New post up on Tennis Grandstand: A Beautiful Day On A Perfect Court
It recaps some, though unfortunately not all, of the action from the fourth day of the Monte Carlo Masters.
New post up on Tennis Grandstand: A Beautiful Day On A Perfect Court
It recaps some, though unfortunately not all, of the action from the fourth day of the Monte Carlo Masters.
Murray / Peers d. (1) Bryan / Bryan, 1/6 7/6 12-10
(5) Isner d. (1) Almagro, 6/3 7/5
‘Jamie Murray, by far the less heralded of the Murray brothers, helps upset the most heralded brothers in the sport – the Bryans.’
It is entirely forgivable when lumpen phrases emerge half-formed in the heat of the play – spontaneity trumps sonority – but the delayed timing and measured delivery of this one suggested the commentator had been chiselling away at it for a while. Intoned after the Houston doubles final in that plodding myth-making metre favoured by American sports-callers, such lines grant easy ammunition to those who dismiss English as an ugly language. Certainly it’s a language that doesn’t yield up its music casually. The same phrase in Italian would no doubt sing, and by the time Verdi was through with it, it’d probably make you sing along. But coming from an ambitious yet tone-deaf English-speaker with no sense of cadence, it merely makes you sigh.
Still, I cannot fault its content. Jamie Murray, ably assisted by the even less heralded John Peers, had indeed defeated the resplendent Bryan brothers, recovering from a first set hiding and saving a championship point before triumphing 12-10 in the deciding match tiebreak. Their recovery in the second set tiebreak was particularly stirring, as they came back from 0-3 to win seven consecutive points.
It was certainly the most exciting tennis match I saw this week, although for sheer drama it was narrowly topped by the US Masters play-off at Augusta. Adam Scott – if anything, too heralded – has therefore eclipsed Peers as the Australian sporting story of the week. For his troubles Scott was hustled to an anachronistic log cabin and draped in a spiffy green crested blazer, whereas Peers and Murray were obliged to dive-bomb into a pool. Horses for courses, I suppose.
A day later John Isner was elegantly gliding into that same pool, having defeated Nicolas Almagro in the Houston singles final. It’s one of the nicer rituals at the US Men’s Claycourt Championships: having toiled away for a week on a court that looks like it has been sluiced with used dishwater, the victor is permitted to cleanse and cool his worn body. Although it wasn’t a long final, it had been a warm and sunny day in Houston, and the giant American was cramping such that he hadn’t been able to sit down during the press conference. A sudden plunge into cold water was surely just the thing. It always makes for a slightly awkward moment once the players are actually in the water, with the pool ringed around by tournament staff and media. Should one swim around for a bit? Perhaps crack some jokes? Or just get straight out? Isner got straight out.
Even if he’d wanted to dog-paddle about languorously, there wasn’t time. He and Almagro are even now slumbering miles above the Atlantic Ocean, en route to Monte Carlo. Their heralds have preceded them, trumpets a-blast. Isner belatedly requested a wildcard to the Masters, which was duly awarded. He was roundly criticised for skipping the event last year, with many pointing out that the undoubted glory of being named the US Men’s Claycourt Champion was worth less in the long term than maintaining crucial momentum in Europe. Some felt he might legitimately challenge the best players in Madrid, Rome and Paris, but that by returning to the United States so soon he would achieve little besides distracting himself. In the end Isner lost in the Houston final, pronounced himself exhausted, and didn’t return to Europe until Madrid, where he lost in the first round. His results hardly picked up from there, and by the time he crashed out of Wimbledon no one regarded him as a challenger anywhere. It’s probably a stretch to say skipping Monte Carlo brought about his terrible summer, but this season he’s taking no chances. The Monte Carlo tournament is already under way, and he’ll be compelled to hit the ground at a full loping run. But as he himself said, he might be tired, but he’s also coming in on a five match claycourt winning streak.
Interviewed after the final, Almagro was decidedly less upbeat about his prospects in Europe, and about his form in general. I wonder how much of that reflects disappointing results through the so-called Golden Swing, the part of the season in which he traditionally thrives. The Spaniard certainly wasn’t at his best in Houston; although he’d hardly been pressed after his tough opening match with Gael Monfils, he’d remained peevish and distracted through the week. Even today he appeared beset. (Meanwhile Isner ambled around with typical languor, at one point earning a time violation warning, whereupon he took the unprecedented step of not going bananas at the umpire.)
Almagro commenced impatiently, and grabbed the early lead by breaking in the third game, which is usually enough to guarantee the set against Isner. He made it to 3/1, yet from there lost five straight games, broken twice. The first of these was especially poor, and seemed to galvanise the American. It’s more or less a given that Isner will serve well and move badly, but this was the most assertively he has struck his groundstrokes in some time. The slowness of the surface enabled him gradually to manoeuvre his feet into position, whereupon he’d anchor them and lean into his forehand. Light balls and a hot day didn’t hurt, and nor did an Almagro too content with crosscourt patterns.
Like everyone else, I have no idea why Isner doesn’t play like this all the time, even when he’s short on form, especially because his form-slumps seem to affect his back-up game just as profoundly as his primary one. Even if nothing goes in, the result will be the same either way, and he won’t be tired. Despite being eight-foot-whatever and the boasting the capacity to kick serves into a second storey window, there seems to be a cautious soul trapped somewhere inside Isner. After he defeated Roger Federer in Fribourg last year, following Jim Courier’s insistence that he remain recklessly first-strike at all costs, Isner conceded that he is supposed to play like that all the time. This week he has said several times that he has finally turned a corner. Hopefully that means he’ll go back to playing like he should all the time, all the time.
Almagro was finally broken again in the eleventh game of the second set, in which he heroically saved four match points, before bringing up a fifth with a forehand error, and losing it with another off the backhand. He summarily dispatched a ball over the stands, and watched on with the rest of us as Isner served it out. The American fell down 0-30, but then recalled his fabled ability to smash serves very hard into the corners of the box. This wasn’t quite as impressive as sinking an eight metre putt in a Masters play-off, but it did the trick.
Depending on your tastes and assuming you care at all, one’s reaction to the near-certainty that Rafael Nadal is about to claim another Monte Carlo Masters title can be placed somewhere on a continuum between deflation and ecstasy. This scale can be found as an appendix in the latest edition of my masterpiece Bracketology, the Reading of Draws, and Why Men Have to Sleep Around. (It was adapted from a similar scale used to measure anxiety levels in those citizens exposed to pronouncements by Kim Jong-un, which typically range from pants-soiling awe all the way down to pants-wetting mirth. It turns out listening to North Korea’s enlightened leader is very injurious to one’s trousers.) The new edition was necessitated by the special problems posed by the Monte Carlo draw, specifically the problem of sustaining reasonable interest when the eventual result is foregone.
Nadal is attempting to win his fifty-eighth consecutive title in the Principality. According to my records, which admittedly differ from the official ones, he hasn’t lost since here November 12, 1955, when his knee was first ruined in a freak collision with a fugitive DeLorean. His knees have required constant care ever since. Nearly six decades later, no betting market has failed to install Nadal as the outright favourite, and for very good reasons. He has dropped six sets here since 2005. Since returning from his extended sojourn Nadal has contested four tournaments, of which he won three and finished runner-up at the other. Furthermore, his only reasonable impediment to the title – world number one Novak Djokovic – sustained an ankle injury in Boise last weekend, and was initially unlikely to play at all, although even in a wheelchair he’d no doubt turn up for the player’s party. Whether Nadal’s inevitable triumph inspires eager delight, weary indifference, or outright dyspepsia, to pretend that it leaves one breathlessly intrigued requires an unreasonable suspension of disbelief. I’m perfectly happy for Nadal to win it – he certainly deserves to – but I do wish his doing so felt less inevitable.
