did not involve Rafael Nadal. It was a titanic battle by almost any definition, except perhaps the literal definition featuring protagonists drawn from the Pantheon, or the more accepted one of a luxury ocean liner colliding with an iceberg thanks to Leonardo DiCaprio, thereby teaching everyone but Clive Palmer a definitive lesson in hubris. But those definitions aside, it was titanic battle. One was immediately put in mind of Chennai in 2008, when Nadal almost did himself in to deny victory to Carlos Moya, only to fold meekly to Youzhny in the final the next day. Youzhny’s presence in both instances makes the parallel seem important, but it isn’t clear why. The main thing to know was that Klizan’s Pyrrhic semifinal win would consign him to certain defeat in the final.

It of course didn’t pan out that way, for two reasons. Firstly, due to some unholy combination of fitness and necromantic forest magic – he’d pronounced himself ‘dead’ after the semifinal – Klizan was as spry as a whippet in the final, darting hither and thither and gleefully teeing off on any available forehand. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, his opponent was Fabio Fognini, who just wasn’t really in the mood. This was not the first time the Italian has failed to win a maiden title – he fell more valiantly to Gilles Simon in Bucharest earlier this season – and based on Sunday’s example it won’t be the last. It was one of those matches in which his generally winsome insouciance tips over into a less-appealing stroppiness, when what seems to be disinterest turns out to be disinterest. He has a habit of giving up once he’s down. Think back to the match against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Roland Garros, when Fognini checked out part way through the second set. In the St Petersburg final he fell quickly to 0/4 in the opening set, and that was more or less it. He was done. The very next point he attempted a reverse tweener while running for a drop shot – that’s right, while sprinting forward. Shockingly, it didn’t come off. There was momentary resistance to open the second. He even broke Klizan back for 3/3. But that was it.

Klizan, in his first tour final, had every reason to be crippled by nerves, and must have been fatally enervated given his semifinal – it was titanic, you’ll recall – not to mention his heroic toils in Davis Cup the weekend previous. In the end it took only sixty-nine minutes. The fifty or so people that turned out to watch must have been terribly disappointed, assuming they weren’t mostly hobos in search of warmth. Klizan has now risen to No.33 in the rankings. He says his goal is to be seeded for the Australian Open. If it was staged next week, he probably would be. He was ranked No.100 less than five months ago.

Metz, Final

(1) Tsonga d. (5) Seppi, 6/1 6/2

A short while later in Metz, Tsonga took an even shorter while to see off Andreas Seppi. About fifty minutes, all told, which made it the briefest final played this season, and the shortest since Murray beat Donald Young in Bangkok a year ago. I haven’t checked, but I suspect it is the first time two Italian men have lost ATP finals on the same day in less than two hours combined. More importantly, Tsonga won Metz last year, and this is therefore the first time he has ever defended a title. He did it in the most impressive style imaginable, by aggressively reducing Seppi to the level of semi-interested onlooker.

Faced with such an onslaught, Fognini would have been justified in giving up, although he probably would have chosen this moment to fight his heart out. It wouldn’t have mattered. It is rare that everything works so completely for Tsonga. His athleticism is generally a given, and his first serve and forehand are rarely less than imposing. But when his backhand is penetrating and his returns aren’t missing you know you’re in for a tough day if you’re planning to win, or a very short one if you’re Seppi. To be fair, brisk indoor courts in regional France are not Seppi’s optimal operating conditions. He tried.

One gets the feeling we’ve arrived at a part of the season that Tsonga really likes. Unfortunately we’ll now leave it again for a few weeks. Metz and St Petersburg are two weird and insignificant events lodged awkwardly between the Davis Cup semifinals and the Asian swing, a kind of aborted start to the European indoors season, like the famous false horn entry in the first movement of the Eroica, or something. It’d be like playing Houston and Casablanca before Indian Wells. Anyway, they are what they are – next year they might be something else – and Klizan and Tsonga won them. Of the two, St Petersburg boasts the more traditional silverware, a shortcoming Klizan sought to overcome by putting it on his head. Tsonga merely kissed the Metz trophy, since its hideousness speaks for itself.

