Time to Sink In

The final Major tournament of the 2012 season finished several days ago. It was held in New York, and concluded on a Monday, as is customary. Andy Murray won it. This news somehow feels more surprising now than it did when it happened. Given time to sink in, it has sunk to that place where we blithely assumed every Major was a three-way race. I hope that has changed, for the good of the sport. Andy Murray is the US Open champion.

The delayed Monday final, which had been widely anticipated, was due directly to a tornado that visited Queens on Saturday, but indirectly to a series of controversial decisions on the tournament’s part. One of these decisions was to retain the schedule whereby both men’s semifinals would be played consecutively in that vast research facility known as Arthur Ashe Stadium, which for fifty weeks a year is used to study the effect of chaotic wind dynamics on rodents and birds. For two weeks each September, as typhoons circle impatiently in the Gulf, the researchers are permitted to use human subjects. This important function explains why the structure lacks a roof. It’s science.

To my knowledge, the US Open remains the only Major in which the prize money is advertised during the trophy ceremony, perhaps in the belief that we peasants enjoy it when large sums of cash are made marginally less theoretical. Fortunately they’ve done away with novelty oversized cheques, since these can be used as weapons (a paper-cut from one is like being attacked with a blunt scimitar). There was also the small matter of the gripping US Open Series, which Djokovic apparently won, thereby supplementing his payout by a further half a million bucks. The Serb had the grace to smile awkwardly while this figure was read out to the crowd, who duly applauded. It’s a tricky moment to navigate for a tennis player – they cannot seem too disinterested, yet nor can they imply that they toil for any reason but a noble love of competition – but Djokovic’s gracious tilt of the head struck an appropriate balance.

In any case, we weren’t given long to ruminate on this, since the trophy presentation lasted about 35 seconds. CBS had some vital evening programming to cut to, and weren’t prepared to risk having one of the players attempt to thank their supporters in their native language. However, this did have the benefit of seriously curtailing the sponsors’ speeches. One hopes the Australian Open takes a good look at this, and limits the time it grants to the CEO of Kia Motors, who after ten minutes with the microphone has barely exhausted his warm-up material. Speaking of sponsors, Murray was granted a few additional moments to parade his hastily-located Rado watch, which was later interviewed by Sky Sports.

The commentary at the US Open was about as delightful as ever, meaning it provided a solid fortnight’s fuel supply for those inclined to poke fun, a habit I largely avoid. I also largely avoided ESPN, and therefore missed the combined brilliance of the McEnroe brothers, including a notorious effort in Roger Federer’s opening match against Donald Young. I’ve heard them before, of course, and am well-accustomed to the way their inclination to disapprove contrasts and circles before eventually joining rapturously, rather like the climax of La ci darem la mano (Patrick is Zerlina). The network told John to rein it in. Apparently he wasn’t employed to complain, which seems counter-intuitive. Meanwhile Patrick, whose interests only grew more conflicted as the Taylor Townsend story broke part, received ESPN’s unequivocal backing.

Can someone please explain the commentators’ unwavering fascination with serve-speed? Al Trautwig in particular could barely permit any serve to smack into the back drop before letting us know precisely how rapidly it had got there. Over on US Open Radio they had better cause to recite such details, since they lacked visuals, but they were still prone to focussing on this number to the exclusion of any other. They very quickly ran out of creative ways to mention it.

Elsewhere Frew, Mats and the Eurosport gang remained the pick of the bunch, although Barbara Schett’s interviews continue to pluck at the threads of sanity. The predominantly British personnel kept their heads even as the draw slimmed down and Murray emerged as a genuine contender. Operating under a more permissive mandate, Sky Sports didn’t work the same trick. Boris Becker was presumably employed to provide some balance. The German is famous everywhere, but is notorious on Twitter for commenting on events a good day after they’ve transpired – much like I’m doing with this post – so the fast turnaround of his thoughts was a pleasant change. Becker’s fellow booth-jockeys informed us that he’d absconded within minutes of Murray claiming the title, since he had a high-stakes poker game to get to somewhere in Europe (I’m not making this up). The subtext, I think, was that Le Chiffre doesn’t like to be kept waiting.

Match of the Tournament

I am vaguely aware that, in certain countries, publicly denying that the men’s final of the 2012 US Open was the greatest match of all time can result in a midnight visit from anonymous thugs wielding short lengths of pipe. Luckily for me those countries are concentrated in Great Britain, and are thus about seventeen thousand kilometres astern of my current location. My vague awareness thus doesn’t have to become a painful one. I can say with some certainty that the final was the best match played that day, or even over the extended final weekend. But the best match that I saw at this US Open was the quarterfinal between David Ferrer and Janko Tipsarevic, which the Spaniard eventually won in a fifth set tiebreak.

Ferrer trailed by a break early in that fifth set, but it would have been a brave punter who backed the Serbian in from that position. Tipsarevic was tiring rapidly, which made his frantic efforts only more commendable. Unfortunately for him, Ferrer has learned the knack of deriving sustenance from his opponent’s exhaustion, and thereby gaining strength. They traded desperate points, mostly but not exclusively with Tipsarevic on offence and Ferrer scurrying. Afterwards they both knew they’d been part of something special. Ferrer remarked that either man should have won, which is the kind of thing winners are inclined say. Tipsarevic, rightly proud of his effort even in defeat, hoped the crowd had appreciated it, and now realised that excellent tennis was possible even in a quarter that lacked a member of the big four.


If nothing else, Tomas Berdych’s run to the final of Winston-Salem the week before the US Open demonstrated that these smaller lead-up tournaments, easily written off as being inconsequential, can still serve a valuable purpose for top players short on form. This is quite aside from their usual function, which is to tire out John Isner or Nicolas Almagro for the impending Major, thereby giving everyone else a chance. Prior to arriving in North Carolina Berdych had barely strung together consecutive wins since Roland Garros. After that he was something of a juggernaut, at least in the quarterfinal against Federer, and played commendably for parts of the semifinal in conditions that did not suit him at all. Conversely, a fetchingly stubbled Jo-Wilfried Tsonga reached the semifinals in Winston-Salem, but succumbed listlessly to Martin Klizan in the second round in New York. Klizan is playing the tennis of his life, but there are limits, especially given the Frenchman’s recent heroics at Slam level. Even his disappointing exit in Melbourne was to Kei Nishikori in five sets.

Earlier, Milos Raonic approached his encounter with Murray boldly determined to prove he wasn’t just an unreturnable serve, but then put in a performance that suggested he isn’t even that. Murray dismantled him. I’m apparently alone in not caring that Raonic had a ready smile and cuddle for his opponent, although I confess I found his Lacoste t-shirt pretty offensive. James Blake, in mauling Marcel Granollers, reminded us why he used to mix it with the top five. He was then mauled by Raonic, who proved he can also smile amiably while dishing it out. You can’t ask for more than that.

Mardy Fish narrowly avoided being smothered by a wounded Gilles Simon, his only lifeline the steady rhythm of Al Trautwig reciting the speed of each serve – ‘90mph, 93mph, 92mph . . .’ – in much the same way chatting to coma-victims tenuously connects them to reality. Fish then pulled out of his fourth round against Federer. Federer denied that this walkover had anything to do with his subsequent loss to Berdych. Indeed, the world No.1 seemed at a loss to explain why it had happened at all. He just didn’t play very well, and his opponent did. It happens, even to Federer. It wasn’t the end of the world, even though it coincided with, and briefly eclipsed, the end of Andy Roddick’s career. Roddick’s career, which I’ll discuss at length another time, ended against Juan Martin del Potro. The Argentine has since revealed that his niggling wrist injury might be as bad as we’d all feared. At least it’s the other wrist, but it’s still a damn shame.

