Fancy Chances

Olympic Games, Day Six

The four semifinalists of the Olympic tennis event have been decided, following a day of men’s quarterfinals almost entirely devoid of drama. None of the four matches extended into a third hour, or a deciding set, and only two of those sets reached tiebreaks. The four semifinalists are Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Juan Martin del Potro. If doubts lingerover the validity of tennis as an Olympic event, this line-up has hopefully helps to allay them. Or perhaps it’s fairer to assert the obverse, that the Olympics works well as a tennis tournament. So far the Olympic tennis event has looked and felt rather like a Masters event, which is gratifying for those of us who fervently believe one of those should be played on grass.

Three of these men will leave London with a satisfyingly dense alloy medallion (mostly silver, some copper), and one of them won’t. Given the surface (green) and the company (red, white and blue), it is difficult to imagine that del Potro will number among those eventually mounting the medal podium, although I assume he has the means to install a private one at his house for re-enactment purposes, although that might be a little weird, especially for house-guests. He plays Federer in the first of tomorrow’s semifinals. This will be their first [edit: second] meeting on grass. One must fancy Federer’s chances, especially since it will be their sixth encounter this year, and the Argentine has yet to win one. Federer has been victorious on slow hardcourts in Melbourne and Indian Wells, faster hardcourts indoors in Rotterdam and outdoors in Dubai, and on clay at Roland Garros.† These victories have testified mostly to the world No.1’s peerless variety and unwavering determination to force del Potro out of position, detain him there indefinitely, and then subject him to stern questioning. No surface rewards this style more than grass. Expect to see large feet wronged and balls sliced, often low and short to the backhand. Del Potro’s best chance, as ever, will be to hit everything very hard.

The other semifinal, between Murray and Djokovic, is tougher to read. Murray has successfully navigated a draw that appeared quite frenzied when it first tore free from its hander’s grasp, but has grown decidedly more sedate as it caromed through the London streets. He defeated Nicolas Almagro in today’s quarterfinal, a man whose proven inability to perform on either grass or big occasions was exacerbated by a right shoulder reportedly dangling by a sinewy thread. As quarterfinals go, it might have been much worse: Murray might have faced a rested and dangerous Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. This is a sentiment that Djokovic hopefully shared, as he saw off a tired and frustrated Tsonga without too much incident. Both Murray and Djokovic have been inconsistent this week, skittishly veering between majestic calm and wide-eyed panic from round to round, or even set to set, although they’ve finished well even on the bad days. I will pick Murray to win their semifinal, but I have no good reason to do so, beyond a nebulous sense that home turf will once more prove more helpful than not. Don’t make me defend this choice, because I cannot.

Djokovic will beat del Potro for the bronze. Murray will beat Federer for the gold. There you go, British readers. I hope you’re happy. Now toddle along! Alright, have the Brits gone? Ok then.

Federer will win.

†The French Open also featured a fairly healthy dose of luck. Whether bad or good is a question of perspective.

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Believe in the Stars

Olympic Games, Day Four

(2) Djokovic d. Roddick, 6/2 6/1

“’Believe in the stars’ . . . It’s like that doesn’t even mean anything anymore.”

The disillusioned words of Kenneth Ellen Parcell rang in my ears as Andy Roddick’s celestially spangled footwear trudged resignedly towards the net. Galactically-themed sneakers had not been sufficient to lighten an earthbound game, nor to extend a painfully one-sided contest: Novak Djokovic won his 53rd and final point in the 54th and final minute of the match. Certain American commentators, believing perhaps a little too fervently in their faded stars, had earlier dubbed this a ‘popcorn match’. If they didn’t share my low opinion of popcorn before, one assumes they do now.

It is undeniable that Roddick no longer operates at the level he once did, but even in his largely forgotten prime he never attained the stratospheric plane upon which Djokovic today manoeuvred. At his reckless and callow best, the American might have snared a few more games, but that would have been all. Djokovic was quite incredible. He punished anything loose, as we’d known he would. But the Serb was equally as merciless in dealing with first serves – Roddick landed just 60%, which is modest by his standards, and only won 54% of those – and devastating whenever he himself was permitted to iniate the point. Djokovic served 14 aces to Roddick’s five, struck 34 winners to six unforced errors, and achieved a perfect 4/4 on breakpoints. It hardly gets better than that. And if it does get better, awkward questions are inevitably asked.

Elsewhere in London a Chinese teenager named Shiwen Ye found this out, or has been found out, depend on which school of thought you’re enrolled at. She was obliged to face up to a spikily-armoured and steadily-advancing media phalanx, and explain how she had contrived to swim the second fastest lap of a 400IM ever, faster even than Ryan Lochte had earlier managed in taking out the men’s gold medal. She was usefully reminded that this is first time in Olympic history that a woman has swum faster in any lap than a male gold medallist, and quickly disabused of the notion that this is an achievement to take pride in. The implication, lest you missed it, is that she’s doped to the gills. Most of the questions put to her assumed this at some level, especially the ones that flat out asked it. ‘How do you respond to allegations that you’re using banned substances?’ – an accusation artlessly suffixed by a question mark, a standard practice in this field. She maintained her composure, and her innocence. She is only sixteen. At some level innocence is all she has.

On Australian television, Grant Hackett rose heroically to the challenge of not rising to the bait repeatedly proffered by Channel Nine, no matter how enticingly they dangled it. He refused to agree that Shiwen Ye was doping, and instead contended that some athletes just really come on at that age. Other pundits proved less circumspect, and less restrained in their condemnation. There are therefore two schools of thought colliding here, one suggesting that there’s a first time for everything, the other insisting that no, there isn’t. But two schools is nothing. Mao Zedong once grandly decreed ‘let a hundred schools of thought contend’, as a prelude to executing everyone caught subscribing to the ninety-nine incorrect ones. Hopefully a kinder fate awaits Shiwen Ye if she’s guilty, and caught.

