Spring Break


No posts on The Next Point this week. I’d apologise, but I’m having too lovely a time at the beach (beach pictured, lovely time implied). There’s some internet, but not enough to enable the viewing of professional tennis. There were some kids playing down at the local courts earlier, but I’m going to assume no one wants me to review that. For the record the boy with the terrible haircut lost to his big sister, and afterwards told her she played like an inspired junior.

Actually, now that I think of it, my week has not been entirely tennis free. For those fans who maintain that there is not and has never been such a thing as the big four, and that even if there was Andy Murray was not part of it, the small coastal town of Anglesea, Victoria has provided incontrovertible proof. Not only is there a big four, but they apparently co-own a holiday park, and it’s on Murray Street. I ambled down to take a look, but was stopped at the gatehouse, which was manned by David Ferrer. I was politely yet  firmly informed that the big four’s holiday park is not for the likes of me.


Filed under Placeholders

The Drums of War

Davis Cup, World Group Playoffs and Semifinals

Which maniac’s idea was it to schedule the Davis Cup semifinals for the week after the US Open? Even in the best years the turnaround is cruelly brief, a situation roughly analogous to Europe’s after the Great War, when a continent that had narrowly survived the most devastating conflict in world history began tentatively to haul itself from the abyss, only to be dragged back down by an influenza pandemic a year later. DC Aus Pol 2013 Celebrations GETTYI don’t think that’s overstating the case. It’s probably even worse for the players.

If anything the situation is more serious for tennis than it was for war-ravished Europe, since ridiculous Monday finals in New York ensure even less opportunity for recovery. (Rafael Nadal was still doing the media rounds in Manhattan even as his compatriots assembled in Madrid to rehearse Tomás Luis de Victoria’s great motet To Have Any Chance We’ll Have To Play Our Best. Given they were facing Ukraine, it somehow came off as even more ironic than usual.) It’s as though the signing of the Treaty of Versailles had to be pushed back six months, to ensure a spot on CBS’s Spring schedule. Although I cannot say for certain that the current situation will lead irretrievably to another world war, I can vaguely imply it. Rest assured I’ll wax pretty smug if it comes to pass.

Indeed, there are further intimations that global conflict is not far off. I’ve mentioned it before, but it is surely no coincidence that Australia defeated the United States in the Davis Cup finals of both 1914 and 1939. It is thus with a certain anxiety that one notes Australia’s return to the World Group for the first time in seven years, having ravaged a depleted Poland over the weekend. All eyes will be fixed on the draw for next year’s tournament, to see where Australia and the USA fall. It’s probably a long shot that they’ll meet in the final, though it isn’t an impossibility given the rate and apparent certainty with which Nick Kyrgios, according to his self-devised slogan, is rising. There’s also Bernard Tomic.

Tomic was Australia’s hero this weekend, inasmuch as heroism was required. He won both his singles matches, just as he had against Uzbekistan in the previous round, although this achievement will inevitably be downplayed. The cherished narrative of Tomic as feckless wastrel has by now become so established in its course that no number of Davis Cup victories will divert it. Recall last year’s World Group qualifying tie against Germany, when Tomic won Australia’s only singles rubber, in contrast with Lleyton Hewitt, who won none. The official line ran that Hewitt was a venerable warrior still giving his all for his country. Meanwhile every Australian tennis luminary with a platform took the opportunity to decry Tomic’s lack of resolve, from Pat Rafter and Tony Roche courtside, to John Fitzgerald back in the studio. If anything, Tomic is held in such low regard, even here in Australia, that his exceptional record when representing his nation actually blights the Davis Cup. You can imagine what will happen when he defeats Ryan Harrison in the fifth rubber of next year’s final, annulling the ANZUS Treaty at a stroke. Thanks a bunch, Bernie.

Anyway, Australia wasn’t the only nation to progress to the 2014 World Group. Spain managed it, to no one’s surprise, defeating Ukraine 5-0 in the Caja Magica. Sadly the clay was an uninspired red, but really they could have contested the tie on pink ice cream and it wouldn’t have affected the result. The Dutch squad inflicted commensurate misery on Austria, who ran out of players and were forced to wheel out Archduke Franz Ferdinand for the last match, bestowing new meaning on the term ‘dead rubber’.