And this is what my posts look like when I’m in a rush and just write it all down in a shoddily-dammed rivulet of semi-consciousness. Now I just need to go back and concoct an introduction that makes it look like this is what I was intending to do, and perhaps another paragraph about Fognini. And I’ll work in the word ‘Arthurian’.


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The Careful American

The location is Rod Laver Arena. The situation is the semifinal of the Australian Open. The year is 2005. The month is January. It was a simpler time, and we all spoke in much shorter sentences. The protagonists are Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt, who according to the official rankings are the second and third best tennis players on the planet. The American is irritated and fidgety. The Australian is florid-faced and sleeveless. The local crowd has been whipped to a patriotic lather by Alicia Molik’s earlier victory in the final of the Women’s Doubles, and by the presence of Olivia Newton-John and Shane Warne in Hewitt player’s box. Our Lleyton breaks serve, and mimes starting a lawn mower. Roddick furiously adjusts his sleeves, which in his entire career have never once settled into an ideal position of their own accord. The noise is deafening. In the televisised version, the commentators cross to Todd Woodbridge, seated in the stands, though nowhere near me. They ask him about the crowd noise. An expert at such things, Woodbridge confirms that it is indeed very loud.

After a year of decline, Hewitt had posted a resurgent year in 2004, one that saw him return to the top of the sport as a considerably more rounded player than he’d been when ranked No.1. At the top he discovered that his former whipping boy Roger Federer had elevated men’s tennis to a frightening new level. Hewitt’s 2004 had ended with pastings at Federer’s hands in the finals of the US Open and the Masters Cup. He’d also been overpowered by Marat Safin in the Paris Indoors. The issue, for the hitherto modestly proportioned Australian, was one of power, and where he might find more of it. With this in mind, and perhaps inspired by Brad Pitt’s recent transformation in Troy, Hewitt had invested sufficient time in the gym that his jaws now had biceps. His biceps looked like thighs. This was his response to the challenge that Federer had laid down, but appeared incapable of losing. Others had different responses.

Roddick, for example, went the other way. Serve aside, he commenced a long retreat from power and risk, a rear-guard action against the assertive and optimistic style that initially propelled him to the top ranking and a US Open title. He very gradually fashioned himself into a defensive baseliner, for all that he’d never been an especially accomplished defender. Opinion remains divided over whether he was right to do this. Some insist that this measured approach – in which half-paced rallying was periodically punctuated by suicidal forays at the net – kept him in the top ten for many years. They’re probably right. We had assumed that his erstwhile exuberance was natural, but whether it was or not, Roddick set about tempering it so that he might more reliably continue to defeat those ranked below him, even as it meant he was less equipped to challenge those ranked higher. It seemed like a strategy tailored to keep him in the top ten, but not the top five, and it worked. This seems borne out by the fact that every one of Roddick’s deep runs at Majors after 2007 felt unlikely, as did his visits to the finals of Indian Wells and Miami in 2010.

Others insist that while continued aggression would have produced wild fluctuations in his ranking, he might have won more of the events that matter most. The peaks would have been higher, even if the valleys were deeper. I am partial to this theory. Would Safin have traded his second Major – this very 2005 Australian Open – for greater consistency? I doubt it. I’m not the first to suggest Roddick might have won a second Slam had he only realised he had less to lose than it seemed. Now that he has retired from the sport, contemplating his career mostly leaves me with a vague sadness at what might have been had he been willing to risk more.

Roddick vigorously thrust his way into public consciousness in 2001 by beating defending champion Pete Sampras in Miami. Suddenly everyone was talking about his serve, among the biggest and strangest anyone had ever seen, although level heads knowingly suggested that his right shoulder would inevitably detach within a few years, since there’s no way that motion could be sustained. When we weren’t talking about his serve we were talking about the forehand with which he backed it up. Sampras had demonstrated for over decade that the limitations inherent in a style based around devastating serve-forehand combinations backed up by world-class athleticism weren’t especially limiting when done right. Roddick looked to be the apotheosis of that style. His serve was bigger, and his forehand, while less astonishingly explosive on the run, seemed just about as potent. The future of American’s men’s tennis looked fairly well assured, on the slim chance that his shoulder didn’t tear clean off, and assuming he ever learned to volley.