That being said, no one seems sure to what extent Djokovic’s ankle will truly hamper him. The initial assessment of ‘catastrophic structural collapse’ has been steadily downgraded, and he’ll be able to take the court. It helps that his first round opponent will be the irascible Billy Bye, who never learned properly to slide on this surface, and whose record on red clay is consequently dismal. It also helps that Djokovic and Nadal have been placed on separate sides of the draw, meaning they cannot meet before the finals, except socially, assuming Nadal can find time amidst the constant meetings with Prince Albert.
All of which is to reiterate that Monte Carlo is quite disruptive to the standard model of tennis draw analysis as laid out in Bracketology, my seminal work in the field of evolutionary psychology. (To those who’d point out that in science an exception to a model immediately disproves it, I would merely respond that this is what makes evolutionary psychology such an exciting discipline – it’s way out there beyond the leading edge of science, going to extraordinary lengths to legitimate adultery for us all.)
I suppose the conspiracy nuts can make their usual compelling case for a rigged draw – Stage One in the standard model – this time by pointing out that Nadal and Djokovic falling on separate sides constitutes a clear case of official manipulation. After all, it was only a fifty-fifty chance that this would happen. What are the odds? Maths isn’t my strong suit, but I’d guess one in a million. Andy Murray has been drawn to face Nadal in the semifinals. Typical. Murray’s quarter also has four qualifiers, and Stan Wawrinka and Nicolas Almagro. Make of that what you will. I predict Murray won’t reach the final four.
But those fans that derive hope by claiming their favourite as the underdog (Stage Two) are in for a dire time, especially if their favourite is Nadal. Naturally some will make the effort, and thus remind us that the term ‘fan’ evolved from the word ‘fanatic’ in the nineteenth century, and that for many it hasn’t evolved much since. Meanwhile, fans of other players can assert with perfect authority that their man won’t win the title, thereby draining most of the fun out of the exercise, and hopefully learning a helpful lesson in being careful what one wishes for. Asserting underdog status is a delicate balancing act: you want to suggest that your man winning would entail a titanic upheaval of the natural order, thereby rendering any eventual victory all the more heroic and excusing any loss as wholly understandable. Yet you don’t want to quash hope entirely; there must be some faith in victory. You want to be self-diminishing, but not self-defeating.
As ever, the genuine interest resides in the early rounds, and fortunately the Monte Carlo draw has thrown up a few interesting matches to get thing rolling. Jerzy Janowicz faces Kevin Anderson, although the South African may well be spent, since he’s contesting the Casablanca final tomorrow. Fognini and Seppi could be one for the ages, although perhaps not one for all ages. Dimitrov should beat Malisse, but both of their careers have effectively destabilised any solid definition of the term ‘should’. Ditto for Dolgopolov, who should beat Tomic. I think Benneteau has an excellent chance at upsetting Raonic, and I’d put down Gulbis as the outright favourite against Isner. Kohlschreiber and Bellucci looks tempting on paper, but the German has seemingly not regained the full measure of his form and fitness, and Bellucci is still Bellucci.
There is also a fascinating qualifying draw already underway – some unlikely bagels were plated up today – and it’ll be intriguing to see where the seven victors surface into the main draw. One of them will face Monfils, and probably lose. Another will play Davydenko, and feasibly win. Thankfully, the first few rounds should give us enough to go on, before the top seeds take over, and the draw transforms itself into a conveyor belt delivering the expected result.
Still, for a rarity, I’m going to essay some bold predictions as to the eventual quarterfinals:
I can feel your astonishment from here, but, nonetheless, there it is. I’ve said it. Neither Florian Mayer nor Mikhail Youzhny will reach the last eight. I’m not happy about it.
Davis Cup, Quarterfinals
Having narrowly survived the treacherous eddies and rips of its opening two rounds, the 2013 Davis Cup has finally entered clear water down the home straight. The World Group semifinal line-up can now be made out, gathering detail as it drifts nearer. Serbia will host Canada, and Argentina, as they did last year, will face the Czech Republic, although this time they’ll likely face them on the banks of the Vltava. The World Group qualifying nations have also been decided, although until the draw occurs we can only guess at their configuration. Every nation assumes they will draw Spain, even as they hope they’ll meet Israel.
My hope that the quarterfinals would provide a more coherent viewing experience than the first round has been revealed as naïve. Canada only finished off Italy a few minutes ago, and already the weekend’s finer points are submerging themselves in the dark waters of general forgetting. I’ll try to note a few as their needle-like spires fitfully burst through the surging surface, before they recede astern and slip below forever, to be revisited only in nightmares, therapy or under hypnosis.
Argentina’s victory came at the expense of France, in the very stadium where they saw off Germany back in February. I feel like there’s a complicated point to be made there – something to do with World War Two – but I can’t quite grasp it. Carlos Berlocq was the hero of that earlier tie, a status he earned by claiming the opening rubber, and then advertised by tearing his t-shirt off in what has become a wearisomely common practice. Other than Hulk-like brawn and a surfeit of testosterone, I’m not entirely sure what this is supposed to signify. Given that Berlocq’s opponent, Philipp Kohlschreiber, had retired injured, and that it was merely the first match of the tie, some felt the Argentine’s reaction to be excessive. The delirious crowd at the Parque Roca felt otherwise.
Today was a different matter, though the venue was the same. This time Berlocq defeated Gilles Simon in a live fifth rubber, completing a dismal weekend for the Frenchman, who was reduced to tears by the end. Berlocq’s shirt never stood a chance. The locals, already losing their collective nut, immediately evaporated in a haze of pure ecstasy.
Jo Wilfried Tsonga was left in an unenviable position, having won both his matches yet not won the tie. Disappointment at his country’s capitulation must therefore be layered with satisfaction at his own fine performance on his least preferred surface in a hostile environment. He did everything he could, but they still lost. It’s no doubt a familiar sensation for star players in losing sports teams, but unusual for tennis players. David Ferrer knows how it feels, and probably has some useful tips on how to cope. A good night’s sleep on a bed made of money probably helps.
A 3-2 victory can be dissected any number of ways. At some level it’s unfair to say that Simon’s poor form placed undue pressure on the doubles team. If nothing else, it placed doubles right in the position where it should be in Davis Cup, which is that of the fulcrum around which the entire weekend pivots. Michael Llodra and Julien Benneteau surely fancied their chances, even on clay and away, but they were rightly wary of David Nalbandian, and whoever his plus one happened to be. If blame is to be apportioned – and it always is – I’d say Llodra and Benneteau deserve a fatter slice of it than Simon, although he could probably use the calories.