(3) Murray d. Nieminen, 6/2 6/4

Jarkko Nieminen was probably fortunate to escape similar scrutiny about his second serve. Never before has a male player deployed a serve that is categorically worse than all of the women’s serves at an Olympic Games, even the women contesting beach volleyball. It seems a clear cut case of performance diminishing drugs at work, although to what end I cannot say. It certainly had Murray stumped. The Scot is among the best returners of difficult serves in the sport – he is notoriously hard to ace – but with the degree of difficulty dialled so low, it took him a while to figure out what to do. Merely getting the serve back – the very essence of ‘returning’ – was not the problem. He blasted returns out, and bunted them back short. Some of Nieminen’s serves were so slow that Murray was compelled to lunge for them, and took to standing almost on the service line.

Fortunately Murray was superior in every other aspect of the game, with the possible exception of left-handedness. Had Djokovic not eclipsed it immediately afterwards, the Brit’s comprehensive victory would have been considered the premiere shellacking of the day, which is an important accolade I just invented. Still, it was good enough for the locals, thickening the close air of the closed Centre Court with a fearsome din. It was also good enough for Andrew Castle and Tim Henman, commentating on the BBC. No one does smugness quite like the English when Murray is in the process of dismantling an opponent. The tone very quickly grows magnanimous, as they airily dole out advice to Murray’s hapless victim, in order that the poor foreigner might perhaps cushion their buttocks against the full force of Murray’s boot.

(WC) Hewitt d. (13) Cilic, 6/4 7/5

Of course, Australian commentators are no slouches when it comes to smugness, even though they’ve had considerably fewer opportunities to stay in practice lately. Sadly none of Hewitt’s compatriots were available to call his quite stirring win over Marin Cilic – I offered my services but have heard nothing – although the leathery British voice supplied by the BBC sounded sufficiently impressed. The wearying tale of Hewitt’s long twilight has been that the spirit remains indomitable even as the flesh endlessly submits to the surgeon’s knife. It was a rare experience today to see Hewitt unimpeded by anything but age, with the result that he was still far too quick for an audibly displeased Cilic. His spryness saw him break late in the first set, and earn a number of break points through the second. His other primary weapons included a willingness to target the Croatian’s forehand with flat drives, and his brain with lucky overrules. Thus pressed, Cilic’s forehand and brain duly disintegrated.

Afterward Hewitt surprised us all by failing to announce he will undergo surgery next week, and as a consequence might not miss the remainder of the season. Surprise turned to bewilderment when he insisted he actually felt quite good, and that it was a rare treat to feel so little pain. This was dangerous talk. Bewilderment became consternation when we realised he next faces Djokovic, although Hewitt himself appeared typically upbeat at the prospect. Now we ‘Strayans don’t know what to expect. Dare we hope? Will Our Lleyton do it for us? Will it be a popcorn match? One thing is for sure: anything is possible, if you just believe in the stars. Or else.

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A Gibbering Wreck

Olympic Games, Day Three

My patriotic commitment to follow the planet’s least understated sporting festival in real time was always going to result in total exhaustion eventually, given the cruel decision to stage it ten time zones in the past. I’d known I was due to collapse at some point, but had nonetheless felt confident that more than three days would pass before I was reduced to a yawning and gibbering wreck. I was wrong. This morning I stirred from a pitifully abbreviated slumber to the news that my compatriot William Henzell had been narrowly defeated in the third round of the men’s table tennis by the giant Belarusian Vladimir Samsonov. My eyes rapidly misted over at this discovery, as they had twenty-four hours earlier when my television first informed me that Henzell had reached the third round. I’d never heard of Henzell before, and immediately forgot his name. It was enough to know he was doing it for Australia, or ‘Straya as it is known locally. At sufficient intensities, the Olympic spirit is indistinguishable from exhaustion.

(For the record, Samsonov later gave a great account of himself in going down to the prodigious and top-seeded Jike Zhang. Other table tennis players you may have heard of include the veteran Zoran Primorac, who has played in every Olympic table tennis event since 1988 – the year Zhang was born – and Timo Boll, who was upset today.†)

The irony, if we can even call it that, was that I’d been determined to have an early night. The fault mainly lies with Victoria Azarenka, who tarried far too long in seeing off Irina-Camelia Begu, fatally delaying Julien Benneteau’s arrival on Centre Court. The Frenchman was due to face Roger Federer, whose vast fan-base now included a marginal but vocal doomsday sect devoted entirely to the belief that Benneteau would finish the job he’d started at Wimbledon some weeks ago. Back then he’d led Federer by two sets to love, and several times hove to within a couple of points of the match. Alejando Falla had already demonstrated that Federer’s draw wasn’t merely easy. It was too easy.

As it happened, it was all too easy for Federer, who permitted Benneteau just four games in a touch under an hour, and faced no breakpoints. To be fair, Benneteau was far from his best, whereas he’d been close to it during The Championships. He looked physically inhibited throughout the second set, which from memory lasted less time than Azarenka earlier took to enquire loudly and querulously whether the umpire was conversant with all the rules. Federer had no compunction about exploiting Benneteau’s injury, throwing in drop shots off returns, stretching him wide with serves, and forcing him to get out of his own way with hard groundstrokes at the body. Federer next faces Denis Istomin. Surprises happen, and the top seed may well lose, but I can’t see it meriting the formation of another cult.

A glance up from my monitor revealed Channel Nine entering its third straight hour of women’s synchronised diving, a stately event that boasts undeniable allure, although even this had worn thin some time earlier. I almost longed for them to cut back to the equestrian cross country, until they actually did, and I was reminded how stressful it is to watch large animals make constant leaps of faith over topiary. Earlier, during the first hour of synchronised diving, I’d watched Andy Roddick deliver a masterclass in how to blow breakpoints, especially during the second set, when he went a heroic one from nine. Luckily his own serve was unassailable, and well beyond anything Martin Klizan’s adventures in Kitzbuhel last week prepared him for. The Slovakian won 17% of his receiving points, and did not gain a break point. Roddick will next face Novak Djokovic, and therefore won’t enjoy the same advantage. Serves will come back, and flabbily-wafted groundstrokes will be dealt with. Brad Gilbert has predicted an upset. That is either the Olympic spirit talking, or a bad night’s sleep.