I’ve realised that this is one of those posts that could theoretically go on forever – I haven’t even mentioned Isner, Kohlschreiber, Zemlja or Baker – which is generally a good cue to finish. This is therefore the part where I’d normally close with a pithy statement. Please try to think of a good one you might have read elsewhere.


Filed under Grand Slams

The Big Four

US Open, Final

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

In the end, and to my unalloyed surprise, the 2012 US Open did not break the record for the most recoveries from a two set deficit in Grand Slam history, despite the fact that the standing record had been equalled after only two rounds. It’s always a shame when records go begging. Opinion remains evenly divided as to whether Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray should bear all or even part of the blame for this failure, since they’d combined set it all up perfectly. Disappointingly, this was not put to either man in his press conference. One might reasonably argue that there had been weightier matters to discuss.

The weightiest matter, understandably, was that Murray was the first British man to win a Major title since 1936, and the first Scotsman to do so ever. English commentators, deranged with glee, have left us in no doubt which of these interpretations means more. It was a measure of the achievement’s gravity that the Sky Sports commentators, whose initially exuberant grins had hardened into rictuses as Djokovic fought back to level the match, hadn’t been prepared to let their guard down even when the Scot broke again for 5/2 in the final set. Murray was essentially home and hosed, but he’d seemed that way in the second set as well, until the steady refund of a double break had left him merely hosed. (From this we may infer that when it comes to hosing, location is vital, and that hosing is a sufficiently dangerous activity that it should only be conducted within the safety and privacy of one’s own house, by a certified practitioner, unless you’ve secured a spot in a dedicated facility. To be hosed anywhere else is to risk calamity.) Murray, through four previous Major finals, had compiled a water-tight case for never getting ones hopes up. He’d already permitted a laboriously-established two set lead to fissure and crumble in the teeth of a sustained pounding by the defending champion. His chums in the Sky booth had been inured to complacency.

In each of those first two sets the Scot had led early, only to yield up his advantage with some timid play, which thus (slightly) emboldened Djokovic, who nonetheless fell away uncharacteristically to concede each set. The first set tiebreaker was particularly tight. Murray finally took it on his sixth set point. It was very exciting – due partly to its length, not in spite of it – even though the tennis itself languished well shy of dashing. Djokovic came back strongly in the third and fourth sets, but again the term ‘strongly’ is relative. It certainly wasn’t the frightening level he brought to bear on Juan Martin del Potro, or the reckless endeavour of the fourth set in last year’s final.

Indeed, if I was compelled under duress to select a single word to describe the overall tenor of the match, the word I would choose is ‘cautious’. Thankfully I’m allowed to use other words. The tennis was by no means poor, but it certainly wasn’t great, and it certainly wasn’t as great as many onlookers were insisting at the time, a forgivable lapse in the collective sense of perspective. Generously, we might term it cagey, or tactical. This quality can be attributed to the wind, which wasn’t quite as savage as it had been in ruining Super Saturday, though it often wasn’t far off. Many of the rallies were exceptionally long – the longest concluded at 54 shots, but feasibly could have continued forever – and were for the most part comprised of three-quarter paced rally balls directed up the middle of the court. Given that these two men are among the most nimble and able defenders the sport has ever known, this meant that winners were very rare, and took an epoch to orchestrate, even when either player felt so inclined. However, it often seemed that the first player to really take the initiative in any given point would subsequently, not to say inevitably, lose it.

But if there was little reward for playing assertively, the long-term toll for these endlessly circumspect points was high. Both men were fated to lose their legs before this match was done with – Djokovic to cramping, and Murray to a rare but recurring virus colloquially known as ‘jelly’, as in, ‘my fucking legs feel like jelly right now!’ We now know the answer to the question of what happens when an immovable object meets an immovable object in a high wind with time to kill, although we could have guessed already that whatever the outcome it would take a near-eternity to eventuate, and that both men would nearly die in pursuing it. Murray was still limping badly as he accepted the trophy. Was I alone in hoping he’d give his leg one last clutch as he held the silverware aloft?

In any case, it wasn’t the greatest Major final in history, a statement that works on the mundane level of dramatic understatement, but also as a straight up refutation of Mark Petchey’s rapturous declaration that it was. Undeniably there was some astonishing tennis, and some of the points were the equal of anything played in the tournament. Petchey predictably declared one to be ‘among the greatest points of all time.’ It was that kind of day, a day for English accents delivering unhinged encomiums from on high. It was fun.

It was also the day upon which any reasonable debate about the Big Four has hopefully been laid to rest, insofar as the debate was ever worth having. For one thing, Murray has now moved ahead of Nadal in the rankings, to No.3. The most persuasive argument against Murray’s inclusion among the elite was always that he hadn’t won a Major. Now he has, to go with his Olympic gold medal. He outlasted the defending champion over five sets to do it, in exceedingly adverse conditions. No one can reasonably say he didn’t earn it. Indeed, unlike his fellows at the top, he had to do it by beating a multiple Major champion, whereas Federer, Nadal and Djokovic all claimed their maiden Slam by beating other non-champions (Philippoussis, Puerta and Tsonga respectively). The coincidence whereby his coach Ivan Lendl also won his first major from his fifth final is only coming to feel more meaningful, and therefore less coincidental. As Murray was hustled through his acceptance speech – he was lucky he had no thanks to give in Spanish, since CBS had somewhere else to be – he almost goaded Lendl into a proper smile. Meanwhile Sean Connery could barely contain himself. Bagpipes blared as Murray left the court. Upper lips, hitherto starched, quivered and split into grins.

One hopes this victory will inspire others to support him outside of Britain. I sometimes wonder why he isn’t more popular already, as far as I can reliably gauge such things. I realise some find his on-court antics off-putting. I personally know a few casual fans who cannot abide him for that very reason, and are surprised when I tell them that he miraculously transforms into a fairly affable human being upon leaving the court. But there’s also something about his tennis that people find difficult to grapple with. Simply writing Murray off as a defensive ‘pusher’ is misleading – for all that many seem eager to do so – although dubbing him an attacking shotmaker would be outright wrong. But, at his creative best, his play is a kind of aggression.

At its worst, it emphatically isn’t. Many times today he relinquished the advantage in the rally with a wilful perversity that rivalled Tomic’s, although unlike the young Australian Murray knew enough not to stick with it for long. The next point he’d maintain pressure until Djokovic buckled, and collapsed. It wasn’t merely a case of variety in execution, which can be lauded, but of variety in intent, which is mostly just confusing. It has always seemed to me that Murray pays a certain price for being sui generis in two fields (sports and entertainment) that demand firm categories, and insist that these be assiduously conformed to. At least broadly, people like to have some idea of what to expect. I suppose it’s a long way of saying Murray is an acquired taste. Hopefully more fans will now make the effort of acquiring it.