The Bryan Brothers, on the other hand, surely felt as surprised as I did when Nenad Zimonjic’s plus one turned out to be world No.1,150 Ilija Bozoljac. The USA – Serbia tie was locked at a rubber apiece, and the easy choice was to go with Novak Djokovic, who even after two matches would surely remain a lock to win the first of the reverse singles. But the Serbian captain Bogdan Obradovic insisted he’d never felt a moment’s doubt – it was to be Bozoljac all the way.
I’d never suggest the Bryans are anything less than consummately professional in their match preparation – as opposed to nauseating in their music – but they are the most successful doubles pairing in history, and currently ranked number one. While they’d fallen to Brazil in the opening round, that had been a shocking upset – which are by definition rare – in a near-empty barn in Jacksonville, in which the South American team appeared to have more support than the hosts. By contrast, the dense crowd within Boise’s Taco Bell Arena was a credit to the organisers, and supplied precisely the kind of febrile ambiance in which the twins typically thrive. (This has been statistically demonstrated; the volume of the home crowd has been indexed to the elevation at which the Bryans bump chests. In Boise, as the match entered its fifth hour, there was a real chance they’d hit the roof.)
But, somehow, it was the Serbian team that prevailed. Zimonjic was superb, especially on serve, but Bozoljac proved to be the real surprise. Insofar as many people have heard of him at all, he is known for losing his way on court, usually comprehensively, often histrionically, and occasionally hilariously. Yet on Saturday he remained utterly unflappable, even as the fifth set saw each team accumulate a dozen games each. Faced with the best doubles combination ever, knowing that a doubles loss would place his country in the unattractive position of relying on Viktor Troicki to win the deciding fifth rubber, Bozoljac actually seemed to be enjoying himself. Afterwards he insisted his faith in victory had never wavered. It was one of those moments that defines Davis Cup, in which a journeyman ranked outside the top thousand (in doubles) holds his place on court with three of the best doubles exponents on the planet, and achieves an outrageous victory for his nation.
One wonders whether Bernard Tomic’s excellent adventure in Uzbekistan will help to define him a little more generously, at least in the merciless gaze of the Australian media. As the great hope of a proud tennis nation fallen on hard times, Tomic is forced to endure more than his share of ecstasy and opprobrium from one day to the next. Last year when Australia failed to qualify for the World Group, falling to Germany, Tomic was the only man to win a rubber, yet it was upon him that the most lavish selection of ordure was heaped. He’ll probably never be well-loved, but those who seek to legitimise their antipathy by dubbing him ‘un-Australian‘ deserve to be reminded that he is now 10-2 in Davis Cup. This weekend Tomic won both his singles rubbers, including the clinching point against Denis Istomin. The other point was claimed by Lleyton Hewitt – whose every loss is merely a testament to his indomitable warrior spirit in the eyes of his nation – and Matthew Ebden. Once again the doubles was pivotal.
Some other quick notes: Milos Raonic is apparently unbeatable on Indoor Hardcourt Premier – the surface the Spanish federation once attempted to have declared illegal, before they won a tie on it – and by claiming both his singles matches has helped put Canada through to their first Davis Cup semifinal in history. They’ll face Serbia in Serbia, and it probably won’t be on an Indoor Premier court. It is supremely unlikely the Canadians will progress to their first ever final. But you never know – Djokovic could be injured.
Then again, it will hardly matter if he is. Today he rolled his ankle badly in the first set against Sam Querrey, came back to win it, lost the close second set in a tiebreaker, then took twelve of the next thirteen games to seal the tie. By all accounts – especially Djokovic’s own – the injury looks to be serious, and there’s a strong chance he’ll miss Monte Carlo next week. On the other hand, I’m not sure Querrey has any excuse. I’m sure he wasn’t as uninterested as he looked, but it was still a dispiriting way for a home tie to end.
Lukas Rosol won both singles matches in securing victory for the Czech Republic – there seems to have been a lot of that this weekend – who are of course the defending Davis Cup champions. Although on paper Kazakhstan was the most benign of potential quarterfinal opponents, even in Astana, things grew complicated when Tomas Berdych ruled himself out, and Radek Stepanek opted not to play singles. It only grew more complicated when Czechs lost the doubles (the only victorious team in the World Group to manage this rare feat). Also, the last time they played, in Prague, Kazakhstan was victorious, with Andrei Golubev playing as only he can, or can’t, as the case now is.
Which brings me to arguably the most stirring result of the weekend: Great Britain’s recovery from two rubbers down to defeat Russia. It was, of course, a Russia whose best players are aging, woefully short on form, and didn’t actually turn up. On the other hand, given the British squad lacked precisely one Andy Murray, Russia still began as the overwhelming favourites. Dimitry Tursonov and Evgeny Donskoy are both ranked in the top hundred, while Britain’s best available singles prospects – James Ward and Dan Evans – have rankings only expressible with scientific notation. Results did not defy expectations through the opening two days. Russia won both opening singles matches – although Donskoy, on debut, was compelled to recover a two set deficit – and Britain’s more accomplished pair made short work of Saturday’s doubles. Some have questioned Shamil Tarpichev’s decision to play young Victor Baluda, but it’s hard to see who else he might have picked that would have made a difference. Tarpichev is notorious for his occasional wily masterstrokes, but I suspect this was more a case of conceding the doubles and giving a young prospect valuable experience.
He should know better. The doubles – and I might have mentioned this before – is crucial. Suddenly, with their easy win, the Brits had momentum. Ward might have been crippled after blowing a two set lead on Friday, yet he opened the final day by recovering from two sets to one down to upset Tursonov. The tie was now locked at two rubbers apiece. The fifth rubber was between Donskoy, ranked No.80 and in his first Davis Cup tie, and Evans, ranked outside the top three hundred, and a five-tie veteran with an imposing record of 2-7. It wasn’t even close, which is fortunate, since Donskoy’s Davis Cup history is entirely composed of heroic two set recoveries, and Evans is not noted for maintaining form under pressure. The Russians were understandably despondent. The Brits were bouncing around in a vaguely amoebic cluster on the court. The British sporting public would have undoubtedly shared their team’s triumph, had they only known about it. Apparently it didn’t merit television coverage in Britain, or even a mention on the news.
Now Britain will get its shot at returning to the World Group, presumably with Murray available. I really hope they draw Spain; not because I’m mean-spirited, of course, or Australian, but because that would ensure it will be televised. I’m only interested in the good of the sport, and its profile in its land of origin. Trust me.
Miami Masters, Final
(2) Murray d. (3) Ferrer, 2/6 6/4 7/6
Andy Murray has won the Miami Masters 1000 title, in the process claiming his first trophy at this level in about eighteen months, reclaiming the number two spot from Roger Federer, and taking a hacksaw to David Ferrer’s enduring soul.The score tells us only that there was a third-set tiebreaker, which Murray won easily. It emphatically fails to mention that getting there required fifteen breaks of serve, wounded backs, cramped legs and crampier brains, almost five-score unforced errors, high drama and the most ill-advised challenge in the short history of Hawkeye. Murray happened to be the man standing at the end, although they’d both spent some time sprawled on the court earlier.