The longest break from the diving – one of the Australians was called Sharleen, since ‘Charlene’ is presumably too exotic for suburban ‘Strayans – came as Lleyton (Layt’n) Hewitt beat Sergiy Stakhovsky in three high quality and highly aggressive sets. Hewitt was magnificent through the early going, although the Ukrainian lifted and broke late to grab the second set. Hewitt returned the favour in the third, and as victory darted eagerly into view, Our Lleyton grew so overcome that he began to supplement his ‘come-ons’ with the odd ‘vamos’, which I found a little confusing, if not downright unpatriotic. It didn’t seem to hurt, and he served out the match with considerable poise – unreturnable, forehand winner, ace. Greg Norman was watching. That didn’t seem to hurt either.

By now it was apparent that synchronised diving is really a species of marathon, which is fitting since it also dates from 490BC. It commemorates the practice whereby Athenian soldiers would leap in graceful tandem from the cliffs of Marathon onto the Persian ships below, a largely symbolic gesture, as the boats sustained little damage. With this connection to antiquity in mind, I grew predictably choked up as Sharleen (nickname: ‘Shaz’) and partner soared like stones to fifth place. Vamos, indeed. It was time for bed.

† For anyone interested, here are some highlights of Zhang’s five set final against Boll at the World Team Table Tennis Championships earlier this year, including Boll’s stirring recovery from two sets down.


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Anything Can Happen

Olympic Games, Day One

Darcis d. (6) Berdych, 6/4 6/4

Giraldo d. Harrison, 7/5 6/3

It didn’t take long for my contention that Tomas Berdych is currently vulnerable in early rounds to be proved correct, although my equally assured conviction that Ryan Harrison would be the one to demonstrate it turned out to be less accurate. The new universe we now inhabit isn’t precisely like the old one – Karl Pilkington’s once-conjoined twin has been separated and now dates a golfer – but nor is it totally different. Ryan Harrison remains perfectly capable of losing any tennis match for any reason he deems fit, and then throwing a big tantrum about it.

Some described Harrison’s performance as indifferent, which is either inaccurate, or else provides us with some sense of how terrifying he must be when fully engaged. Even indifferent, he is an implacable enemy of his own equipment, and like others before him is determined to execute a private war against the elusive mole folk who dwell under SW19, presumably distant kin of those who inconveniently raised that mound in the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony. Harrison’s racquet closed the match with a double fault, the third, for which it was immediately and violently punished by having its brains dashed out on the grass. He has been roundly taken to editorial task over this. Within minutes his Wikipedia entry had been updated by a fan whose righteous indignation easily overreached his or her grammatical skill.†

Setting aside the apparently important problem of Harrison murdering the odd tennis racquet – everyone has glossed over how much more taxing this is on grass than on hardcourt – there is the minor issue of what this might do to the surface. It’s less a case of ‘won’t somebody pleased think of the children’, than ‘won’t somebody please think of the court’, although our thoughts of course remain with any injured or traumatised mole children. It was precisely the kind of attention the newly-reseeded Wimbledon courts don’t need. Prior to the commencement of play, everyone had marvelled at how marvellous the courts looked just weeks after The Championships concluded. The hitherto scarred, embrowned baselines were once again verdant and lush. After barely an hour of Berdych skidding and sprawling all over them, they looked ploughed once more. Of course, the early rounds of Wimbledon are always quite slippery, but this seemed worse. The surface was disintegrating before our eyes.

It partially explains how Berdych lost to Steve Darcis in straight sets, although for the full explanation one shouldn’t ignore the quality of play, which from the Belgian was very high, and highly astute. Berdych did fall over a lot, but Darcis was adept at facilitating this, endlessly varying his pace, direction and length, constantly slicing low to the Czech, and giving Berdych little to swing at. It worked beautifully. Tellingly, Darcis struck over twice as many winners as his opponent (27 to 13 in two sets). He was helped by some surprisingly non-penetrative serving from Berdych, which is an issue on grass when you’re 6’5’’. Penetrating is something you’d prefer your serve to do, all else being equal.

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

This was later an issue for Roger Federer, whose first delivery had proved so integral to his Wimbledon triumph earlier in the month. Today he faced Alejandro Falla, who was in rare form on return. For some reason the sight of Federer across the net sometimes transfigures the Columbian from a merely capable grass court player into an inspired one. Much reference has of course been made to this pair’s first round match at Wimbledon a few years ago, in which Falla led Federer by a couple of sets to none, and later served for the match. Few mention their match from two weeks before that, when Federer had thrashed him on the way to the Halle final. Initially, today’s encounter seemed closer to that one.

Falla was playing well, but Federer was too. The Swiss took the first set 6/3. He broke and moved ahead 5/3 in the second. Falla slumped to 0-40 on his next service game. Three match points. Easy enough: perfunctory, even. Falla saved them all, without doing anything truly spectacular, although he seems to have a delightful gift for wrong-footing the world No.1. The Columbian doesn’t hit the ball especially hard, but he has a solid, low base, sturdy pins, and he can drive through the ball in such a way that it shoots through the grass. Federer was often caught out. Nevertheless, the top seed stepped up to serve for the match, but was broken when a forehand winner was deemed to have missed the court, thereby debarring it from authentic winner status. Federer found another three consecutive breakpoints on Falla’s next service game, but again couldn’t take any of them. Then he was broken again to lose the set.

Social media erupted with puns. Suddenly the Columbian was ‘on Falla’, and tireless variations thereof. Some, adopting a more prosaic approach to pronunciation, remarked that ‘this Falla can really play.’ The real shame is that Federer’s name doesn’t lend itself so well to this type of virtuoso wordplay, thus forestalling the sadly unforgettable malarkey that followed Mardy Fish’s loss to Falla back in Melbourne. Federer broke to open the deciding set – remember it’s best-of-three, which is some kind of code for ‘anything-can-happen’ – but it didn’t take. Falla, who was still on himself, broke back. Then he wasn’t. A range of errors, some quite inventive and almost all of them Columbian, saw Federer break again, then hold, and then move once more to three match points. He took it, finally. It was a tremendous fight from Falla, and a legitimate scare for Federer, who’ll next face Julien Benneteau.