Some existing fans are blithely expecting Murray to push on and claim further Majors sooner rather than later, although he’ll have to wait at least until January. The Grand Slam season has now concluded, and it seems immensely fitting that the four Majors have been won by the top four players in the world. I have no idea when that last happened, but there’s a satisfying sense of symmetry to it.

The only blemish is that that record for two set recoveries at the US Open survives for another year. If only someone had told Murray as that fifth set got under way. He presumably would have tanked it, knowing that he could have been part of history.


Filed under Grand Slams

An Impossible Day

US Open, Semifinal One

(3) Murray d. (6) Berdych, 5/7 6/2 6/1 7/6

It was 3/0 in the fourth set when the moment arrived, the moment that has come to feel integral to all Andy Murray victories. It is the moment when Murray’s triumph feels so certain that even the British commentators let their collective guard down, loosen their belts, and whip off their cravats. Thus unbuttoned, they invariably grow breezily magnanimous, doling out praise or advice for the Scot’s soon-to-be dispatched opponent. Of course, the praise and advice both arrive groaningly laden with subtext. If praise, the message is that the opponent has performed admirably just to make it competitive. If advice, the valedictory ostinato of better-luck-next-time is unmistakable. In either case the message is the same: well done for showing up, but Our Andy is simply too good. The very best moment then comes when Murray is broken back, and the patronising flow temporarily dries up.

Today the opponent was Tomas Berdych, who narrowly avoided trapping himself down a double break at 0/3 in the fourth. The English voices on Eurosport graciously conceded that the Czech was ‘a real fighter’, which Berdych affirmed immediately by breaking back. Murray had no real cause to blame himself for this, but that has never stopped him from doing so. He’d already excoriated himself for almost every one of Berdych’s winners, regularly counterpointing stern words with generalised howls and sharp blows to his own legs and head. His standards, we may be sure, are very high. On a day like today, in barely playable conditions, they were frankly unreasonable. Murray settled in for a fight. The disembodied voices describing what was happening on the screen grew slightly more pensive, and less lavish with their encouragement for Berdych.

Back at the start of the tournament I put forth the seemingly safe prediction that the 2012 US Open was unlikely to finish within its allotted two week span. I based this radical assessment upon historical precedent – there have been Monday finals for the last four years – and upon the biblically-themed hurricane that was even then reconfiguring parts of Louisiana. I then went on about it for a while. Through almost two weeks the event has boldly mocked my prediction. Threats of inclement weather came to nothing. Even Hurricane Isaac provided little assistance, as any time lost was easily recovered. All the quarterfinals were completed as scheduled. It looked for all the world as though the US Open would, at last, enjoy a Sunday final. If this was a horror film, Friday evening marked the traditional moment at which the smug protagonists would reason it was finally safe to relax their vigilance (even for a second). The tornado struck Queens in the late morning, driving lashing squalls ahead of it. The first semifinal was delayed by an hour. With the tornado bearing down, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre was evacuated, and the second semifinal was abandoned, or postponed. I forget which. Either way, there will be no Sunday final. I’d had to call in a favour, but it was worth it.

Tennis is a lot more enjoyable in a high wind than, say, table tennis, but it still ranks a long way short of actual fun. If it rains, you simply don’t play, but there is no ‘wind rule’ as such. After the first semifinal Mats Wilander and Barbara Schett agreed that there should be. Wilander felt that the conditions today had unfairly disfavoured Berdych, who would otherwise have been ‘sure’ he would beat Murray, which seemed like an overstated case to me. In any case, it was a day for careful footwork, abbreviated backswings, low ball tosses, myriad errors, good and bad ends, and at least one tantrum. These last I have termed ‘filiblusters’, with what I like to believe is a certain neologistic flair. Filibluster: to indulge in mid-match histrionic ranting owing to extreme wind.

Berdych’s filibluster came fairly early in the first set, after Murray’s hat blew off mid-point yet no hindrance penalty proved forthcoming. Pascal Maria believed that Murray’s drop shot had won the point fairly, and that the dislodged cap hadn’t made any difference. Berdych believed otherwise – human resources departments uselessly term this a ‘difference of opinion’ – and launched into a round of high-volume remonstrations that only ended when Murray sought to join in. Eventually the difference of opinion was resolved when Murray agreed to replay the point, since players are totally permitted to decide these things. The consensus among viewers was that Murray was a pretty swell guy, although I’d like to hear Ivan Lendl’s thoughts, especially once his charge lost the replayed point, and was broken back. Berdych eventually broke late to take the 77 minute opening set 7/5, hitting flat and hard through the incessant breeze.

The wind provided most of the entertainment through the second and third sets, as umbrellas, drink bottles, garbage and chairs gambolled merrily about the court. Berdych’s stratospheric ball toss was buffeted without mercy, and he frequently pulled out of his service motion, ducking from the ball – for some reason he rarely caught it – and glaring at it balefully. When his serve did go in he was broken almost relentlessly by Murray, whose higher-margin game was proving inherently more suited to the conditions. He made two unforced errors in the third set, to eleven from Berdych. His defence, it must be said, was often spectacular.

By the time the Scot gained break points at 3/0 in the fourth set, he had won fifteen of the last eighteen games, and Berdych’s righteous outrage at being compared to Lukas Rosol was coming to seem a trifle less justified. The English commentators could be forgiven for a momentary lapse into complacency. Everyone else assumed the match was more or less over. Berdych of course saved that game, and then broke back. Eventually they reached the tiebreaker. The Czech flew to an early 5-2 lead, but Murray won the next three points. Suddenly Berdych’s belted forehands were careening long. Murray saved a set point at 5-6, then Berdych saved one match point, but not a second. It ended on another forehand error. I was momentarily startled by Murray’s jubilence upon achieving victory. He only barely stopped short of high-fiving the front row adjacent to the court. Then I reminded myself that he had just reached another Major final – his second in a row – and that this is kind of a big deal, for anyone. Somehow, owing to the wind and the onrushing tornado, the magnitude of the occasion had been misplaced. Saturday wasn’t quite Super enough.

Watching on television, it is easy to understate how difficult such conditions are to play through, especially for two guys who hadn’t once forgotten where they were. Interviewed immediately afterwards, Murray looked exhausted: ‘It was brutal; you had to focus for every single point and get yourself in the right position for every shot. The ball was sometimes stopping and moving the other way, chairs were sometimes flying on court. It was some of the toughest conditions I’ve ever played in, and I’m from Scotland.’ After that he got to meet Sean Connery, and therefore had an ideal excuse to make small talk about the weather.

On Monday Murray will once again try to win his first Major title, from his fifth final. Presumably no one has forgotten that Lendl also lost his first four major finals. It’s a coincidence, of course, but such things still matter. The Scot will face the winner of the second final, in which David Ferrer surprisingly leads a filiblustering Novak Djokovic by five games to two in the opening set. It is commonly said that wind is the great equaliser in tennis. It turns out extreme wind enables Ferrer to more than equal the reigning champion. Sadly for him, the forecast for tomorrow is for clarity and stillness. It’s little wonder the Spaniard looked so uncharacteristically frustrated as the players were hustled from the court. The crowd erupted in an unsympathetic roar, before it too disintegrated and streamed for the exits, and then hurried home.