There’s a view that Ferrer, whatever his ranking, is clearly the fifth best player in the world. It’s an uncontroversial view, and heavily supported statistically and anecdotally. The iconoclast in me would love to say it’s nonetheless wrong, and that I have found irrefutable proof that Fabio Fognini is actually mankind’s great hope. But I can’t – the evidence for Ferrer keeps piling up. Consider this: at the last four Masters level events where only two of the Big Four turned up, Ferrer has reached the final at three of them (Shanghai 2011, Paris 2012, Miami 2013) while at the fourth one he himself didn’t play (Montreal 2012). Then again, he subsequently reached those finals after the higher ranked player was knocked out by someone besides himself: he has never defeated an elite player in a semifinal or a final, at any level. Today he at least came within an inch or two.
Shanghai 2011 is well-worth bringing up, since it marks the only other time Ferrer and Murray have contested a final, and because, over all, this edition of the Miami tournament has closely reproduced the contours of that earlier event. In both cases, as mentioned, only two of the sport’s four best players turned up: here Federer and Rafael Nadal are absent, whereas in Shanghai it was Federer and Novak Djokovic. In both cases there were a pair of unlikely semifinalists: Richard Gasquet and Tommy Haas this week, Feliciano Lopez and Kei Nishikori in Shanghai. And in both events the top seed fell early to a plucky German (Haas now; Florian Mayer then).
Haas of course fell to Ferrer in the semifinals in Miami, thereby kicking off the theme of the day, which was for the mercurial stylish player to establish an early lead, and then to see it ground inexorably to nothing. Haas is doubtless kicking himself for not holding his nerve better in that semifinal, since he would have fancied his chances against Murray today. Haas winning a Masters event at his age and with his history of injury, knocking off Djokovic en route, would have been the story of the year. Alas, he didn’t, so it is merely the story of the week. He led by a break in the third set, but couldn’t maintain it for long, thereby establishing another fascinating theme, which Murray and Ferrer today developed to its fullest extent, consequently exhausting its possibilities for later generations.
Of the fifteen breaks in today’s final, fully eight of them came in the final set. Most of them were sealed with errors, although a few of these errors at least came quickly, sparing viewers another interminable three-quarter pace rally. Murray’s back, which had seemed tight to open the match, became more of a factor as the third set wore on, especially on his serve. Meanwhile Ferrer was succumbing to cramps, and began scheduling a massage for each change of ends. Robbie Koenig and Jason Goodall, excellent as ever on the world feed, joined Murray in questioning the strict legitimacy of this. Astute fans might recall Stan Wawrinka employing a similar tactic at the Australian Open against Djokovic, although that at least had the benefit of ensuring a superb match wasn’t decided by a fatal cramp. For today’s final to have ended that way might have been a mercy killing.
Murray served for the title at 5/4, but the added tension, unsurprisingly, did not inspire him to elevate his level. He was far too passive, nursing his serve – his vertebra had by now fused – and duffing a couple of makeable passes. He was broken to 30. It was the last break of the afternoon. ‘It’s a different kind of drama to spectacular shotmaking,’ exclaimed Koenig, securing this week’s understatement award. Ferrer then held, availed himself of another leg-rub, and almost won the match.
Much has and will be written about the next game. Murray moved to 40-15, but then lost three points to fall down championship point. Another rally ensued. Murray went after a rare forehand, which Ferrer got back. Ferrer then halted play to challenge, apparently believing the ball had gone long. Hawkeye showed the ball catching the line, Ferrer lost the point, and with it the game and the match. My immediately response was that Ferrer’s reply to Murray’s forehand had been so feeble and short that Murray was probably going to knock off the next ball anyway, and that Ferrer had challenged because why not? Of course, both guys had just spent two and a half hours demonstrating their inability to put anything away, so perhaps there’s no reason to believe Ferrer was entirely out of the point.
Two further moments from earlier in this game should be noted, since they probably had some influence over Ferrer’s split-second decision to yank at his ripcord. Firstly, he’d tried to challenge at 15-15, but was told he’d taken too long, whereupon he and Cedric Mourier altercated briefly. (The television replay showed that Murray’s shot landed flush on the line.) Secondly, at 40-30 Murray went after a forehand to almost precisely the same spot, hit it long, then challenged unsuccessfully (and also bought himself time to change his sweatbands). I do wonder to what extent these points pushed Ferrer to his crucial challenge, and even whether it mattered. Afterwards Ferrer made it clear how much it did matter, precisely by emphatically refusing to talk about it. Murray held.
At this point CBS, the American network holding the rights to the last weekend of the Miami event, cut away to the NCAA basketball. The Miami coverage switched to the Tennis Channel, who were relaying the world feed. This was great news for those who subscribe to the Tennis Channel, but bad news for those who didn’t but remained curious to watch this final play out. Those of us labouring away in the rest of the world were left to wonder again at the weird American obsession with university-level sports. (I’ve had it explained to me, and I still don’t really understand it. I’m not aware of many other countries where such interest occurs. Having represented one of Australia’s largest universities at sport, I can personally attest that no one here cares at all.)
Anyway, in order to ensure this situation doesn’t recur, the Miami Masters final will next year commence earlier in the day. To put it another way, the top tennis players in the world are obliged to play a morning final in order to accommodate a university-level event. I could understand if it was the NBA play-offs. I also understand that tennis is a marginal sport in the States. But given this status, why CBS is interested in the first place? Perhaps they just like to feel involved. After all, they’ve resourcefully fucked up the US Open schedule for years.
Truth be told, those who missed the end didn’t miss much. That botched challenge accomplished something even Ferrer’s near-complete evisceration in the Acapulco final hadn’t – it broke something deep within him. Whether it was physical, mental or spiritual, I won’t speculate, but he mustered no further resistance. He collapsed to the court heavily after the sixth point of the tiebreaker, and two points later looked about as despondent as I ever seen him.
Murray, having romped through the tiebreak 7-1, looked almost apologetic, though not very much and not for long. After all, it’s hardly every day you win a Masters title, and it’s rare indeed to win one playing like that. Praise be for small mercies.
Miami Masters, Quarterfinals
(2) Murray d. (9) Cilic, 6/4 6/3
(8) Gasquet d. (4) Berdych, 6/3 6/3
The fourth and last quarterfinal at the Miami Masters 1000 was, for non-partisan interests, undoubtedly the most anticipated of the lot. Tomas Berdych is ranked number six, and seeded four. Richard Gasquet is ranked ten and seeded eight. Their head-to-head sat at four apiece. It was therefore disappointing that it commenced in a nearly-empty stadium. As primetime night matches go, it wasn’t a compelling advertisement for the sport or for the event.
By the time Gasquet flashed yet another backhand winner up the line to hold for 3/0 in the second set, capping a sequence of seven straight games, the stands had filled encouragingly. But the mood remained subdued, the noise rarely rose above a dull murmur, and the murmur only rose to fitfulness for the dead net-cord winners. All crowds love those. Kiss Cam strove but failed to enliven proceedings; many attending didn’t note the cue to snog their neighbour. This left us with the unusual spectacle of American sports fans appearing on a Jumbotron yet not instantly succumbing to capering lunacy.
Gasquet’s decisive run of games had begun when he trailed 2/3 in the first set, having narrowly eked out a pair of holds to get there. Berdych was holding easily, and his superior power off the ground was exposing Gasquet’s tactical shortcomings: the commentators had already commenced their usual dirge about the Frenchman’s remote court positioning. (In fact the Frenchman was only halfway towards the backboard, which for him qualifies as attack mode.) This tallied nicely with the strong pre-match sentiment that Berdych would win, although no one could say how comfortably he’d manage it. His form had been poor earlier in the week – barely surviving initial rounds against renowned hardcourt giants Daniel Gimeno-Traver and Alejandro Falla – but he seemed to be back nearer his imposing best, having dealt with Sam Querrey for the loss of just two games. He’d also defeated Gasquet quite comfortably just a fortnight ago in Indian Wells.