It was this game that swept him through the US Summer in 2003, cleaning up in Montreal, Cincinnati and New York. In the US Open final he dismantled the new No.1 Juan Carlos Ferrer in three very straight sets, although he’d been exceedingly fortunate to survive David Nalbandian in the semifinal. Roddick would go on to finish 2003 as the world’s No.1 player.

Even by Wimbledon the following year, when he and Federer met in the final, Roddick’s name remained a by-word for reckless attack. He also had a beard, which I thought suited him. Asked beforehand how he thought the final would play out, Roddick remarked that Federer would no doubt employ considerable variety, all-court artistry and grass-court nous, while he himself would just go out and try to beat the crap out of the ball, or words to that effect. That’s how it played out, and Roddick managed to overwhelm the defending champion for a set and a half. Ultimately it didn’t quite work – ‘I threw the kitchen sink at him but he went to the bathroom and got his tub’ – but that was no reason to think he was on the wrong track. Indeed, he confessed that he took heart from how he’d taken it to the world No.1, and that only a few points here or there had decided things.  Nevertheless, it was from around this time that a different, more circumspect Roddick began to emerge, even if it’s tricky to pinpoint the precise moment when he gave up on beating the crap out of the ball. It’s tempting to think there was one crucial loss too many.

Certainly by the Australian Open of the following year he was playing with greater margin. Hewitt’s absurdly enhanced musculature enabled him to mostly out-hit Roddick from the baseline in their semifinal, although to be fair the American wasn’t at his best. But it was still interesting to see, since it ran counter to everything I thought I knew about the American’s game. I was startled by how ‘not-hard’ he was hitting the ball.‘Not-hard’ was a usefully negative phrase used by Jim Courier to describe Roddick’s rallying style some years later.

Commentating on Roddick’s fourth round loss to Stanislas Wawrinka at the 2010 Australian Open, Courier aired the unusual opinion that perhaps Roddick didn’t realise just how not-hard he was in fact hitting the ball. Perhaps Roddick thought he was really beating the crap out of it. This seemed faintly ridiculous on the face of it. Surely he had noticed how his forehands into the open court would be tracked down by all but the most ponderous of opponents? Surely the experts he employed to tell him this kind of thing were actually telling him this kind of thing? Courier had just been appointed to the Davis Cup captaincy. I never did find out whether he aired this matter with Roddick. One suspects he would not have found a receptive ear. Roddick always seemed very resistant to this kind of analysis.

Very occasionally in the final years Roddick would play the way he used to, and achieve a striking result, such as his defeat of Federer in Miami this year, or of David Ferrer at last year’s US Open, or of Rafael Nadal in Miami in 2010. Yet afterwards he would essay some sarcastic comment to the effect that it was amazing how no one criticised his approach when he was winning. It was almost as though he didn’t realise how he’d won, that he really believed he’d just been noodling about the same as ever. To everyone else difference was so blindingly obvious that it was hard to look at. But sometimes after the fact even ostensibly reckless flight stands revealed as a carefully planned escape. Even to the very end this contrast was apparent. At the recently concluded US Open the match he played to demolish Bernard Tomic was not the same one he played against Fabio Fognini a round later. He still beat Fognini handily, it’s true, and it’s churlish to suggest he went about it the wrong way. But imagine how exciting it would have been if he’d instead played the way he did the round before. Imagine if he’d gone out playing like that against Juan Martin del Potro. Imagine if he’d played like that for the last seven or eight years.