Germany had almost as easy a time disposing of Brazil. There’s a complicated joke lurking somewhere in there. Given what’s coming, I won’t be surprised if they draw the Czech Republic in the first round next year. Great Britain is also through, mainly because of Andy Murray. If history is any guide, then a strong British team will be essential in the dark years ahead. Japan came from behind to beat Columbia at home, while Israel lost from in front against Belgium away. Amir Weintraub has made his name with desperately fought Davis Cup wins and losses. There something about the format that agrees with him. It could be the team environment, though it’s probably more the rare freedom that comes from having other people worry about sundry irritants like food and accommodation, not to mention access to a coach. He battled to an inspiring victory over Ruben Bemelmans on the first day, finishing 10/8 in the fifth. (It was a 10/8 in the fifth kind of day.) Sadly he lost the deciding rubber to Steve Darcis in a quick and decisive manner. Darcis, it must be said, was superb this weekend.

Meanwhile, the semifinals proved all over again that although the final score may be the statistic that matters most, beyond the result it can obscure as much as it reveals. Both victorious nations eventually reached 3:2 scorelines, but they travelled there along wildly divergent paths. The Czech Republic, cruising on a futuristic hydrofoil of uncertain origin, had pulled so far ahead of Argentina’s squad that there was no chance they’d be overtaken. Jaroslav Navratil’s mullet streamed out magnificently in his wake, flanked on either side by his chief enforcers: the stern-faced replicant Tomas Berdych, and the wizened homunculus Radek Stepanek. The remainder of the team were confined below-decks, working the bilges, before they were released on the third day and summarily tossed overboard as consolation prizes for the rapacious Argentines trailing astern. This was sold to Jiri Vesely as ‘experience’. Dead third days are the worst part of Davis Cup. For all that I’m not an advocate of wholesale change to the competition’s format, I pray that any change that does come addresses that problem.

Serbia entered the home straight trailing Canada, although there was no immediate reason to panic given Novak Djokovic was to kick proceedings off. He wasn’t facing Nadal – he hadn’t faced Nadal in days – and thus could be relied upon to win. He did. It thus all came down to Janko Tipsarevic and Vasek Pospisil. Either man represents a slender thread from which to suspend national hopes. But for all that Tipsarevic has waned sharply of late, while Pospisil is rising with even greater urgency than Nick Kyrgios, you’d suspect the Serb would see it through, given the not inconsequential advantages of superior experience, the clay surface and a home crowd. So it proved. Pospisil fought his heart out, although unlike his ankle at least his heart remained more or less intact. He fell heavily on the last point, stabbing at a desperate volley. Tipsarevic ran the ball down, put it away, and joined his opponent on his knees. It was a useful study in contrasts. Pospisil’s teammates rushed over to see if he was okay. Tipsarevic’s teammates rushed over and jumped on him. And why not? They’re through to face the defending champions in what will undoubtedly be the last peacetime Davis Cup final of the modern era. The fog of war descends, the drums of war boom forth, and the clichés of war are endless.


Filed under Davis Cup


US Open, Final

(2) Nadal d. (1) Djokovic, 6/2 3/6 6/4 6/1

Rafael Nadal tonight defeated Novak Djokovic to win his second US Open title, continuing a return to the men’s tour that has surely surpassed even the secret hopes of his most ambitious fans. It has been a comeback to beggar belief, an opinion I’ll continue to maintain despite the fact that Greg Rusedski agrees with it. If anything, Rusedski went further, and summarily declared it to be the greatest comeback in sporting history. One questions both the length and breadth of his historical perspective, given he’d earlier insisted the match was well on the way to becoming the greatest US Open final ever played. It certainly wasn’t that, though it undeniably had its moments. Mike Stobe/Getty Images North AmericaThe longest of these moments was a 54-stroke rally destined to pad out innumerable highlights packages. The best of them came at the very end as Nadal collapsed in ecstasy to the court, victorious in New York once more.