That sixth game proved to be Gasquet’s toughest hold yet, as he fended off a pair of break points. Berdych was spraying errors all over the place (except inside the court, obviously), but he was also hitting plenty of winners. The prediction in commentary was unanimous that he would overcome the former habit before the latter, and inevitably surge ahead. Then he was broken, and Gasquet entered that fey state he can only locate once or twice each year, when he anticipates everything, transitions seamlessly, regulates the depth and pace on his forehand properly, and generally can’t miss the court. Berdych continued portioning out errors and winners at a ratio of about two-to-one, was shut out entirely by Gasquet sliding serve to the ad court, and dropped his serve again to lose the set.
He looked numb at the sit-down, eyes unblinkingly intent on his own private horizon. Barry Cowan mentioned that Berdych had been seeing a mental coach, but was at pains to make clear that this wasn’t a sports psychologist. Sadly Cowan added no more, and I was left to ponder precisely what a mental coach is, and whether Berdych’s fixed stare reflected an esoteric focussing technique or merely shell-shock. Perhaps he’d established a telepathic link to his mental coach, although any advice he received over that link turned out not to be especially useful. He was broken again at Gasquet’s earliest convenience, in the second game of the next set. From there the Frenchman’s level never sagged and Berdych never stopped haemorrhaging errors (or indeed hitting winners). He was bellowing out his frustration by the later stages, surely in defiance of accepted mental coaching techniques.
The crowd had swelled to a more substantial level by the time Gasquet finally served it out. Given that a match I’d anticipated being close wasn’t, it could be argued that the crowd knew something I didn’t. In a way, perhaps they did. They knew that the match that truly interested them – the one involving Serena Williams – wasn’t due to start before 9pm local time, and that it was a relatively frigid evening in Miami. Why risk a chill for two guys you’ve barely heard of, even if they are in the top ten? I admit I have not personally verified this with each person there, but it’s a theory. It’s also a shame. Few could quibble at the desire to see the world number one (Williams) thrash the defending champion (Agnieszka Radwanska), but you’d think given the price of the tickets more fans would make the effort to see the earlier match as well, even if it wasn’t as sternly contested as we’d hoped.
Gasquet will face Andy Murray in the semifinals. Murray earlier defeated Marin Cilic, proving so dominant that he was broken twice yet still won easily. The only real interest came in the final games, when Cilic saved a half-dozen match points, but he was already down a set and several breaks by this time, so there was no cause for alarm anywhere but in the Sky Sports studio.
The head-to-head between Murray and Cilic is now 8-1 in the Scot’s favour. That lone upset occurred four years ago at the US Open, and it was predictably this match that was exhumed for our delectation, thereby enabling us to regard today’s encounter as some kind of revenge. In that vein I should point out that Gasquet beat Murray last year in Rome. Notwithstanding that Murray has met and defeated the Frenchman since then, I have no doubt he will once more seek the hot closure of vengeance.
Then again, perhaps it’s Gasquet seeking revenge. If he performs like he did tonight he may well get it. But that ‘if’ has become one of the more fraught qualifications in the sport, and I doubt even his ardent fans place much faith in Gasquet’s consistency any more. In full flight his game is a rare spectacle, and should be enjoyed for what it is. It’s well-worth the price of a ticket.
Andy Murray tomorrow plays his third promising youngster in a row. He’ll face Grigor Dimitrov in a widely anticipated Stadium Court encounter. The last time they met was in the Brisbane final in January (the heat and humidity will thus seem familiar). Yesterday Murray saw off Bernard Tomic quite comfortably. By some coincidence Murray and Tomic met in Brisbane last year. In the first round Murray easily accounted for the eminently defatigable William Bye, yet again. Murray and Bye seem to meet in Brisbane and Miami every year. Their fortunes are tightly wreathed.
William Bye is sometimes called Billy by his closest friends, and always called that by those passionate supporters who believe their searing regard confers a certain intimacy with a famous stranger they will probably never meet. The elusive Billy is especially hard to meet; he rarely grants interviews, and believes only important things should be said on social media, which means he has long since given up on it.
Bye’s country of origin is unknown. He is almost certainly not related to China’s Yan Bai. Occasionally he will be billed as Ukrainian – ‘Bye (UKR)’ – although this is surely incorrect, and merely due to broadcasters lazily assuming that Bye (UNK) is a typo. Mostly his nationality is simply left blank. Some whisper that he was born in international waters, on an abandoned oilrig that for a time saw use as a Megaupload server-farm. He will neither confirm nor deny this. There are rumours that he has been approached by Sweden with an offer of citizenship. By accepting this offer he would instantly become Sweden’s highest ranked player, and guarantee himself a spot on the Davis Cup squad. So far the Swede’s overtures have been rebuffed. Just because Bye hails from nowhere doesn’t mean he forgets where he’s from, or the rich tradition he incarnates.
While Bye himself is relatively new to the tour, he is the latest representative of a venerable lineage of also-rans, and his family’s near-exploits have fascinated writers for centuries. Ever one to champion the little guy, the Byes even tempted Shakespeare into occasional excursions into sports writing. This is presumably what Keats was referring to when he reflected on the unnecessarily high quality of Shakespeare’s ‘By-writing’.
The ‘e’, incidentally, was only added to the end of the family name late in the nineteenth century. This was the era of the Byes’ greatest triumphs, which predictably came on Wimbledon’s blessed turf. William Bye would regularly reach the semifinals at The Championships in those years, but could never quite manage to win through to the final, entirely due to the grace, power and skill of his perennial opponent William Renshaw. Billy and Willy would set the place alight – in those days the Centre Court turf was more flammable, but it was always Renshaw who wore the fancy asbestos pants.
Many of his devoted fans will remember the current Bye’s titanic tussle with Murray at Crandon Park two years ago. The Scot scraped through that match, but had little left in his tank for the subsequent round, falling to Alex Bogomolov Jr. This was admittedly Murray at his most vulnerable, in those years when his complicated post-Melbourne strategy involved losing every match until April. It was a missed opportunity for young Bye.
It was only last year that Murray broke out of this pattern. Having fallen early in Indian Wells to Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, Murray went on to reach the final of Miami a few weeks later, heavily assisted by a series of walkovers en route. These included Rafael Nadal in the semifinals, Milos Raonic in the third round, and of course Bye in the opening match. It was good news for Murray – essentially setting his feet on a path to Olympic and Grand Slam glory – but bad news for Bye. Still injured, he once again fell early in Monte Carlo, this time to Nadal. He just can’t catch a break.
Really, young Bye does suffer the most appalling fortune in such matters. Despite consistently reaching the main draw at Masters level, especially in America, he never fails to draw a seeded player in the first round. It really is rotten luck, and highlights the insidious Catch-22 beneath which the up-and-coming players must labour. In order to avoid seeds in the early rounds you need to be seeded yourself, which means a higher ranking, but in order to attain a higher ranking you need to win matches, which you can’t, because you’re always facing seeds early on.