Filed under Grand Slams

Extraordinary Rendition

US Open, Quarterfinals

I have a colleague at my workplace – that place I periodically adjourn to in order to recover from the rigours of unremunerated tennis blather – who to my knowledge cannot enjoy a meal without first drenching it in Tabasco sauce. Admittedly I’ve never breakfasted with him, and therefore cannot say how he takes his porridge. But he devoutly believes that any savoury dish only benefits from the addition of Tabasco, be it pizza, souvlaki, a hamburger, fish and chips, or even a simple sandwich. I think sushi is the only hard and fast exemption from this practice, given that he smothers it instead with wasabi. But otherwise, he is adamant that it is only through the profligate application of capsaicin that a meal’s potential is fully realised.

Now, instead of Tabasco, substitute famous people, and instead of food, substitute everything. You have now neatly summed up the American mainstream media’s attitude to celebrity endorsement, which is sustained by an unquenchable faith that every facet of human endeavour is instantly improved by liberally sprinkling high profile citizens atop it, with no heed paid to their relevancy or even basic competency at the task. Thus we have presidential elections in which the candidates maintain formation with any rock stars who profess support for their platform. Thus we have a US Open quarterfinal between Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro preceded by a doubles exhibition match featuring Adam Sandler and Kevin James. To be fair, this is probably no more bizarre than Will Smith rewarding Roger Federer with a framed suit in Madrid, but the rules of good taste were long ago suspended in Ion Tiriac’s Magic Box.

Notwithstanding that this doubles match was in aid of a charitable cause, you’d have to wonder what, say, the Bryan Brothers made of it, having laboured away on Louis Armstrong Stadium earlier in the day. Big spirited lads that they are, perhaps they were just thrilled that men’s doubles was featuring in a centre court night match. At least we now have an easy rebuttal the next time a doubles player complains they’re receiving second-class treatment. In fact, we could point out that doubles is invariably the format of choice for celebrities. The ATP could use that in the marketing.

As for the match itself, it was about what you might expect, which is to say shorter and therefore preferable to watching one of Sandler or James’ movies. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t willingly endured an Adam Sandler film, since Punch Drunk Love was decent, but most of my viewing experiences have been conducted in undisclosed locations in western Latvia whilst chained to a chair and loomed over by burly men, until I cracked. Red hot pincers were on hand, but they never proved necessary. The Waterboy had me willing to confess to anything soon after the opening credits. I honestly haven’t watched a Kevin James film, however, and therefore must admit that my determination not to is based on pure hearsay. I’ll watch one when Peter Jackson agrees to film an eleven hour epic version of The King of Queens – The Return of the King of Queens – and not before. Only Jackson boasts the skill to sustain the palpable fantasy whereby James is married to Leah Rimini.

(4) Ferrer d. (8) Tipsarevic, 6/3 6/7 2/6 6/3 7/6

The exhibition by Sandler and James seemed especially superfluous given the superb and sinuous quarterfinal that immediately preceded it – a true epic – in which David Ferrer recovered to defeat Janko Tipsarevic in a fifth set tiebreak. This match should have been an adequate warm-up act for anyone, or even, dare I say it, entirely worthy unto itself. I believe it to be the match of the tournament so far.

Tipsarevic led by two sets to one, and then by a break in the fifth. Yet, somehow, he could never quite convince the Spaniard to stop running, no matter how stridently he made the suggestion, nor how compelling he made the case for giving up look. Even as the match entered its fifth hour, and as his opponent began to tumble wearily about the court, Ferrer never seemed to tire, thanks to a transcendent level of fitness not even John McEnroe could legitimately question.

The match was conducted in a fine sporting spirit, with the only brief moment of controversy coming well-into the fifth, when Tipsarevic went over heavily on his ankle or leg, and fell to 15-40 on serve. He limped to the chair, and asked for an immediate medical timeout. The trainer appeared as if summoned via sorcery – although with Kevin James soon to take the court one imagines the medical staff were already on high alert – and commenced strapping the Serbian’s strapping thigh. Upon re-emerging, Tipsarevic saved both break points, and then held aggressively, in a manner that would have had Fabio Fognini cheering and Albert Montanes rocking traumatically, assuming either or both were watching. Tipsarevic’s movement freed up after that, although exhaustion was clearly hobbling him somewhat, in much the same way it wasn’t for Ferrer. The crowd bestowed a standing ovation upon the players at the commencement of the final set tiebreaker, giving full voice to their relief that as day-ticket holders, they weren’t obliged to hang around for the ‘entertainment’.

(2) Djokovic d. (7) del Potro, 6/2 7/6 6/4

By the time a wearily determined Juan Martin del Potro executed an outrageous running backhand pass in the final game of his loss to Novak Djokovic, a disappointing number of seats in Arthur Ashe Stadium were no longer occupied. I assume that most of the tickets had been sold, and at least the lower tiers had looked quite full through the early going. I also assume that the kind of person who forks out hard-earned currency to watch a tennis match – a person in many ways like me – has at least a passing interest in watching tennis, and therefore would not have assumed that the evening was only going to get worse once Sandler and James had finished causing every spectators’ sides to split. Interviewed by Brad Gilbert afterwards, Djokovic pointedly thanked those who’d stuck around until the end, who’d toughed out three entire sets of very high quality tennis.

The highest quality tennis came in the tortuous 84 minute second set, in which del Potro broke immediately, and then rode that advantage almost (but not quite) all the way until the end. Djokovic broke back as the Argentine served for it. In between they ran hard and far, and hit the ball hard and often, especially on any rally lasting longer than four shots, which usually ended when del Potro hit the ball hard and out. His best bet was to end points early, and he tellingly yielded back the break by failing to move forward behind a booming off forehand. By hanging back too often he permitted Djokovic’s otherworldly defensive skills fully to flourish. The tiebreak reproduced the set in miniature, but with the intensity dialled all the way up. Del Potro found an early lead, but Djokovic finished the stronger. The point of the match, if not of the tournament, came at 5-3, as the defending champion sent his tiring opponent scurrying up and down and across the entire court twice, before del Potro finally made an error, then collapsed heaving onto the net. The set ended on the next point, when Djokovic redirected an excellent del Potro backhand up the line off his own backhand for the most pristine of winners. He was bellowing rather a lot by this time. So were the crowd.

From there it was unlikely that del Potro would find a way back, although he did eventually find his way back onto court after departing for an usually long to change his sodden clothes. Upon returning he double faulted, and was broken. Djokovic didn’t precisely gallop away with the victory from there, and it was only by maintaining his stratospheric level that he wasn’t eventually broken back. Del Potro, to his credit, never ceased toiling, and even in the final game was well into it.

Afterwards the Argentine was effusive in praising the world No.2, dubbing him, among other things, a ‘warrior’. A similar sentiment was directed towards Ferrer after his earlier match, which the ATP website imaginatively declared to be a ‘war’. Djokovic will certainly be the more favoured of the two warriors in their ‘battle’ on Super Saturday afternoon – I hope I’m getting the hang of these military metaphors – although the matter might be decided by the prowess of their respective partners. Bowing to pressure, the USTA has decided to repurpose the event as a mixed doubles match, and the men will be joined by an as-yet unspecified quantity of Kardashians – they’re typically supplied by the yard – and Matthew Perry.