In other news, Robin Haase has defended his maiden title in Kitzbühel, defeating Philipp Kohlschreiber in the final. Both are due to play on grass in London tomorrow, although the German has since withdrawn with an adductor strain. He has entered the top twenty for the first time in his career, but he won’t be representing his country at the Olympic Games. Cold comfort, especially considering his generous draw, and that anything can happen in a best-of-three match on grass. All around, a shame.

† Editorial indignation reached typically comical levels the following morning, inspiring Harrison to front up on NBC and offer a full and unreserved apology for his behaviour. There was, sadly, no apology forthcoming for the mole people, which left the whole thing sounding a little hollow.


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Luck of the Draw: Olympics 2012

The first thing to be said about the draw for the Men’s Singles event at the 2012 London Olympics is that Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have not been drawn in the same half. This is in direct contravention of all known laws, whether contingent or immutable, physical or celestial. As a consequence, the second thing to be said is that at about a quarter past eleven in the morning (Greenwich Mean Time) on the twenty-sixth of July, the entire universe winked instantly out of existence, only to be replaced immediately by a nearly perfect copy of itself. Some of you might have experienced a slight jolt. That’s normal.

Cults both apocalyptic and millenarian are united in their triumph at this turn of events – which they have since claimed was anticipated – although the former type has expressed some disappointment that it all went by with so little fanfare. (Was a little brimstone too much to expect? Brimstone had been promised, after all. And there were supposed to be virgins.) Anyway, as I say the new universe is an almost perfect copy of the old one. Discerning folks might notice that a few things have changed. Justin Bieber has been replaced as Secretary-General of the United Nations. Croissants are no longer confusingly star-shaped. Tommy Robredo isn’t world No.1 anymore. And apparently the colour scheme at the Olympic tennis event has been revised. Only in an alternate universe could Wimbledon look like this.

In any case, there is a very good reason that Federer and Djokovic find themselves on opposing sides of the draw, even though the old universe lacked the operating software to handle it. They are ranked first and second, which from memory has never before been the case. The real issue therefore wasn’t going to be that they wouldn’t get to face off in the semifinals of a significant tournament. The real issue was which of the two will have to play Andy Murray (the answer is Djokovic), and who will Andy Murray have to play in order for this even to happen (the answer is everyone). As it was at The Championships, Murray’s draw is a humdinger. He faces Stan Wawrinka first up, which should be almost as winnable as the second round match against Jarkko Nieminen. Then he’ll likely take on Richard Gasquet and Tomas Berdych in order to get a crack at Djokovic. For British fans, disoriented by the overwhelming superiority of their cycling team, this is a welcome return to gloom. If only in the tennis event, the entire British Isles gets to be an apocalyptic cult. Doom is certain.

Djokovic himself has no good reason to be thrilled with the new universe. Firstly, Belgrade’s homeless are no longer legally obliged to wear Srdjan’s old t-shirts, each bearing an airbrushed image of Novak’s face. Secondly, Djokovic’s Olympics draw reflects a degree of difficulty almost equal to Murray’s. He’ll presumably have no trouble dispatching Fabio Fognini in the opening round, although knowing The Fog, if there is trouble, it’ll be big trouble, roughly on par with that which Kurt Russell so famously visited on Little China. Assuming he survives this, Djokovic will probably face Andy Roddick, potentially one of the few men in the draw who can match the Serb for sheer patriotism. Then his path towards Murray will probably involve some unholy combination of Lleyton Hewitt, Marin Cilic, Milos Raonic, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Or someone else.

The corollary to all of this is that Federer’s draw is utterly benign. This is of course something of a problem for his fans, who have once more been compelled to yield up the coveted underdog status before a ball has even been thwacked. Of course, it is only a few weeks since Federer proved to everyone’s satisfaction that he can survive even easy draws. Nonetheless, some consolation can be found in the realisation that he faces Alejandro Falla in the first round, a man who two years held a two set to love lead over the great Swiss on Centre Court, and whose complexion will benefit enormously from the new colour scheme. Federer may face Julien Benneteau in the second round, who had him two sets to love down just weeks ago. Alternatively he might discover Mikhail Youzhny, who took five games from him in the Wimbledon quarterfinal. From there it actually gets easier. If one really must find something to worry about, then there’s always the time-honoured convention that anything can happen in a best-of-three match on grass. Indeed it can. The top seed can even make it to the final.

Which brings me neatly to the question of how the other players will fare, those for whom the concept ‘anything can happen’ is intended to provide a measure of comfort. Astute draw analysts will recognise this as Stage Three in the standard model of any draw dissection. It’s a nice, if potentially arousing question to ask who will penetrate farthest? As ever, the smart money is on Philipp Kohlschreiber, although I could have told you that without even seeing the draw, based entirely on his masterful preparation, which consists entirely of playing on clay in Austria. Now that I have seen the draw, I can say he will most likely face the fourth seeded David Ferrer in the second round, but don’t believe an upset is entirely beyond reason. This is a new universe, you will recall (or you won’t, as the case may be). Pencil the depressingly lone German in for a quarterfinal. He’s good for it. I also have a feeling Berdych is vulnerable in early rounds right now, and that Ryan Harrison is the type to take advantage of this for precisely as long as he doesn’t quite realise what’s happening. He won’t get past Murray in the quarterfinals, but he’ll cause a frightful row on the way there.

There are several opening round matches worth perusing, for the ambling ticket-holder given to idle flânerie, or to their fidgety online counterpart. Janko Tipsarevic and David Nalbandian didn’t quite produce a classic in the first round at Wimbledon earlier in the month. With all of existence being reset earlier today, they’ve been gifted another crack at it. Bernard Tomic and Kei Nishikori will be intriguing, if only to see whether the Tomic’s avowed commitment to doing hard work has translated into Tomic actually working hard.