First some numbers, which can as ever be relied upon to render the achievement excitingly comprehensible. This US Open is Nadal’s thirteenth Major overall, which moves him to third on the all-time list of titlists, one ahead of Roy Emerson, and trailing only Roger Federer and Pete Sampras. Since returning to the tour in February he has contested thirteen events, reaching the final at all but one of them (Wimbledon), and winning the title ten times. (This incidentally equals the number of titles Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has won in his entire career). He has won sixty matches, easily the most on tour, and lost just three. Today he became just the third player ever to sweep the main events comprising the US summer, meaning Canada, Cincinnati and the US Open (the other two men were Andy Roddick in 2003, and Pat Rafter in 1998). Overall Nadal has compiled an astonishing 22-0 record on hardcourts this year, and hasn’t technically lost a hardcourt match since Indian Wells last year.

Nadal’s previous US Open title came in 2010, although I’ll court opprobrium and suggest that today’s title is more convincing, insofar as the convincingness of tournament victories is something that can or should be measured. There was a prevailing sense that his first title, for all that it completed his career Grand Slam, was a testament to opportunism. The fast New York decoturf was generally held to be his worst surface. Meanwhile the two best hardcourters at the time – Federer and Djokovic – had fought each other to a standstill in the late semifinal, after Nadal had already breezed past a wearied Mikhail Youzhny, having faced no one more threatening before that. Realistically his path to this year’s final hasn’t been much more taxing: replace Verdasco with Robredo, and a tired Youzhny with a blown Gasquet. The difference is that this time round Nadal was deservedly one of the pre-tournament favourites, and, given his recent results and form, it is perverse to pretend he is now anything but entirely suited to outdoor hardcourts. Favourites always have an easier draw, since by definition they rarely face anyone they are not expected to defeat. He had a favourable US Open draw for the same reason he has favourable draws at Roland Garros: because he earned it.

Nadal might have been a favourite, but he was by no means unbackable, especially when facing the other favourite. Djokovic is still the world number one, even if it is now a rare day that he recaptures the form of his majestic 2011 season, and rarer still to see him sustain it outside of Australia. It’s been the pattern of his year, and it was his pattern in tonight’s final. When Djokovic played at his best, and more importantly, when he thought at his best, he was the better player. But he couldn’t keep it up. Nadal began exceptionally well, once more employing the tactic that had served him well in the French Open semifinal, of pressing hard up the line with his forehand early in the rallies, invariably catching Djokovic out. Djokovic also reprised his strategy from Paris, which was to eschew tactical clarity of any sort, and to avoid the authoritative backhand up the line that once ranked among the sport’s most fearsome shots. The two players combined for a one-sided 6/2 first set.

The change came in the second set, and it had little to do with Nadal, who continued to strike his forehand ferociously. Suddenly he was having fewer of them to hit, and he was increasingly obliged to hit them from less stable positions. Djokovic hadn’t started to strike the ball better, but he was now directing it far more intelligently, which enabled him to control the rallies. Then, having established himself, he did start to strike the ball better, and abruptly revealed the fearsome version of himself from two years ago, the one who would patiently pummel Nadal backhand until it cracked, and who would only bring the Spaniard’s forehand into play at a moment of his choosing. Djokovic romped through the latter stages of the second set, and moved ahead a break in the third.

Then inexplicably, he abandoned this winning game-plan, and fell back into patternless hitting. Why he did so, one cannot imagine. Nadal’s backhand isn’t a poor shot by any standards – even when he isn’t hitting it that well it remains solid, and today he was hitting it well – and perhaps it doesn’t feel so gentle when it’s coming at you. But it certainly doesn’t measure up to his forehand. More importantly, it doesn’t measure up to Djokovic’s forehand, which is the match up that matters, or would have mattered if Djokovic had only maintained it. It would be useful to see Hawkeye data on Djokovic’s groundstroke placement for that period when he was ascendant, as compared to his placement for the rest of the match. I suspect it would be sufficiently revealing that even he as a player might take notice. Certainly it would tell us more than unforced errors, of which Djokovic hit several hundred. Alas, the presiding powers keep their data close, preferring to use them to generate complicated metrics of use to nobody.