Filed under Grand Slams

The Momentum That Matters Most

US Open, Day Nine

(4) Ferrer d. (13) Gasquet, 7/5 7/6 6/4

Following a long day spent watching almost no tennis, thanks to the onslaught of Hurricane Isaac’s weakened vanguard, determined viewers of the US Open were this evening obliged to contemplate three men’s matches conducted simultaneously, but only for an hour or so. Each ended in dispirited disarray when the rain wheeled around and came back to finish the job. A couple of Serbian favourites were up an early break, while Andy Roddick and Juan Martin del Potro were embarking on a promising tiebreak. Earlier, in the drier part of the evening, a lone match had been completed.

Re-energised by an enforced break of several hours, David Ferrer and Richard Gasquet emerged for the completion of their fourth round match looking, respectively, purposeful and like a displaced hobo. Their hairstyles were a study in contrasts, as were their backhands. The match was delicately poised. Ferrer led by two sets to love, it’s true, but Gasquet, if Nadia Petrova is to be believed, had the weather on his side. Things could therefore go either way. By now the belief that nothing alters momentum in a tennis match like water tumbling from the sky has established itself as uncontested orthodoxy, although some of Andy Murray’s fans remain convinced that roof closure is equally as catastrophic.

Maria Sharapova later expressed a contrary view, one that was typically blunt yet resonated with the authority conferred by victory. Petrova thought Sharapova had gotten lucky with the rain. Sharapova didn’t care what her countrywoman thought, since she’d won. In sport, pointing at the scoreboard often constitutes an uncounterable argument. Beyond that, however, her dismissal of Petrova’s gripes reminded us that weather is a part of the sport, and that part of mastering the sport resides in one’s capacity to deal with such things, unless you happen to be playing at one of those fine facilities with the wherewithal to insulate the players from the environment. The Billy Jean King National Tennis Center sadly boasts no such facility. When the US Open organisers adroitly rescheduled yesterday’s night session to beat the incoming showers there was much appreciation of their quick thinking. Someone essayed the opinion that stuffy old Wimbledon would never have done the same. The best response was that Wimbledon probably wouldn’t  but nor would they have to. They would point not at the scoreboard, but at the roof, which they would then close, eventually.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the person who was ahead before the rain delay (or before the roof was closed) quite often goes on to taste victory once the rain stops or the stadium seals itself hermetically. So it proved this evening. Ferrer was winning before, and then he was winning after, until he won finally, at which point he was permitted to rest. He was able to sustain his dominance through the break because it had never depended upon momentum. What we often mean when we say that the momentum changed was that one player was playing at a barely sustainable level, and that the inconvenient break in play ensured a fatal break in concentration. That is why Lukas Rosol’s merciless composure in the final set against Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon was so unfathomable. He somehow continued to operate without discernible doubt even after he’d been granted the ideal opportunity to be crippled by it. If Rosol had duly collapsed, we might say that Nadal got lucky, and then move on, much as Petrova said of Sharapova.

Ferrer, however, had earlier established his lead over Gasquet by simply doing what he does well, that thing he does constantly that attracts canine metaphors like fleas. I won’t go into it here, but it involves a lot of running, unrelenting pressure, and the promise to deal vigorously with any loose shots from his opponent. It is therefore easy enough to say he did nothing special, but this ignores the fact that few other guys can do it. It is special, even when it’s not spectacular. The point is that he’d been playing fairly well within himself, even when he recovered from 3/5 in the second set, and saved a handful of set points. He had no real momentum to lose. He’s just a bit better at tennis.

Gasquet, on the other hand, is a fundamentally streaky player with a proven ability to ride a wave for precisely as long as it maintains energy, but then nosedive into the sand, and be dragged back out to sea. Gasquet on a tear ranks among the better spectacles in tennis – a goes on winner benders – but today never much looked like being that kind of day. Faced with Ferrer at his least defatigable, it’s hard to imagine the severity of the deluge that might have enabled Gasquet to turn the match around, unless you live in Bangladesh, and therefore prefer not to contemplate such things. And notwithstanding the rococo brilliance of his backhand, his forehand, ever the true barometer of his form, needed to be better. In the end it was wrapped up quickly, and without undue pomp.

By losing today, Gasquet has completed his fourth round calendar year Grand Slam (R16CYGS), which I can only imagine must be a pretty rare achievement. In layman’s terms this means that he reached the final sixteen in all four of the Majors played in 2012, but didn’t win any of those matches. This feat may be unique in the wider sport – I haven’t checked – but you’d have to think that Gasquet was always the man to pull it off. His record in fourth rounds is astonishingly poor: he has reached this round fourteen times, and won precisely once. This lone victory came at Wimbledon in 2007, when he went on to reach the semifinals, but lost to Federer. In order this year, he lost easily to Ferrer in Melbourne, took a set from Murray in Paris, and took another set from Florian Mayer at Wimbledon. The loss to Mayer on grass was especially lamentable, since it denied him the excuse of a bad draw, although he was rightly dressed down for a bad effort, since it was a tactical disaster. If nothing else, his failure to progress further suggests that Gasquet’s perennial ranking in the mid-teens feels about right. For an ostensibly flaky player, he takes great care to always perform to his seeding. He is, ironically, a model of consistency that way.

Conversely, by winning David Ferrer became just the second Spaniard in the Open era to reach at least the quarterfinals of every Major in a single year, the other being of course Rafael Nadal. It’s a strong achievement for a guy too readily decried as a mere clay-courter. In the quarterfinal he’ll play the victor of Philipp Kohlschreiber and Janko Tipsarevic, who are good chance to complete their match sometime in the next few of weeks. Ferrer will be considered the favourite regardless of his opponent, and by winning would reach the semifinals. His quarter of the draw was patronisingly considered to be a rich opportunity for the other players in it. But Ferrer is proving, yet again, that it is mainly an opportunity for him. It’s the kind of momentum that matters most.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Grand Slams

The Second Week

US Open, Day Seven

It has occurred to me, belatedly, that my proposal to have the opening round of the US Open extended to five days carries with it a number of previously unexplored (yet important) advantages, and that highlighting these in my original submission to the USTA would have only strengthened my case. A missed opportunity, to be sure. One I rue.

Firstly, a five day opener would spread the matches out more evenly across each day, which would in turn confer several benefits: the tournament would require fewer courts – meaning some could be converted into something useful, like merchandise stalls or a roller disco – and it would permit more of the top players to play their initial rounds in the main stadium at night, thereby ensuring that fewer Arthur Ashe ticket-holders are forced to endure a remotely competitive match. Secondly, it would mean that any player who survived through the first couple of rounds would therefore feature in the second week. Seneca helpfully taught us that Majors cannot be won in the first week, only lost, a lesson that Pete Sampras famously reiterated. It therefore seems like a net benefit to have more competitors survive this ordeal, even though the US Open’s now-established custom of Monday finals means that no one can win it in the second week either.

Earlier on US Open Radio, there was some discussion of precisely what making it to the second week actually entails. It is something the players talk about all the time, and the hushed reverence of their tone suggests it means more than simply remaining active in the tournament after the first Sunday ends. Nevertheless the definition remains slippery. For half the women, reaching the second week means they’ve made it to the quarterfinals, which is indeed something to be proud of. The other half remains stranded in the fourth round, which is where the surviving men also reside, apart from John Isner and Philipp Kohlschreiber, who as I write are yet to complete their third round match.† It’s all very confusing. Wimbledon avoids this issue by having a rest day on the middle Sunday, and by having it rain a lot on the other days. The USTA is busily implementing the second of these measures. The remnants of Hurricane Irene are even now straggling up the Eastern Seaboard. The best predictions are that they will arrive by Tuesday, and then settle in like a disgraced uncle with nowhere else to be, who just will not take the hint to leave, even when you pack his bags for him, and point out that those bed sores might clear up if he would only get out of your favourite armchair.