Youzhny and Benneteau will, as mentioned, duel for the honour of stressing out a few Federer fans in the second round, but I suspect their match could be excellent in its own right. John Isner will attempt to break the ace record for a best-of-three match against Olivier Rochus – from memory it’s 44 or 50 – although given his results on grass he should be happy merely to win, especially over a player as wily and stylish as the Belgian. Those who somehow dimly recall yesterday’s old universe will be shocked to learn that Rochus is no longer 6’9’’, meaning his Belgian team uniform looks absurdly oversized. Watching him stumbling about in it should be a highlight of the opening ceremony.

The full draw can be found here.


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A Miraculous Message

Hamburg, Final

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

For better or worse, online gambling on tennis is now an intrinsic part of the sport. This was clear enough during Channel Seven’s coverage of Wimbledon, which would periodically cross to the proprietor of a local betting site, who would justify his latest odds by dressing up common knowledge as dreary analysis, which in turn explained why his odds looked more or less like everyone else’s. It was even clearer today after the Hamburg final, as tournament director Michael Stich’s endless stream of German was periodically broken up by the phrase ‘bet at home’, three words that apparently want for Teutonic equivalents. Of course, bet-at-home is the tournament’s primary sponsor. I presume at least some in the crowd lacked sufficient English that the sponsor’s miraculous message was lost on them. The miraculous message is that you can now gamble on sports from anywhere, without undergoing acute soul-erosion in an actual betting parlour.

Closer to home – the home from which I may now safely conduct wagers – TAB Sportsbet proclaims itself to be Australia’s premier sports betting organisation. I am privy to no market-share data that suggests otherwise, so will not quibble at their assertion. Sportsbet has for some time been running an advertising campaign in Australia extolling the various advantages of online gambling, the chief virtue of which is that discerning punters aren’t obliged to consort with the weirdos who bet on sports in situ, archly implying that you somehow aren’t one of them. This is a common enough conceit in advertising, but no less effective for that. It helps that anecdotal evidence from my youth bears it out. Betting parlours really are horrible.

Yet on some level the local TAB shop was a seductive space as a child, since I vaguely associated it with Tab cola, which was the diet Coke from before Diet Coke (though it was only ever supplied by adults who couldn’t get the simplest things right, like buying actual Coke).† I would peer expectantly into these TAB venues and would suddenly understand despair. If Tab cola didn’t taste quite right, the local TAB just smelled wrong. The drink was disappointing, but this was something else. For many Australian children – though I assume this isn’t limited to here – it was our first whiff of abject failure, and the tang of it was sour and male. Sometimes I’d spot men I knew in there, perhaps the father of a school friend. Only when I was older would I understand why little Jimmy Peterson only ever brought water crackers for lunch.

Anyway, this was the reverie in which I lost myself as I watched the final of the bet-at-home Open in Hamburg, streamed live via the Bet365 website, during an ad for the new SkyBet app. I was saddened that my children would not know this experience. As our society is increasingly atomised by technology, the number of spaces in which grown men might congregate and discover they understand neither statistics nor horse racing, in the process bringing ruin to their families, are lessened. The local betting parlours, once filled with collective despair, are now empty with it. Is it wrong that I’m saddened by this? I doubt whether the Jimmy Petersons are eating any better. Anyway, onward to tennis.

Had Philipp Kohlschreiber defeated Nicolas Almagro in the gamble-from-your-couch Hamburg quarterfinals the other day, he would have entered the top twenty in the ATP rankings for the first time. It was an excellent opportunity for an exciting player, one who I number among my favourites. It would have been a worthy reward for a guy who has lately supplemented his capacity to belt winners with a determination to belt winners in. Alas, Kohlschreiber lost, and remains stranded at No.21, although this is still a career high ranking. To get over that top twenty hump you have to earn it. You also have to not get broken while attempting to stay in the set, twice. He also served for the second set, but was broken. Almagro served for the first, but was broken. It was that kind of match, although it was also the kind that is brim-full of glorious backhand rallies, suicidal trips to the net, and deft touch. The German came in more, which meant the Spaniard passed more. Almagro followed this up by losing to Juan Monaco in a tight semifinal.

A Kohlschreiber victory would also have been in keeping with the custom whereby Germans produce their best results at home (as opposed to, say, Stalingrad). Tommy Haas remains the custodian of this tradition. He moved through to the wager-from-the-lavatory Hamburg final with a fine win over Marin Cilic, although the Croatian phoned it in towards the end, presumably via the SkyBet app. Nonetheless, it was a vintage performance from Haas, recalling 1999, 2001, 2002, 2007 and 2009. He moved to a provisional ranking of No.35. You will recall he was compelled to qualify for the French Open, and that it was only by the grace of the AELTC that he wasn’t required to do so at Wimbledon. If he’d won the Hamburg final he would have entered the top 30, meaning a seeding for the US Open. That’s staggering, and owes in large part to stellar results on home soil, including the title in Halle, and a semifinal back in Munich. It’s probably no coincidence that his only Masters series title came in Stuttgart (2001), during one of his early comebacks.

He didn’t win, though he went down fighting. Monaco did win, also while fighting. It was a scrap, and a very entertaining one. Haas flew out to early leads in both sets, but was reined rapidly in each time. With the possible exception of Gilles Simon in the second round, Haas hadn’t faced anyone as quick as Monaco this week, and it began to tell as the match wore on. The German was belting everything from both wings, but he was having a hell of time getting anything past his opponent, which has always proved the surest way to drive Tommy Haas round the bend. His wife began to scream at him to focus. Haas nodded. It was technically coaching, but at least he stopped tossing his racquet about for a bit.

It seemed clear that the epic seventh game of the second set would turn out to be pivotal. Haas fought off a succession of break points with daring net play (although the last of the exquisite drop volley winners was executed from near the service line), but Monaco eventually broke through. Then Haas broke back, sealing the eighth game with a ferocious backhand up the line. His animalistic bellow preceded the crowd’s roar by only a moment. Then he was broken again, which was a bit deflating for the crowd, who didn’t roar nearly so lustily. This turned out to be the pivotal moment. The Argentine served it out, and collapsed onto his back. It was his turn to roar, and then to dart away into the stands.