Todd Woodbridge wasn’t wrong. The noise inside Rod Laver Arena was indeed ‘very loud’ that night in 2005. It was sufficient that very few individual voices could be picked out through the cascading aural wash, relentlessly gushing down onto the two scampering  young men. The umpire had a microphone, so we heard him. And Hewitt’s frenzied bellows of ‘C’mon’ rang out clear, as did Roddick’s anguished ‘God damn it!’ And from directly from my left came my partner’s voice. She was blessed with a voice whose timbre can still traffic, a voice that laughs at the very idea of sound-proofing. Through the full-throttle patriotic chorus for Our Lleyton came her piercing cry of ‘Go Andy!’ The mob, offended to its core, redoubled its efforts. In the end they won, and Hewitt was on his knees with his improbably lumpy arms thrust aloft. A careworn Roddick trudged to the net. He had much to think on. Too much, it turned out.

I’ll be back with another post on my favourite Roddick matches at some other time. In all of them, he went for broke when it mattered, even if it didn’t always work out.


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A Question Of Depth

World Group Semifinals

Czech Republic d. Argentina, 3-2

Spain d. USA, 3-1

Spain will face the Czech Republic in the 2012 Davis Cup final, which I fervently hope is more engaging than either of this weekend’s two semifinals turned out to be. It is often the case that the Davis Cup semifinals are disappointingly lopsided. Mostly this owes to the fact that most nations don’t have anything like a full roster of available players, and that only for Spain is this not an issue. This deep into the tennis season, and following on so close after the US Open, there are always going to be issues with injuries, and these will almost always prove decisive one way or another.

Of the four teams competing in the semifinals this weekend, only the Czechs were at full strength, although even this is a relative assessment, given that the Czech Republic essentially fields a two man squad (I use the word ‘man’ here in its broadest sense, given that Radek Stepanek is a kind of sentient golem, while Tomas Berdych is lucky Rick Deckard never made it to Ostrava). These two are ably supported by a shadowy cast of extras who only ever leave the bench when dead rubbers need to be deprived of further oxygen. Today that task fell to Ivo Minar, who lost comfortably to Juan Monaco in the meaningless fifth match.

Prior to that gripping encounter, Berdych clinched the tie by defeating Carlos Berloqc in a match that was easier than those who’d say it was closer than it looked insisted. I suppose I should untangle that grammatical snarl. It was a straightforward win for Berdych, but it was the kind of win in which a gallant but over-matched player acquits himself admirably, but cannot take whatever chances he had to make it closer. There was never much danger of Berdych losing to Berlocq, unless he rediscovered the execrable form he’d shown between Roland Garros and the US Open, when he proved capable of and willing to lose to just about anyone. Admittedly he’d appeared willing enough to lose to Monaco on Friday, but had been fortunate to discover an opponent able to head him off at every turn. There were no depths to which Berdych might sink that he wouldn’t discover Monaco already setting up camp. It was very demoralising for Berdych. It was a long match – somewhere over four hours – but it wasn’t a very good one.

The other match played on Friday was shorter, although for Argentinean fans the ramifications turned out to be far more long-reaching. Juan Martin del Potro saw off Stepanek pretty handily, but in doing so managed seriously to injure whatever tendons were still holding his left wrist in place. He has been instructed not to use the wrist for ten days, although he’d also been advised not to play the tie at all. He has therefore entered himself into a high-stakes celebrity arm-wresting tournament for the weekend. In any case, del Potro’s wrist explained Berlocq’s debut in the first of the reverse singles, which in turn put the tie rather beyond doubt even in the event that Argentina snuck out a win in the doubles, which they didn’t.

The USA did manage a win in the doubles, thanks to those fabulously reliable and frighteningly up-tempo Bryan twins, but that was the only rubber they could find against Spain. Again, it wasn’t taxing to see how this one would play out. Isner today provided a momentary thrill by taking the first set from Ferrer, but after that he couldn’t convince the Spaniard to stop breaking his serve. Sam Querrey was equally unpersuasive on the opening day. On clay, in Spain, Ferrer has so far proved to be unbeatable. But I suspect that the hosts would have won this tie even without him, and even had the American squad included Roddick and Fish, who were out for various reasons, including but not limited to retirement and an intrinsic aversion to the European mainland.