(5) Ferrer d. (WC) Hewitt, 7/6 4/6 6/3 6/0

Lleyton Hewitt will not feature in the second week, having fallen late in the first week to David Ferrer. Hewitt failed to win a game in the last set, yet competed with enough gusto that we may regard his defeat as gallant, in contrast to Bernard Tomic several days ago, who pulled off the same feat but suffered immediate crucifixion. Not all bagels are created equal. I think Orwell said something about this. (I will resist the opportunity to extend this metaphor, for any number of reasons, but mainly because I’m not especially solid on how bagels are made – I know they’re boiled, but whenever I boil bread the result is quite disappointing – and it would just take up room. Much like this aside has.) The truth is that Hewitt is congenitally incapable of a performance as insipid as Tomic’s against Andy Roddick, regardless of which explanation for Tomic’s performance we accept. I doubt Hewitt has ever been stage-struck, and I cannot imagine he has ever tanked a set. It’s rare for him to throw away a point, although he is not above blowing some very important ones.

Indeed, this is an important point to bear in mind about Hewitt. Despite his hard-won reputation as the sport’s scrappiest scrapper, Hewitt does have a tendency to grow careless with leads, and he can generally be relied upon to make his own life harder if given the opportunity. For a while some felt that he was only comfortable with his back to the wall, and would therefore retreat until he felt the kiss of the brickwork against his shoulder blades. Only then could his fighting instincts kick in. Certainly more of his matches have devolved into life and death tussles than seemed strictly necessary. This was the case even during his extended sojourn atop the rankings – a nearly forgotten 80 weeks, now an eternal decade past – but has only grown more definitive in his career’s endless twilight, at least in those rare periods when he ventures away from the operating table. It was especially evident today during the first set tiebreaker, when he led Ferrer 6-3, and in total failed to take any of five set points.

It’s worth bearing mind that Ferrer is himself not an especially strong tiebreak player, although his record this year is considerably better than any other year (15-9), and well above his career average, which is decidedly average (106-102). The Spaniard’s reputation as a fighter is as justified as Hewitt’s, but contrary to popular belief neither man represents the ne plus ultra in mental composure. They fight because they must, because fighting is preferable to Tomic’s alternative, but both are still obliged to fight far more often than they should. Then again, Hewitt has the excuse that he’s no longer the player he was, while Ferrer is the world number five, and needs make no excuses to anyone.

There was a time when Hewitt might have outlasted Ferrer, but it was long ago. Ornery attrition wasn’t likely to prove a winning tactic today, especially after a prolonged five-setter against Gilles Muller two days earlier. Having correctly surmised that it was all or nothing, Hewitt set about giving it everything. Suddenly bold, he stepped into the court and hustled Ferrer off it, earning a coveted break early on then hoarding it until the end. This gave his fans another excuse to lament those squandered first set points, but I doubt even a two set lead would have done more than prolong the eventual outcome. Naturally anything can happen in sport, but there was still a firm sense that Ferrer would run him down no matter how long it took. The Australian was once the fittest man in the sport, but not anymore. The spirit remains staunch, but the flesh has parted too often beneath the surgeon’s knife, and suffered too much rehabilitation and mortification still to comply with its master’s will. Conversely, while there were times in his peak years when Hewitt might sustain reckless offence for an entire match – one truly outrageous defeat of Gustavo Kuerten in Florianopolis leaps to mind – they were frankly rare even then. Now he just can’t keep it up, a problem that often comes with age. Then again, Ferrer is almost the same age, and looked like he could go all day.

Even as the second set sloughed away, Ferrer could see that the Australian was close to spent. He has built a career on noting these moments, and then prolonging them until his opponents expire. The momentum shift in the third set was irresistible. Now the Spaniard was deciding how each point should proceed. By the fourth set the result was truly foregone. And then Hewitt was gone: 6/0, a fighting bagel. I still have no idea how they’re made, but I do know they take at least a decade to prepare.

David Ferrer, officially, has entered the second week.

† Kohlschreiber ended up defeating Isner in five sets, at 2:26am local time. Isner therefore technically enjoyed a brief stint in the second week, the definition of which grows ever more fluid.


Filed under Grand Slams

Meltingly Warm and Liquid Quick

US Open, Days Five and Six

(3) Murray d. (30) Lopez 7/6 7/6 4/6 7/6

We’re now almost three rounds deep in the 2012 US Open, and one of the top three seeds has actually dropped a set. It was bound to happen sooner or later, if only when they came to face each other. The smart money was on it happening to Andy Murray rather sooner than that, given his tougher draw, and so it turned out. Today he managed to defeat a gallant Feliciano Lopez in four sets, despite winning fewer points, boasting less comprehensive stubble, and being ironically less accomplished at modelling argyle knitwear. On a meltingly warm and liquid-quick day in New York, Murray won the points that mattered, especially the last one. Roger Federer earlier won even more of these while seeing off Fernando Verdasco in straight sets, to whom he likewise yields primacy in facial hair coverage, although the world number one has been known to rock a mean sweater when in the mood.

It was sufficiently warm that the hackneyed phrase ‘brutally hot’ seemed stiflingly apt even in its overuse. More pertinently, the heat proved to be decisive in quite a few of the other matches played today. The lately revitalised Sam Querrey did an excellent job of staying with Tomas Berdych for a few sets, but faded sharply upon falling behind two sets to one. In fast conditions, the Czech can be a hard man to stay with. It is, surprisingly, the first time he’s reached the round of sixteen in New York since 2007. In the fourth round he’ll play Nicolas Almagro, who beat Jack Sock. You may recall that Almagro and Berdych met in the same round in Melbourne earlier this year, producing a fine match that will mainly be remembered for Berdych’s gifted amateur theatrics, as the Spaniard drilled a ball straight at him, whereupon Berdych rag-dolled to the court as though speared. I cannot guarantee the same thing won’t happen again, or even that the tables won’t be turned, even if I wanted to. The only guarantee is that ESPN will seek to heighten the ‘rivalry’, for all that the pair have met since, with no retribution forthcoming.

Novak Djokovic yesterday gave the good burghers who’d shelled out for Arthur Ashe tickets another reason to regret their extravagant purchase, assuming they’d been hoping to see something other than the world number two pulverise Rogerio Dutra Silva for the loss of five games. It’s a problem that plagues centre courts at all the majors through the preliminary rounds. On the one hand you want to see the big names on the big courts. On the other hand you’d probably like to see some competitive matches. Through the early going, these two conditions are for the most part mutually exclusive, especially with 32 seeds to protect the top players. The night sessions have suffered especially at this year’s US Open. To a match, they’ve been fizzers, even the ones we’d all insisted would be close.