Ryan Harrison is in something of a similar situation, and I think it would be mutually beneficial for these two to compare notes. Indeed, I wonder what would happen if they were to meet on court. Given Bye’s superior experience, I’d give him the edge. Plus Harrison has proven his capacity to lose to anyone for no reason, even if they come from nowhere.
Bye has yet to reach the main draw at a Major, but one suspects it’s only a matter of time. Given that the USTA is not shy of innovation, I predict his breakthrough will come at the US Open. Look for Bye to contest the first round in New York within a decade. In the meantime, his urgent task is to push further into the main draws at the Masters and smaller events. I think this a realistic goal. I believe we’ll see Bye in the second round at Masters level before too long. After all, if the intention of inviting Bye to contest the first round is to ease the top seeds’ passage through the draw, why stop there?
Update: I’ve been informed that Bye is already widely celebrated. His past exploits are celebrated here.
And thanks to Cindy, Bye’s official player profile is here. What have I wandered into?
Miami Masters, Second Round
The second round having commenced, the presiding powers at the Miami Masters have graciously allowed the cameras at the Crandon Park Tennis Center to be turned on. Around the world tennis fans were intrigued to discover that watching tennis matches unfold provides an even richer visual experience than following the scores on one’s smartphone.
Perhaps ‘rich’ is the wrong term. After all, as Borges, Empson and many others have pointed out, ambiguity derives not from certainty but from ambiguity, and there’s nothing as ambiguous as wondering how a sporting contest is unfolding merely by noting a few numbers ticking by. The imagination is free to populate the yawning gap between each score update with a phantasmagoria of one’s own devising. That was Miami’s gift to us, and to grumble overly at the lack of television coverage is to be churlish and ungrateful.
I personally enjoyed the moment when the feud between Michael Llodra and Benoit Paire erupted into violent mayhem, as they recreated several classic Road Runner episodes for the few people in attendance, culminating when the elder Frenchman dropped a grand piano on the younger man’s head. Paire, addled, refused to shake hands afterwards. With no vision, you can’t say it didn’t happen. Meanwhile I have it on some authority that James Blake’s victory over Ryan Harrison involved little actual tennis, but was called off when Blake beat the younger American half to death with his walking frame. Lleyton Hewitt progressed after defeating Joao Sousa in a spirited game of KerPlunk. Sadly, he lost to Gilles Simon today at tennis.
Actually, there has been word that there were already cameras running, providing streamed content for the media present on the grounds. The decision to withhold these streams from a global audience, without even shady television interests to ‘justify’ it, is coming to seem more capricious all the time. At least this year nothing truly momentous occurred, unlike last year when Fernando Gonzalez retired on the first evening. Apparently it was very moving.
Juan Monaco last year reached the semifinals in Miami, and thanks to an accommodating draw was lucky enough to have most of his matches shown on television. Like so many South Americans before him, Monaco was thrilled to discover that he enjoyed at least as much local support as those players who’d opted to be born in the United States, and that his supporters were far more accomplished in the thriving art of close-harmony, full-throated chanting. More of Miami’s population are born on foreign soil than any other US city. A sizable proportion of those are South American, a fact that both Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish were reminded of upon facing Monaco. Roddick, still hung over from defeating Roger Federer the round before – which biologists have confirmed to be the rarest species of Roddick there is – was bagelled by the Argentine. Fish was thrashed. Monaco even gave a decent account of himself against Novak Djokovic in the semifinals.
This semifinal run proved fundamental to his subsequent rise into the top ten. The 360 points he gained was the second best result of his season. By losing to Albert Ramos in the second round this year Monaco – on-site reports mention a Cloverfield-type monster was involved – he will fall four places to number eighteen. His form this year has been poor, and it’s hard to imagine he won’t sink considerably lower in the next six months.
It wasn’t the last time an Argentine was upset today, and nor was it the most surprising (Horacio Zeballos lost to Kevin Anderson). Juan Martin del Potro didn’t win his maiden Masters title in Indian Wells last week, although leading by a set and break he wasn’t miles away from doing so. But he did beat Andy Murray and Djokovic en route. According to the rules governing such things, he was permitted to take the next tournament off. There was a time when an actual title was required before one was allowed a catastrophic letdown the following week, but not any more. Now it is enough merely to have beaten a member of the top four. I suppose the principle is the same, though; enervated from conquering Everest, you cannot be expected to hurdle a mole hill.
Today that molehill was Tobias Kamke. I’ve long since given up expecting much from the German, and have progressed to the stage where I’m merely pleased by the rare moments when his aspirations towards shot-making result in him actually making shots. Today, faced with an inexcusably somnolent del Potro, he made plenty of them. From 2/5 down in the first set, Kamke won ten games to one, as well as a tiebreaker, and he did it by surpassing del Potro blow-for-blow, especially on the forehand side and often on the run. He wasn’t deflected from his course by a long rain delay in the second set – it justified the comparisons to Lukas Rosol – although the wait apparently depleted whatever scant reserves of energy del Potro had left, and raced to 5/0. The Argentine managed to grab a game, but any hopes of a fight-back – unlikely given his fatal lack of endeavour – came to naught. Kamke served the match out at love. This is the first time he’s reached the third round at Masters level. Expect a let-down next week.
If Kamke had earned the right to be compared to Rosol, Rosol soon disqualified himself from the same privilege. He managed just one game against Djokovic in a match that detained both men for rather less than an hour. Everyone could have retired earlier had the lights on the main stadium not failed for about half an hour during Maria Sharapova’s emphatic destruction of Eugenie Bouchard. They could have played on through the delay and it wouldn’t have made much difference, whether Sharapova was equipped with night-vision goggles or not.
Rosol doubtless would have preferred darkness as well, if only to ensure fewer witnesses. He might have also requested the television cameras be turned off (perhaps he was bewildered by having his match televised at all). At least then we could have imagined that the lopsided scoreline reflected a more intriguing contest than the one which actually unfolded, i.e. the usual one in which the world number one scourges his hapless opponent from the court. The Serb looked invincible. Of course, he isn’t. Del Potro proved that in Indian Wells, thus inspiring him to take the following week off. It’s a mark of respect, really. Rosol has therefore paid Rafael Nadal the ultimate compliment by taking nearly a year off.
Indian Wells, Final
(5) Nadal d. (7) del Potro, 4/6 6/3 6/4
Rafael Nadal today defeated Juan Martin del Potro in the final of the Indian Wells Masters. Since returning from injury he has compiled a record of 17-1, and won three tournaments, the most of anyone on tour. Overall, it was his 600th career victory, which moves to him to second on the list of active players (behind only Federer), and his twenty-second Masters title, which is now the record. He also returns, albeit briefly, to the top four. Nadal’s career has long since reached the point where the numbers will, if permitted, more or less speak for themselves.
Tempting though it might be to put that to the test, I should probably say a little more, or at least add a few more numbers. It was just del Potro’s second Masters series final – the first came in Canada in 2009, where he lost to Andy Murray – which is one of those facts that I still find surprising even though I already know it. He has never won one, which places him in a strange category of men who’ve won Majors without winning a Masters, a category that includes the likes of Gaston Gaudio and Yevgeny Kafelnikov. Of course winning these things isn’t easy. In the last three years there have been twenty-seven Masters titles contested (nine per season), and all but three were won by members of the top four (and two of those were won by world number fives at the Paris Indoors). Of the remaining twenty-four, eight were won by Novak Djokovic, seven by Nadal, five by Roger Federer and four by Andy Murray.