Nadal is probably the best player I have ever seen at sustaining apparently mortal blows yet remaining unbowed, having proved his resilience in countless matches, especially against Federer. He knows in his bones that while anyone can ascend to stratospheric heights for a time, even the very best must come down for oxygen eventually. If they don’t, then well-played to them, but if they do . . . Djokovic had been soaring into orbit, but the moment his throat constricted, Nadal leaped forward, and planted his foot on it. I suspect this made it hard to think clearly. With his mind gone, Djokovic’s body soon followed. Before long he was spraying balls everywhere, and was broken again to drop the set. The fourth set wasn’t close, although considering the 6/1 scoreline it wasn’t especially short either. But it wasn’t too long before Nadal was accepting Djokovic’s heartfelt congratulations at the net, while 20,000 onlookers screamed affectionately at them. Nadal moves to an impressive 13-5 in Major finals, while Djokovic falls to 6-6.

CBS had its usual way with the trophy presentation, just as they’d had their way with the schedule. Having learned the lesson of the 2009 final, after which Juan Martin del Potro selfishly attempted to address his supporters in Spanish, the tournament’s broadcaster ensured today’s ceremony was as brief as it was devoid of interest. The whole thing was over in about five minutes. In Melbourne the indefatigable Kia spokesman would have barely begun his vocal warm-ups. Neither Djokovic nor Nadal bothered to dignify Mary Carillo’s inane questions with anything like an answer. Nor did they manage to look more than mildly appreciative as the lavish cash prizes were rapturously announced. Nadal bit into his silverware, and loyal American viewers were whisked away to confront the recurring enigma of Two and a Half Men (now that the smartarse kid has grown up, the enduring mystery of the show’s popularity has been augmented with confusion over which of them is actually the half-man).

Those of us lucky enough to be watching on alternative networks weren’t let off so lightly. Sky Sports had assembled its entire team on the court, though they were still one microphone short. Nadal wandered over for a chat, and hit all his marks: gracious, thoughtful and clearly keen to be elsewhere. Asked if he was going to take a rest now he responded with a chuckle that he had Davis Cup, and then ambled away. After he’d left Rusedski lamented that they hadn’t asked him whether he thought he would overtake Federer’s Major title record. I can’t imagine what Rusedski thinks Nadal’s response might have been.

The more pressing issue is when he’ll overtake Djokovic. The Serb will still be world number one when the rankings are released next week, regardless of what happens in Davis Cup, and the week after that. The change will likely come in Asia, assuming Nadal bothers to play, or maybe even if he doesn’t. Indeed, given he has precisely zero points to defend until February, Nadal enjoys the enviable luxury of being able to choose when and where he retakes the top spot. It must be a pleasant thought. Then again, one imagines that having emphatically claimed his thirteenth Major title, Rafael Nadal hardly requires another reason to feel joy.


Filed under Grand Slams

Going Medieval

US Open, Semifinals

‘He’s gone medieval!’

The medieval moment came as Stanislas Wawrinka finally caved into mounting pressure, having been broken early in the fourth set of his US Open semifinal against Novak Djokovic. Momentarily lost to frustration, Wawrinka twice hurled his Yonex VCore Tour 97 against the court surface with sufficient force to crack the frame in several places. Apparently dissatisfied with the thoroughness of the job, he bent it further around his knee and tossed it to the side of the court. Enric Molina issued a point penalty, having earlier bestowed a code violation when Wawrinka launched a ball into the stands. Sky Sports, having failed to note the earlier warning, commenced an elaborate sequence of musings as to why a mere racquet smash merited a point deduction, culminating in Mark Petchey’s declaration, quoted above, that Molina had lost the plot. Al Bello/Getty Images North AmericaIt says a great deal about the gentility of tennis that its version of going medieval is to issue a putatively excessive point penalty. One suspects Marsellus Wallace had something further in mind for the men who’d violated him in Pulp Fiction.