Haas won’t re-enter the top thirty just yet, but Monaco will enter the top ten for the first time in his career. He is the eleventh Argentine to achieve this feat in the Open Era, and the third among active players. The bet-your-home Open German Tennis Championships is the biggest title of his career, notwithstanding that he was canonised as the US Mens Clay Court Champion as recently as April of this year. Perhaps most encouragingly of all, fears that the ankle injury Monaco sustained on Monte Carlo’s treacherous red clay would wreck his good form – as injury did in 2007 – have proved to be unfounded. There’s no especially good reason to think he’ll remain in the top ten for long, since the sparseness of points in that range make it something of a rankings trout-farm, but it’s still a nice moment, and stranger things have happened. He and Haas received stylised propellers in lieu of trophies. No explanation was given.

† TAB stands for Totalisator Agency Board, amply evoking its whimsy.

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A Day In The Life

I read the news today (oh boy) about an unlucky man whose knees had failed. And though the news was rather sad, some folks just had to laugh. They posted photographs.

It is difficult to convey to the younger generation what a limited and inadequate thing Schadenfreude was before the internet elevated it into a defining principle, and granted a voice to those small spirits who had, with some reason, hitherto been denied one. The capacity to extract delight from the hardship of others is hardly a modern invention; cruelty was a staple of antiquity, and not all the tales of what went on in the Colosseum are untrue. But what was once a scattered archipelago of mean-spiritedness has been joined up via an extensive dredging project into an endless spit, a term that hopefully conveys something of the regurgitative quality of what has consequently been thrown up.

I received the news that Rafael Nadal had withdrawn from the London Olympics at about 5.30am this morning. I confess my immediate reaction was not one of disbelief. It seemed plausible enough. His knees are a mess. My uncontroversial assumption was that this must have been a horrible decision for Nadal to have to make. He was to carry the Spanish flag in the opening ceremony. He was the defending gold medallist from Beijing. I imagine he was gutted. A quick search yielded the actual announcement, and I didn’t need to imagine it. He was gutted. For whatever reason, I decided to put off a return to sleep, and instead probed the internet for further information. I immediately regretted this decision. Where I’d taken Nadal at his word, others expressed only scepticism. Where I’d seen a devastated Nadal, others somehow saw a dissembling one. The conspiracy theorists were having a day out.

The theories have predictably ranged from the unrepeatably nasty to the ludicrous. This latter quality covers the suggestion that Nadal has deliberately withdrawn from the Olympics in order to focus his attentions on the Canadian Masters, having carefully measured the pride he would take in bearing the Spanish flag against the satisfaction engendered by potentially avenging last year’s early loss to Ivan Dodig. Having coolly weighed it all up, he apparently decided that Dodig represents unfinished business that simply cannot be ignored, whereas as he already has a gold medal. Athletes are notoriously disinterested in winning multiple gold medals. I’m not sure you’re even allowed to have more than one.

Other theorists, vouchsafed a vision of the world’s deep structures, have suggested Nadal’s latest withdrawal cleaves to a shadowy template. After suffering an upset at Roland Garros in 2009 he withdrew from the next big event, which was Wimbledon. In light of his defeat to Lukas Rosol some weeks ago, he is now compelled to withdraw from the Olympics. (The pattern seems clear enough, although it doesn’t explain why he was playing the week after losing to Dodig last year, given that the Canadian Open is apparently so big a deal that it is worth skipping the Olympics for.) Clearly there are subtleties at play here beyond my ken. But who could put such machinations past Uncle Toni, a tactician whose powers of foresight are so mighty that he cruelly forced young Rafael to play left-handed so that he could one day tarnish the legacy of an as-yet-unknown Swiss junior? You couldn’t write it, unless you are Dan Brown, for whom nothing is unwritable, merely unreadable.

Leaving to one side the legions of Nadal faithful for whom this heavy blow was hardly softened through being dreaded, various timid souls have essayed the entirely radical theory that the Spaniard was telling the truth: his knees have in fact not recovered sufficiently from the treatment, and he therefore isn’t able to compete to the best of his abilities. Some have taken him at his word, and have applauded his decision to withdraw now, thereby freeing up a spot on the Spanish team, and allowing someone else to haul la Rojigualda into the Olympic Stadium in a week’s time. All told, countless thousands have no trouble imagining how gutted Nadal must feel. They feel it, too. Even for those who don’t there must surely be some concession that his absence is a blow to the Olympic event.

I saw a film today (oh boy) the world No.3 had just withdrawn. A crowd of people turned away, but I just had to look, having read the book. Eventually I stopped looking, closed my eyes, and returned to sleep.


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Great Matches You’ve Probably Never Heard Of #7

Hamburg, 2001, Final

(Q) Portas d. (8) Ferrero, 4/6 6/2 0/6 7/6 7/5

There is a reasonable case to be made that Albert Portas’ victory at the 2001 Hamburg Masters constituted the decade’s most unexpected result, while the ATP’s later decision to deprive the tournament of Masters status was its biggest shame. Eleven short years ago, it was, unquestionably, a different era. For one thing, Germany had not one, but two Masters events:  Hamburg on slow, low clay, and a slick indoor event in Stuttgart whose relocation I cannot recall lamenting when it moved to Madrid. For another, Masters titles were occasionally won by players ranked outside the top four. Very rarely they were won by Qualifiers. I realise this is hard to believe: there are now children speaking in complete sentences who were not alive the last time that happened. They stare at me with frank disbelief when I outline the magnitude of Portas’ achievement, even as their parents hurriedly gather them up and explain why they must leave the park early.