But even reaching a Masters final is an achievement of which to be proud. Aside from the top four, only David Ferrer (three) and Tomas Berdych (two) have managed it more than once in the last three years, and they are currently ranked numbers five and six, respectively. The problem, of course, is that even to reach the final more often than not a player must beat two members of the top four, which is precisely what del Potro did in the last few days, on both occasions recovering from a set down. It was heroic, but it had its consequences.
Winning today’s final would have required he defeat Murray, Djokovic and Nadal consecutively. It was little wonder that by the deciding set of today’s match his legs looked gone. Given that even the ESPN commentators had noted it, there was little chance that the Argentine had missed the signs. It meant that he had little chance of reprising the pattern from the first two sets, which was for the man who fell down an early break to storm back and take it. He went down an early break, and watched the title melt away.
Some two and half hours earlier, Nadal flew to a relatively rapid 3/0 lead in the opening set, before the rangefinder on his forehand went haywire due to papal intervention. Del Potro meanwhile dialled his forehand up to its usual frightening pace, and broke back, then broke again and served out the set with perfect authority. Worryingly for Nadal’s fans, their man opened the second set with another tentative forehand error – by this point neither man had struck a backhand winner, or indeed many backhands at all – and he was broken again shortly thereafter. Del Potro moved to 3/1 and appeared well on the way to a maiden Masters title. Nadal lifted, and of his forehand shed its reticence. He broke again and closed out a second set that was nearly a mirror of the first.
From there it was what the commentators like to call a one set shoot-out, with the attendant belief that the match was now evenly poised. Even leaving to one side the question of momentum, which would surely have been with Nadal, there was the issue of fitness. Del Potro’s stamina is commendable given his size, but even rested he is hardly a match for Nadal in the area, and the Argentine had already outlasted the two best hardcourters in the world in the last few days. Nadal commenced the final set with a backhand winner – from memory it was his first – and then broke del Potro again, establishing a lead he would never relinquish. The Argentine’s serve grew meeker (by the later stages his first deliveries were only rarely clearing 110mph), while the Mallorcan’s forehand grew more ferocious and less inclined to miss. Del Potro would inevitably fall farther behind as each point wore on, forced back and to his left, until by the end he was conceding any short into the open court. He saved three match points on his own serve at 3/5, but none on Nadal’s serve the following game. A final weary forehand fell wide, and Nadal collapsed onto his back, arms quivering tautly skyward and throat opened full throttle. This Masters title meant a lot to him. They somehow mean more the more you have, and he has more than anyone.
At the risk of sounding prophetic after the fact, I suspect I harboured fewer doubts than Nadal that he would reascend to his erstwhile level quite soon after returning to the tour. If only for the purposes of discussion, it is useful that he faced del Potro today, since it is with del Potro that a useful comparison can be made. Del Potro’s wrist injury at the beginning of 2010 removed him from the tour for an entire season (apart from an aborted comeback attempt in Bangkok). Immediately prior to his injury he’d reached the final of the Tour Finals, and slightly before that won the US Open. After returning he seemed to take an eternity to get going again, and his fans waited seemingly in vain for him to recapture to his previous form, notwithstanding early titles in Delray Beach and Estoril. Some profess still to be waiting, although I frankly think he has already returned to his original standard, which was a fairly imposing one on a good day, and one that could blow anyone away on a great one. He’d enjoyed a few very great days at the 2009 US Open, but then I think the suddenness of his disappearance invited fans to believe that he’d once played like that all the time, which certainly wasn’t the case. Happily, he’s been closer to that level this week in Indian Wells, but the Australian Open surely taught us that these things can change without warning.
But anyway, the longer point was that serious injuries take a long time to recover from. In the rather nebulous parlance of these things, a player must regain match fitness, and test out the (hopefully) recovered body-part in a real conditions. Del Potro still has persistent problems with his left wrist; even today he was having trouble hitting his backhand, especially early on. He is learning to manage it. Nadal’s case is different. Before his seven month break, he was already a better tennis player than nearly everyone else in the world, day in and day out. He had also played with troublesome knees for years. Unlike del Potro’s wrist, Nadal has learned long since not to be distracted by his knees during play. Assuming he retained sufficient mobility to enable his forehand to do its work, I couldn’t see any reason why he wouldn’t be back near top form sooner rather than later.
Admittedly, I hadn’t predicted he would win Indian Wells – just as I hadn’t expected Federer to be injured, or for Djokovic to fold so acutely in his semifinal – but I did think he’d clean up in South America and Mexico. I confess I hadn’t really considered who would win today – sometimes I completely forget to make any prediction, even in my head – although I believed that a del Potro victory would have to come quickly if it was to come at all. (The ATP website had displayed no such ambivalence. It was apparently so convinced that the Argentine would triumph that it posted the result early, a move akin to pre-taping the weather report.)
It would be wilful for anyone to go on expressing much anxiety at Nadal’s prospects for the next part of the season, or to insist that his ‘comeback’ still requires delicate care lest it collapse beneath the weight of expectation, if not over-confidence. I think people can afford to worry less on his behalf, and worry more for his opponents, especially with the clay season imminent. Nadal will skip the Miami Masters next week, which will return him to number five in the rankings, but after that I refuse to see him as anything but the overwhelming favourite in Monte Carlo, and beyond.
Indian Wells, Quarterfinals
(1) Djokovic d. (8) Tsonga, 6/3 6/1
(7) del Potro d. (3) Murray, 6/7 6/3 6/1
Idle hopes that the second pair of Indian Wells quarterfinals would prove more interesting than the first grew forlorn after today’s first match, although I suppose this depends on one’s definition of ‘interesting’. If you’re fascinated by groups of highly partisan tennis fans losing their minds on social media, then last night’s disappointing encounter between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer had it all. (I’m not particularly interested in that, although I will register dull wonder at how incensed some people become at the differing opinions of others around trivial matters.) Fans of public executions no doubt appreciated Novak Djokovic’s flawless fifty-four minute thrashing of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Sky Sports was my provider of choice for today’s matches, partly because their streams are of reasonable quality, but mostly due to Andy Murray’s presence on the order of play. My firm belief is that the spectacle of professional tennis is only heightened when it is accompanied by a deranged cheer-squad.
I don’t mean to suggest that Sky does nothing but cheer for Murray. After all, sometimes they’re obliged to show matches that don’t involve him. They’re careful to bring in a non-British commentator for these encounters, to lend the affair a suitably cosmopolitan feel. Peter Fleming had come all the way from America. Absolved of the need to be partisan, he could merely be inscrutable: ‘I don’t think Tsonga has done enough to throw caution to the wind. He’s just been a little reticent to throw everything at the wall.’ It was a hard point to argue with, at least until I’d deciphered it. I think it meant that Tsonga was too reluctant to be reckless. He needed to be more reckless about being reckless. Or perhaps he needed to be more reckless about that. It didn’t help that even as Fleming spoke Tsonga was ploughing a sequence of insufficiently reckless forehands into the lower half of the net. When your safe game is producing extravagant errors, there’s no reason to believe greater abandon is the key. Still, perhaps it was a question of intent.