Actually, even as I write Mardy Fish has just defeated Gilles Simon in a bland four setter on Arthur Ashe stadium. Cruelly, the first night match of the tournament to exceed three sets was one to make viewers wish it hadn’t. A lesson in being careful what you wish for, I suppose. The Frenchman was injured, which inspired him to fashion his rallies even more carefully than usual. He served at about 150kmh for the entire match – Al Trautwig in the commentary box never ceased marvelling at this – which Fish somehow failed to take as an invitation to attack. When healthy, Simon’s superb defence is sharpened by the real threat of sudden offence, but not tonight. Tonight it was almost all defence, barring the odd passing shot. Fish, after a perfect start, was eventually sucked deep into Simon’s psychic mire, although he retained a strong enough sense of self to abuse the umpire when things ceased going his way. They went his way in the end, but he was clearly dissatisfied when interviewed afterwards, and could summon little spark in the face of Justin Gimelstob’s unfettered cheer. He faces Federer next.

(20) Roddick d. Tomic, 6/3 6/4 6/0

The most hyped fizzer of the round was Andy Roddick’s dust-up with Bernard Tomic, the American’s first outing since he’d suddenly announced his entire support team’s imminent unemployment. The occasion was huge, the stadium was enormous, the crowd was partisan, the stakes were high, the platitudes were piling skyward, and the dull parallel clauses just kept on coming. Tomic was rubbish. Roddick was excellent. There had been a prevailing feeling that the young Australian would seize this moment, and thereby provide some gratification for those who enjoy nothing more than the fulfilment of a good changing-of-the-guard narrative. This hope had been buttressed by the universal assumption that Tomic performs best on the large stage, although I am beginning to think this assumption relies heavily on his disappointing results on small stages. To be fair, he is only nineteen.

Afterwards Tomic was eager to quell the suggestion that he’d tanked the final set, for all that even the five points he did contrive to win came against the run of play. Given that this suggestion had been widespread, and mostly delivered as a pointed accusation, quelling it required considerable attention. He insisted, somewhat unconvincingly, that the real issue was stage fright. However, few juniors have ever been afforded more opportunities to grow accustomed to the bright lights of prime time than Tomic. And it seems strange that his stage fright became most crippling in the third set, when he’d already been on court for an hour, after a couple of sets in which he hadn’t looked to be tanking so much as merely playing badly, faced with a veteran opponent who’d unshackled himself from mortal cares.

For a match that was potentially his last, it was perhaps ironic that Roddick finally played with the boldness and conviction that most pundits have been insisting he play with for years. Back when he was the best player in the world, he played like this all the time. His forehand was feared. Then he spent the best and worst parts of a long decade almost never playing like this. At least one can now hope he’ll continue to play like this for the remainder of his career, the extension of which will require defeating Fabio Fognini in the third round. Quizzed on how he’d feel for last night’s match, Roddick replied that , ‘I could come out and play great, or it could be the worst thing you’ve ever seen.’ In order to prolong his career for at least one more round, he’ll need defeat a guy for whom every match is like that. There is, consequently, no way of knowing what will happen.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Grand Slams

Then Magic Happens

US Open, Days Three and Four

The 2012 US Open is barely four days old, but it has already equalled the record for the most victories achieved from two sets to love down. This record number, set back in 1989, is ten. With somewhere over half the current tournament’s matches completed, that count has been matched, and there’s every reason to believe it will be surpassed in the coming days. It’s an obscure record, to be sure, but they can’t all be important. I should also stress that these ten victories were all achieved by men. None of the women players have yet figured out a way to recover from a two set deficit, not even Kim Clijsters, who retired yesterday afternoon, whereupon she was immediately canonised by the attendant media.

Last year, if memory serves, the US Open broke the record for the most retirements at a single event. I think there were about twenty (although I should make it clear that I am referring specifically to tennis events, since there were even greater casualties at the Battle of Antietem, not to mention Ypres. It’s also worth registering some surprise that this record was achieved on a fairly standard hardcourt, and not, as expected, on perilous blue clay, which is said to be fashioned from crystallised nerve gas.)

Anyway, the ten men who have so far recovered from two sets down are no doubt proud to be part of history. (Their vanquished opponents were probably less thrilled, for all that some of them didn’t merely snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but ventured into victory’s gullet with a lantern, a support team and a map.) Hopefully the USTA will release some appropriate memorabilia for collectors. Perhaps a set of signed espresso cups, or (better) some action figurines. The figurines, in no particular order, would be of Ernests Gulbis, Marin Cilic, Alexandr Dolgopolov, Philipp Petzschner, Paul-Henri Mathieu, Janko Tipsarevic, Gilles Muller, Fabio Fognini, Mardy Fish and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. All figurines would be fully posable, and most would come installed with a well-worn self-destruct button. Petzschner’s could be accessorised with a range of knee-socks. Tipsarevic’s would talk if you pull his ripcord, or ask him for his views on women’s tennis. Gulbis’ figure could come in two versions, a highly collectable ‘Unstoppable’ model, and a more common one set to ‘Underachieve’. But I digress.

The temptation, as ever, is to search for a clear pattern when something like this occurs. Theories already abound as to why this particular edition of this particular tournament has produced so many comebacks. The most convincing theory, as is often the case, is that it is a coincidence, although this regrettably makes for bad copy. Last year a similar thing happened with all the retirements. The wearisome orthodoxy emerged that players were dropping in industrial quantities due to the heroic length of the season and the physical stress caused by grippy hardcourts, notwithstanding that many of the retirements owed to upper body ailments, and at least a few were due to gastric issues. But sometimes the temptation to posit an underlying cause is irresistible. We can consequently grow prescriptive.

I don’t exclude myself from this tendency. Suddenly the most fraught parts of any match occur when a player gains a two-set lead. Thus when Philipp Kohlschreiber dropped the second set to Michael Llodra one felt it to be a strategic masterstroke, although this only narrowly failed to backfire when Llodra almost served out the third. No one wants to see their favourite players up two sets to love. You’re just asking for them to become a statistic.

Blake d. (24) Granollers, 6/2 6/4 6/1

This was especially the case this evening when a hitherto rampaging James Blake gained a two set advantage over Marcel Granollers. For all that no one quite rampages like Blake, he plays with such terrifically tight margins that even slight miscalibrations can prove disastrous. He is an exemplar of the rule that an uncompromising attitude only merits applause while it pays off, but generally deserves ridicule when it doesn’t. So far it had worked, and he was leaving the Spaniard in his dust. Granollers was by no means playing poorly – although I’m inclined to think his current ranking of No.24 is somewhat inflated – but even at his best he would struggle against a guy whose entire game is predicated on the idea that nearly every shot be struck as hard as possible, and who was hardly missing. A better defender might have done enough to introduce some doubt into the American’s mind, thereby tightening those margins still further. Granollers was trying his best – painfully so judging by the sound he was making – but his best bet, from two sets down, lay in hoping that Blake would start to miss. To be fair, most of Blake’s opponents have made that bet successfully in recent years.

Gulbis yesterday spoke with typical candour about one’s attitude while trailing by a couple of sets: ‘The mind-set is that you don’t care any more. You’re two sets down, you’re a break down. You simply don’t care. Then magic happens suddenly.’ Not caring of course places the Latvian comfortably in the middle of his natural habitat. He has made an art-form out of indifference.