In May 2001 Portas was 27 years old and had never won a tour-level title. A prestigious Masters event was a fairly outstanding way to start, and, as it turned out, finish. Hamburg was also his last title. His audacious title run was therefore categorically unlike, say, Goran Ivanisevic’s as a wildcard a few weeks later at Wimbledon. Portas was a respectable tour player, and finished seven straight years in the top 100, but he’d never been enough of an also-ran to be considered a has-been. Upon claiming the Hamburg shield he lost in the first round in St. Poelten, and then fell in straight sets to the renowned claycourter Greg Rusedski first up at Roland Garros. He would follow this up by failing to win a match on grass. Indeed, he didn’t win another match at Masters level until Monte Carlo 2003. This should give you some sense that Portas was far more practiced at losing handfuls of matches than winning them.

Nor were the six main draw matches Portas won in Hamburg in 2001 against minnows. By no means had the draw collapsed. He beat Magnus Norman in the second round, who was still ranked in the top ten, although the Swede was already afflicted by the hip injury that would curtail his career. Next he saw off Sebastien Grosjean, in what was the Frenchman’s breakout year (he would go on to reach the French Open semifinals weeks later and would end the season ranked No.7). In the quarterfinals Portas dispatched a handy dirtballer in Alberto Martin, and then beat the ascendant Lleyton Hewitt – who was bound for No.1 – in the semifinals, despite failing to save a single break point. This sequence seemed all the more improbable once it became clear that Portas’ arsenal lacked any notable ordnance besides the drop shot, which he deployed with a relentlessness that was almost comical, but somehow no less effective for that.

In the final he defeated Juan Carlos Ferrero, arguably the most daunting task in tennis at that particular moment. Ferrero had overrun the reigning world No.1 Gustavo Kuerten in a five set classic in the Rome final some weeks earlier (there used to be a week’s gap between the two events), and Carlos Moya in a monumental four hour tussle in Barcelona a few weeks before that. (Very young readers loitering in public play areas are often startled to learn that best of five set finals were once the norm. Hamburg was indirectly instrumental in ruining that for everyone. This occurred in 2006, after Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer thoroughly wrecked each other in Rome, and showed no inclination to front up in Germany the following morning. In their absence Tommy Robredo claimed the event, forcing the ATP to take appropriate measures to ensure that would never happen again. It worked: Federer and Nadal contested the next two Hamburg finals, and Robredo didn’t.) Ferrero was consequently on a 16 match winning streak. I suppose the case could be made that he was tired, and Portas afterwards conceded that fatigue had indeed been a factor in the fifth set. So did Ferrero, who added an abductor strain for good measure. The fifth set was hell.

The fourth set was the key, however. After splitting the first two sets, Portas lost nine straight games to fall down 0/3 in the fourth. It looked like it would be one of those straight sets wins with a hiccup. Portas later admitted that he’d been mainly determined to avoid exiting with a double bagel. For his part, Ferrero confessed afterwards that he’d grown complacent at this moment, and assumed the title was already his. But then Portas held, and then he broke back. The Rothenbaum crowd grew thunderous, and most of them seemed to be for the older Spaniard. A small portion of them were especially rambunctious for Portas, and Ferrero began to remonstrate testily with them, further fissuring his concentration. Portas eventually took the fourth in a tiebreak, regularly catching his opponent (and viewers) off guard by playing shots other than drop shots. Ferrero’s footspeed was already legendary, and he managed to run down a number of the actual drop shots, but, as the fifth set got underway he become increasingly timid in dealing with them, allowing Portas endless opportunities to pass, although he seemed disappointed to discover this required normal groundstrokes.

The standard – to be frank – plummeted in the fifth set. This final was not great because the quality of play was stratospheric, but because it amply compensated with drama. They muddled their way to 5/6, with Ferrero serving for the tiebreaker. Portas had already come within two points of the title, and looked terrified, with good reason. And yet, his nerve remained steady, as did his arm. He opened with yet another drop shot winner, arguably his finest of the afternoon. Even after three and a half hours, it was still good enough to elicit a shocked gasp from the commentators (in this footage it is the inimitable Frew McMillan). Somehow Ferrero still wasn’t picking them. It was scrambling, it was tense. It wasn’t especially good, but it was scrambling and tense. And then Ferrero, the model of consistency through the entire clay season, faltered on the second championship point, and pushed a final weary backhand wide. Portas collapsed on his back. It was the best day of his life. In the press conference afterwards the moderator announced him as the ‘Drop Shot Dragon’, which stuck, as clumsy nicknames have a habit of doing.

I congratulated the Drop Shot Dragon in person for his achievement at the Australian Open the following year. He was seated amongst a group of Spanish players, watching (I think) Albert Costa on Show Court One, which was later renamed Margaret Court Arena Stadium Venue, presumably by a committee with a sense of humour. I told him that I’d very much enjoyed his Hamburg triumph. Perhaps it was the word ‘triumph’, or perhaps it was the crowd noise, or that fact that there were about four people separating us, but he couldn’t quite make out what it was I was trying to say. He turned to his neighbour for help. It was Juan Carlos Ferrero. To his credit, Ferrero graciously conveyed my best wishes. It wasn’t the best day of my life.


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Tantalisingly Here

Several hours ago, the clocks in London reached midnight, and Roger Federer commenced his 287th week as the planet’s highest ranked tennis player. As with so much else, he is the only man to have done this. As I write, Federer’s clothing sponsor Nike has released a limited run of recoloured Zoom Vapor RF shoes. There are 287 pairs, and each costs $287. I expect Nike’s online store crashed within seconds. This probably isn’t the most important record that Federer holds, but it the one that somehow remained tantalisingly near even as it receded agonisingly, and thus the one by which his fans would most readily be reduced to gibbering incoherence. It is, consequently, kind of a big deal.

The first 200 or so weeks were easy. Once Federer had ascended to the top spot by defeating Juan Carlos Ferrero in the semifinal of the 2004 Australian Open, displacing Andy Roddick, he rapidly built and maintained a points-lead so vast that it was almost without precedent. By the conclusion of that year the question was already being posed seriously of how he might ever lose, even injured. The documentary of the Tennis Masters Cup for that year was called Facing Federer, with the implied subtitle being ‘Why Bother?’ He had spent less than a year at the top, but his position there already seemed eternal. There was just that quality to it, such that few even doubted whether he would be able to back it up in 2005. In any case, it turned out no could face him in Houston, and he ended the year with almost double the points of the No.2, who for the last time was Roddick. Federer was on a finals winning streak that would last another year, and would eventually extend to 24 straight victories.