Cutaway shots of Tsonga’s coach Roger Rasheed gave little away. I imagine he was preoccupied with the effort of distilling this debacle into a psychotically positive message. If anyone is going to manage it, he’s the man. (It’s a quality he shares with North Korea’s military regime.) You can always tell with him – it’s in his chewing. Today he clearly had his special tweeting gum in. His eyes remained hidden behind sunglasses, but I like to believe they were closed, enabling perfect stillness while he composed the perfect hashtag.
Fleming was the only one among Sky’s assembled luminaries who had much to say about the match at all. Marcus Buckland, who apparently lives in the Sky studio, didn’t bother with the link man’s usual job, which is to sustain interest even when the match turns out to be a dud: ‘Totally predictable so far,’ he remarked after the first set. He asked Mark Petchey if he thought it was totally predictable. Petch concurred that it was totally predictable. They were totally killing time until Andy Murray took the court. This wasn’t due to occur for another hour and a half, but they knew they could fill the gap with replays of the Scot’s past triumphs.
Djokovic thereafter grew only more magnificent, and finished with the astonishing ratio of twenty-one winners to just six errors. Sky was contractually obligated to provide some kind of post-match analysis, and hastily arrived at the conclusion that the result had hinged on Tsonga’s tactical shortcomings. Admittedly these are legion, but I’m not convinced they were decisive today. When the better tennis player plays as well as he can, he invariably wins, and right now Djokovic is unquestionably the best tennis player in the world. Tsonga could have channelled the enmeshed spirits of Napoleon and Hannibal, and he might have made it closer. But he would have done better to hit more of his forehands in, especially the reckless ones.
Having disposed of all this unpleasantness, Sky brought us some more in the form of Carlos Berlocq’s apparently notorious grunt. This was a clear improvement from their point of view, since it permitted them to express righteous outrage. Surprisingly their feelings on this tedious matter aligned perfectly with Murray’s, which was that the Argentine’s grunt is excessive. This ate up a bad ten minutes, and left enough time for an extended highlights package from the final of the 2009 Cincinnati Masters, between Murray and Juan Martin del Potro. Apparently the ideal way to prepare for an extended hardcourt tussle between two guys is by watching the same two guys on a different hardcourt several years earlier.
Eventually this gave way to live tennis, expertly narrated by Andrew Castle and Barry Cowan. By 3/3 in the first set Castle declared this to be the best of the Indian Wells quarterfinals, and you didn’t need to be British to agree. I seem to be in a minority of tennis fans in that I quite enjoy Castle’s work. His delivery is fine, he’s sufficiently opinionated and won’t let idle idiocy from his booth-mate pass by without interrogation, and his flights of fancy are generally well calculated.
For better or worse, I can hardly recall the titanic climax of the 2008 Wimbledon Final’s fourth set tiebreaker, as Nadal then Federer produced outrageous shots to gain then save championship point, without hearing Castle’s response: ‘The two best passing shots of the tournament – without doubt - have just taken place on the last two points. It’s eight-all. What’s next?’ He started out solidly today, easily talking rings around Cowan, although his equanimity sagged as del Potro gained a break in the second set, and displayed no interest in giving it back: ‘He’s not choking; he’s not getting uptight! Why not?!’ Though probably intended ironically, it sounded a trifle petulant. Cowan, who’d astutely backed the Argentine, offered no answer.
It was the first time Murray and del Potro had faced each other since the end of 2009, and this is the first tournament the Scot has played since the Australian Open. Nevertheless, the belief was fairly widespread that he’d win. This belief seemed justified as he claimed a densely-textured first set, winning the key points by targeting del Potro’s backhand. The Argentine was unusually reluctant to bring his mighty forehand into play. This changed in the second set, and he started to venture forward more. Indeed they both did, although back in the Sky studio they made it clear that only their man had any business up there. Petchey later delivered the entirely backhanded compliment that del Potro ‘volleys well when he can get his racquet on the ball’. He got his racquet on enough. By the third set still hadn’t faced a break point, owing mostly to prowess off the ground, since his serve numbers were hardly stellar.
Murray finally achieved a couple of break points early in the third, but didn’t appear to realise how valuable they were, leaving them untended, whereupon a gleeful del Potro snatched them back. Murray was broken in the following game, and it was hard to say it wasn’t a mental let down, and that he hadn’t been distracted by the missed opportunity, a feather on the soul. Murray was broken again to close the match, sealing it with a double fault. It was still the best of the quarterfinals, but for a match that had started out so strongly, it was strange for the way it just melted into air. The issue was probably match-play, which Murray sorely lacks, and del Potro’s forehand, which grew almost uncounterable as the match wore down. ‘He has a big game,’ remarked Murray in his press conference, ‘and when he strings it together he’s a top, top player.’
‘Probably not the result we were all looking for,’ admitted Buckland back in the studio. The Sky coverage presumably wasn’t going to Argentina.
During the final set, querulous messages appeared from several senior British journalists on Twitter. Firstly David Law remarked that: ‘Following Twitter during big televised matches I’m learning commentators can’t say anything right.’ Richard Evans responded: ‘Commentators are such easy targets for people who have never done the job.’ I have no idea whose comments they were responding to (certainly not mine), but I’ll still make some general points, since it has a bearing on the theme of today’s post, which is nationalism in commentary.
Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that social media, and Twitter in particular, entertains a very heavy selection bias in this respect (and in all respects, which is why it is so questionable as a metric for measuring popularity, let alone value). The nature of the medium is such that you are far more likely to hear about bad commentary than good. Ninety-five per cent of commentary is at worst unremarkable, but it is the remaining five per cent that will be aggregated onto your timeline. People are more likely to praise a commentator or coverage overall, but will only very rarely relay a specific moment of commentary they liked.
To an extent this perception is compounded because most of the people who are likely to be commenting on Twitter during a professional tennis match probably have little need for commentary anyway. They would certainly miss it if it wasn’t there, since it has become part of the furniture of sports coverage, but it provides little informational value for those who know the game well. Tennis isn’t that complicated, and there is usually broad agreement about what is going on most of the time. The knowledgeable often only notice commentary when it’s missing, or when the commentators are wrong or biased. Indeed, this is the reason why I seek it out.
Secondly, just because most people have never or will never commentate doesn’t disqualify them from having an opinion. If that were the case then bad commentary would drift almost beyond reproach. Especially in an age of specialisation, the contention that you shouldn’t criticise someone because you couldn’t do their job better is specious. Thirdly, the validity of criticism is not predicated on how easy or hard it was to make. Yes, it is indeed easy to criticise.
I am not accusing Sky Sports of patriotic bias towards Murray. Surely the matter is beyond question, and I cannot imagine their coverage is intended to sound any other way. They know their market, and their market is British. They are currently running a poll in which viewers are invited to name the male tennis player they miss most. Tim Henman is the clear number one (although I’m deeply impressed to see that Fabrice Santoro is at number six). Indeed, I imagine that any effort towards greater neutrality would be looked on unkindly by management. I’m not suggesting it is even especially cynical – although it might be – merely that those speaking on air are permitted the ful range of their pleasure or disappointment when the local hope triumphs or loses. Like it or not, such policies are unlikely to change.
I don’t particularly like it, and I will go on poking fun.
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