Granollers, unfortunately, isn’t the type to begin lashing winners with gallows detachment. In any case he was permitted neither space nor time in which to unleash the requisite laissez faire fatalism. The magic never happened. Blake, far from rediscovering doubt, only grew more reckless in his resolve. He never stopped coming. The rampage became an onslaught, and the winner tally mounted alarmingly. He didn’t face a single break point, yet won 44% of his return points, even as Granollers served at 72%. And Blake did it without once tempering his natural inclination to attack. He’ll next face Milos Raonic, in what will surely be a night match on Arthur Ashe Stadium. Expect no compromise, from either of them. That’s not their way.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Grand Slams

For the Non-Believers

US Open, Days One and Two

My proposal to have the first round of the US Open main draw spread over five days has, it seems, fallen on unreceptive ears. I believe this to be a shame, since it fulfilled so many of the cherished goals of the tournament’s organisers, such as diluting the level of excitement through the early going, ensuring that at least one of the eventual male finalists is crippled by exhaustion, and guaranteeing that said final will take place sometime in the following week. Their counter-argument was that there are already sufficient measures in place to assure these outcomes. (For example, inspired by last year, they have installed new pumps under all the showcourts, which at the flick of a switch will push noisome and bubbling swamp fluids up through the court surface, thereby causing David Ferrer to shrug slightly, and Andy Roddick to go into cardiac arrest.) If these don’t do the trick, they contend, then there’s always the weather.

But weather, according to biblical authority, is a fickle thing. Notwithstanding the  US Open’s careful placement within hurricane season, there remains a slim chance that several days of play won’t be lost to driving squalls and showers, and that when players are able to take to the court their efforts won’t be fatally hampered by outraged southerly zephyrs. Of course this issue could be addressed by relocating the whole thing to New Orleans, or, better, to the flight deck of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, currently patrolling the North Atlantic. These suggestions also featured in my proposal.

Fortunately such measures won’t be necessary this year. Even as I write, Hurricane Isaac has crossed the Louisiana coast. With any luck, the men will have to play their last three rounds on Wednesday afternoon, a fortnight hence. According to the preferred nomenclature of CBS, this will be a Super afternoon indeed. But my point was that it is lazy to rely upon inclement weather to wreck a timetable on its own. Ludicrous scheduling has to shoulder at least a portion of the load. A five day opening round would put it beyond doubt.†

Anyway, until the USTA sees the light, the first round still only lingers for a laughably brief three days, which means that we’re now two thirds of the way through. World No.1 Roger Federer won his opening round match against world No.81 Donald Young on a drenchingly humid opening night. The brothers McEnroe, commentating on ESPN, were scathing of their compatriot, which one assumes was an attitude they arrived with, given that the result had hardly been doubt. The issue, it was intimated, was one of belief, and that fact that Young doesn’t have any, a shortcoming he has in common with everyone else. Luke Jensen, commentating on another network, echoed these sentiments in a more circumspect fashion. After Young won a strong point, Jensen proffered the advice that he should play like that all of the time. So that was the problem. But Young didn’t just achieve a 17 match losing streak because he cannot play well occasionally. His achievement testifies to the fact that he can’t do it often, let alone all the time. Body language aside, I’m sure he was trying his best. The week the American posted his seventeenth straight loss was the week Federer won Cincinnati without dropping serve. There is a gulf between those two outcomes, and suggesting that it can be bridged by faith is asking a lot of a guy who has just spent an entire season demonstrating that it can’t. He did break Federer’s serve, though.

The same critique wasn’t levelled at Paolo Lorenzi, who won only two games against a rampant Novak Djokovic (just as he did back in Melbourne, although the configuration was different). Lorenzi didn’t seem to have much belief that he’d overcome the defending champion, although no one commentating sounded particularly offended at this. Indeed, the prevailing tone was more condescending than anything else. Djokovic was pretty marvellous, though. He must have believed. That’s probably why he wins all the time.

I boldly predicted that David Goffin might upset Tomas Berdych, but that didn’t come to pass. That’s on me. Indeed, Berdych even won a tiebreaker, his first since the Rome Masters. Berdych in turn predicted that no one besides the top three seeds have much chance of winning the tournament, thereby echoing the betting markets and every other person with even a passing interest in tennis, besides a few fans of Juan Martin del Potro (and perhaps del Potro himself). This realistic assessment has seen the Czech strung up by his thumbs, and liberally peppered with envenomed arrows. There’s a subtle difference at play here. It’s one thing to suggest that winning a given match will be almost impossible, but quite another to concede that it might actually be. The former assertion is a valorous attempt to secure the cherished underdog position, in order that any subsequent victory might be lauded as suitably heroic. The latter betrays a fundamental lack of self-belief, and certainly shouldn’t be construed as merely a moment of unguarded candour by a 26-year-old athlete. By extension, we can assume that everything Berdych says must perfectly reflect his inner state. You may recall that Jo-Wilfried Tsonga made broadly similar remarks before the French Open – that no Frenchman would win the tournament – yet he seemed committed enough in that quarterfinal with Djokovic, and appropriately gutted when he lost. Believe it or not, these guys can say these things and still try their very best. Tsonga, incidentally, also won today. Mardy Fish and Andy Murray also won their opening matches, both in straight sets, but were roundly condemned for not winning them better. Some pundits made it known that they weren’t ‘convinced’. I can’t decide if this is disrespectful to the beaten opponents, or just boring.

Even Philipp Petzschner won, and from two sets to love down, which is a nice change for him. His socks were typically magnificent. I’d predicted that his first round with Nicolas Mahut might be a good one. It was: cagey and desperate. It is so far my only prediction that looks even remotely like coming to pass, including the secret one about Andrea Petkovic winning the title and then inviting me to dinner. I predicted an excellent first round encounter between del Potro and David Nalbandian, but Nalbandian’s withdrawal has made that complicated. He has been replaced by Florent Serra, who I don’t expect will pose quite the same problem for the 2009 champion.

Bernard Tomic today saw off Carlos Berlocq in a match that was rendered more straight-forward than anticipated by the fact that the Argentine didn’t play especially well. Tomic will play Roddick in the second round, probably at night in a big, loud, lurid stadium. Given that most of Tomic’s season is composed of killing time between these kinds of grand spectacles, I suspect the young Australian will rouse himself for this one. It’ll be a question of belief, of course. Thank heavens he has that: ‘I don’t think Roddick is like the top three or four. That’s definitely where I have a lot of belief. I believe I can win this match.’

On the subject of stirring recoveries, Marin Cilic and Alexandr Dolgopolov each came back from two sets down, against Marinko Matosevic and Jesse Levine respectively. I’d like to say that the issue was mental – in Dolgopolov’s case it always is, I suppose, though I didn’t see this match – but for Cilic it was more the case that the superior player started playing closer to his usual standard as the match progressed. Matosevic never ceased trying, to an extent that even the McEnroes would have approved of. Sometimes one player is better at tennis than the other one. Believe it or not, this often determines the outcome, even if saying so is frowned upon.

† The Australian Open almost embarrassed itself this year, when the combination of clear weather, two roofed stadiums and a two-day opening round resulted in the final being played on the second Sunday. Fortunately in the final Nadal and Djokovic set things right by playing approximately for ever in order to ensure the tournament entered a third week, as the gods intended.


Filed under Grand Slams

The Far Side Of The World

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.


Filed under ATP Tour, Grand Slams