Rafael Nadal ‘arrived’ in 2005, for many fans seemingly from nowhere, although he had finished 2004 at No.51, having snared his first title in Sopot, Poland. (A perusal of Wikipedia suggests that this is among the more fascinating things to have happened in Sopot, although I note it also boasts the longest wooden pier in Europe, and has been sacked by every passing army.) With the Sopot pier acting as some kind of springboard, Nadal would attain the No.2 ranking in July of 2005, and remain there for 160 consecutive weeks, which remains a record. Federer and Nadal would occupy the two top spots for over three years, long enough that this configuration came to feel like a structural requirement of the sport, if only to casual fans.

In January of 2008 Federer arrived in Australia to the strenuously asserted revelation that his ranking was somehow at risk. The numbers had been crunched, and it was discovered that if Nadal won in Melbourne and Federer failed to reach the quarterfinals, then they would swap positions. Without exception, every interview was now about that. Federer was visibly irritated by this line of questioning, and on the face of it, it did seem ludicrous. In 2007 he had, again, won three of the four majors, and had reached the final of the other one. He’d finished the year with another dominant victory at the Masters Cup. And yet he was somehow one lousy day away from losing No.1. In order to ensure this wouldn’t happen, he promptly contracted glandular fever, and fell in the semifinals to Novak Djokovic. The extent to which these two events are related remains a subject of debate, but not a terribly interesting one.

Federer’s results were relatively poor through the US Spring of 2008 – Guillermo Canas had already fractured his dominance there a year earlier – and the clay season, although he managed to snag his first title of the year in (idyllic) Estoril. The talk of decline had commenced, and it has never stopped, although it periodically swells to a roar and recedes to a mutter, seasonally and comfortingly. He was beaten by Nadal in the Hamburg final, and then scourged by him at Roland Garros. A month later Nadal took his Wimbledon title, and with it, before long, the No.1 ranking. Federer had reigned for 237 consecutive weeks, eclipsing Jimmy Connors’ old record by 77 weeks. Although a measure of redemption came when he won his fifth US Open title, he finished the year at No.2, and only ten points clear of Djokovic. The discourse of decline was inescapable, and conducted at a bellow.

Federer reclaimed the No.1 ranking 46 weeks after it was torn away, not for the last time discovering it to be nicely packaged with a recovered Wimbledon trophy and the all-time record for major titles. He finished 2009 as No.1 for the fifth time, and became the second man in the Open Era to reclaim the year end No.1 spot (Ivan Lendl did it in 1989, while Nadal later achieved it in 2010). Federer would extend that lead by winning the Australian Open at the beginning of 2010. But two losses from match point up in the US Spring, as well as upsets to Albert Montanes and Ernests Gulbis on clay would have serious ramifications. Winning any one of those matches might have meant his ranking would survive the subsequent loss to Robin Soderling at Roland Garros, at least until Wimbledon. (This quarterfinal loss also halted Federer’s record run of consecutive major semifinals at 23, which is probably the most astounding of his obscure records.)  Federer was stranded on 285 total weeks at No.1. Pete Sampras held the record on 286 weeks. If it had ended this way, it might have remained poetic in its imperfection, akin to Sir Donald Bradman getting out for a duck in his final innings, and ending his Test career with an average of 99.94.

Although Federer would go on to lose in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon, and heartbreakingly in the semifinals of the US Open to Djokovic, he would end 2010 with a dominant display indoors, with titles in Stockholm, Basel and in London at the Tour Finals. On the face of it this little run seems inconsequential, but it ultimately proved invaluable. Federer’s latest return to the No.1 ranking finally happened at Wimbledon a week ago, after a gap of over two years, but the foundations were laid at the end of 2011, as he endured the entire European indoors without defeat, including a maiden title at the Paris Masters, and a record sixth at the Tour Finals. These were augmented this year with Masters titles in Indian Wells and Madrid, as well as 500-level trophies in Rotterdam and Dubai, where he apparently had no other purpose than to ruin Juan Martin del Potro’s year.

If Federer ends this year as the No.1 player, it will be the sixth time he has done so. It isn’t even particularly unlikely, given that he has far fewer points to defend than Nadal or Djokovic during the US Summer, and has amply demonstrated his unsurpassed indoor prowess. Having said that, the last few months have proved that not only can anything happen, it usually will. Still, any men who insisted that this could happen following the US Open last year would have been ritually humiliated at some length, before being chemically castrated lest their moronic genes be passed on to others. Now who’s laughing? Probably not those guys. In fact, Federer was ranked No.4 behind Andy Murray as recently as last November, which he spent airily dismissing the Scot’s recent domination of the Asian swing. To his innumerable detractors, it seemed clear that the accelerating decline had well and truly ascended to a frenzy of sour grapes (which when left too long in the sun foments, and can be supplemented with fruit to form a kind of undrinkable, spritzy Sangria).

I will resist the temptation to extend and sustain the wine metaphor any further. A lesser man would cave, and lunge for the easy champagne reference. Indeed, to do so would be entirely in keeping with Federer’s bio that appears on the ATP website, which asserts that he has ‘a flair for aesthetics and class,’ whatever that means. Knowing that line was probably written with a straight face only makes it harder to maintain one while reading it. Among other things, Federer’s greatness makes him the easiest of athletes to wax hyperbolic about, a trap countless greater and lesser scribes have willingly hurled themselves into. But beyond the hosannas and panergyrics, it is hard for anyone writing about him not to fall back on the endless numbers. Like him or not, it takes a certain calibre of wilfulness to pretend these don’t add up to something quite imposing, if not magnificent. And beyond the fives and sevens and seventeens, the largest and latest number is 287, and it is made up of lots and lots of ones.


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These Callow Brutes

BÃ¥stad, Semifinals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newport, Semifinals

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

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

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

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

† A young player is here defined as under 23 years.
‡ These stats are from menstennisforums.

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