World Group Play-Offs

As is often the case, the best of the year’s third weekend of Davis Cup was found in the World Group play-offs being staged at various flashpoints across the globe, and in one instance within a super-villain hideout in a hollowed-out volcano, cunningly set-dressed to look like the Rothenbaum. Roger Federer led Switzerland to a comfortable win over The Netherlands, winning both singles matches. Meanwhile Brazil effortlessly accounted for a spectacularly weak Russian team, dropping one set for the entire weekend. At least Alex Bogomolov Jr is realising his Davis Cup dream, assuming that dream is to lose dead rubbers in straight sets.

Israel travelled to Japan, but has since left. Whilst there it defeated the host nation, thanks mainly to Amir Weintraub, who won both of his singles matches over vastly higher ranked players (Tatsuma Ito and Go Soeda). Davis Cup brings something to Weintraub’s game that he lacks in regular tournament play (his ranking has fallen back beyond the top 200). I think it would be worth his while finding out what that thing is. It would be a start. His backhand was, as ever, lovely. That could be part of it. The highlight of this tie was Kei Nishikori nursing his damaged shoulder through a five set victory over Dudi Sela to keep Japan’s chances alive on the final morning. For Nishikori the low-light was presumably when it all came to nought. For everyone else it was Soeda’s questionable decision to call for the trainer while Weintraub served for the tie.

Meanwhile in Hamburg’s ‘Rothenbaum’ a second-string German squad – Florian Mayer as spearhead in the absence of Philipp Kohlschreiber and Tommy Haas – saw off a full strength Australia. Again, these are relative terms. It is wrong to say that Australian men’s tennis lacks depth at the moment, since that’s really all it has. Most of its players are ranked very deep indeed. What Australia needs is someone up on the surface, making waves. Instead we had Bernard Tomic, who contrived to look all at sea, even on red dirt. He fought back well to defeat Cedrik-Marcel Stebe on the opening day, and therefore won Australia’s only singles rubber. This is important to bear in mind as we get down to the business of lynching him for his supposedly lack-lustre efforts, even as we honour Lleyton Hewitt for toiling on into his twilight years.

The tie was dominated by Mayer, who was at his unorthodox best. He didn’t drop a set, and for vast swathes of both his singles matches he had both Australians at his mercy, jerking and prodding their unwilling frames around the court. That leaping double-fisted backhand dropshot that he hits deserves to be named in his honour. It most certainly isn’t a thing of beauty, but it is his and it is utterly effective. Nevertheless, the visitors won the doubles – Chris Guccione has a stellar record in Davis Cup doubles – and entered the final weekend with a 2-1 advantage. Tomic was rapidly outfoxed by Mayer, which allowed John Fitzgerald ample opportunity to rehearse his tone of paternal disappointment in the young Australian, which he only interrupted in order to point out that Tony Roche was doing the same more vehemently from extreme close range. Pat Rafter was having a go, too. Everyone was in Tomic’s ear, but it did no good.

There was a momentary possibility that Philipp Petzschner would replace Stebe to face Hewitt in the deciding rubber, but to the consternation of the home crowd he was ruled out with injury. Then, for the second time in two years, Australia’s most capped Davis Cup veteran was upset in the fifth and deciding rubber, miring his country for yet another year in the zonal play-offs. It was over in straight sets. Stebe was ecstatic. In commentary, Fitzgerald’s recurring trope for this match was ‘the tank’, and just how little Hewitt had remaining in his, after three days of play, and fifteen years grinding away on the tour. He remarked on this so frequently that I began to suspect some sort of wager was involved. Fitzgerald served as Davis Cup captain before Rafter, and it was clear he was shattered, by the loss of the tie, but also by the comprehensiveness with which Hewitt had been outplayed by Stebe, a player he would have once dispatched without trouble, on any surface. It wasn’t just that Stebe had outhit Hewitt. He’d hit through him. The end feels close.

I switched the channel. Downfall was showing on another channel, hopefully by coincidence. It was a useful reminder that even worse fates can befall a country than losing a Davis Cup tie. On my computer and in Parque Roca Berdych and Berlocq were already going at it.


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