Sky Sports tends to receive rough treatment on The Next Point – no doubt this has been the subject of crisis-meetings among their management – and so I should concede that on the whole they’ve done an admirable job in the two long days since Andy Murray’s ignominious exit. This is a shame. The Scot’s loss has regrettably lessened the flow of high comedy for which the English broadcaster is famed, which is admittedly the real reason why I tune in. (For those craving measured insight, Frew McMillan was querulously murmuring away on Eurosport, as ever giving the impression that viewers just happened to be overhearing his private monologue, like Hamlet. They were also running ads for the same Yonex frame that Wawrinka had so expertly disintegrated, featuring the Swiss player in a gentler mood. I admit I didn’t hear how Frew handled the racquet smash. For all I know it inspired a vehement tirade against the tyranny of umpires. Probably not, though.) Still, even with Murray gone, Sky usually brings a laugh or two.

It also brought the unusual sight of host Marcus Buckland standing out on location, as opposed to his usual position seated in the studio. I’d previously assumed he was permanently attached to the anchor’s chair, the result of a prank featuring industrial adhesive, and that on those rare occasions when Annabel Croft fronted the coverage she made do with back-up furniture. But today Buckland was to be seen loitering on his own feet out on the Arthur Ashe court. Croft was there with him, as was Boris Becker, though the two of them were forced to share a single microphone, presumably an austerity measure. This presumption was borne out a short while later when they were joined by Greg Rusedski in what passed for the on-site Sky studio, which is to say a ratty bit of carpet with four bar-stools in front of one of the practice courts. Still, it was better than the facilities provided for Eurosport, which apparently consist of grounds-passes for Barbara Schett and Mats Wilander, and nothing else. At least they had a microphone each.

Anyway, amidst all this fun there was also some tennis. You probably know by now that Djokovic actually beat Wawrinka, thus reaching his fourth straight US Open final. Initial impressions were that he wouldn’t. The world number one came out flat and tense, and a semifinal that had boasted the potential to be one-sided looked like it would be, but in the wrong direction. No commentators on any network could come up with a compelling reason why this might be the case, though nor could I. Djokovic afterwards confessed he’d just been nervous. Seems plausible. Anyway, he won in the end, though that came four hours later.

As a match it superficially recalled their great Melbourne encounter from January, in that Djokovic started woefully and it went for five sets. Beyond that however there was little resemblance. Petchey overplayed his hand early on by suggesting it was already shaping up to be a contender for match-of-the-year, but it was hardly that, especially in a year that has already generated some outright classics. You can’t blame him for talking up the featured match. (Even as I write, Sky is demonstrating that the first semifinal does condense down into a handsome highlights package. I also note that Petchey’s commentary style, built around undelayed expostulation, is eminently suited to highlights: ‘Would you believe it?!’ ‘Quite incredible!’ etc.) Nonetheless, it certainly had its moments – one of which came in the third game of the fifth set and lasted twenty minutes – but there were also sustained periods in which little of note occurred, much like the Middle Ages.

The most memorable moment came after the match, as the gallant Wawrinka was granted a standing ovation that almost, but not quite, drowned out his brief interview. It is rare for the beaten player to speak on-court. Wawrinka did his best to ensure it won’t develop into a trend, providing the sound bite doomed to endure when he commended his opponent for being so ‘fucking strong’ (or ‘f—ing strong’, as many bashful American journalists relayed it). Sky immediately apologised for the fucking s—ng language. So did CBS, repeatedly. Unlike Sky, they sounded like they really meant it. There’s talk of a free counselling hotline for traumatised viewers. Where was the five-second delay? Heads have presumably rolled. Thank heavens Wawrinka didn’t wrench down Mary-Jo Fernandez’s top.

You could see Wawrinka’s point. Djokovic is making a habit of five-set semifinals – this was his third in a row at Majors, and third in four years at this event – but he is still through to the final. There he’d be joined by Rafael Nadal, once the Mallorcan had inevitably dispensed with Richard Gasquet. To be fair, Gasquet rose above our expectations, although the fact that he still lost in straight sets tells you how subterranean those expectations were. He did contrive to break Nadal’s serve, the first man to do so in weeks, and thereby managed to push the second set to a tiebreaker. Sadly the Frenchman did not acquit himself well at this point, opening and closing the breaker with double-faults and generally faffing about with more elan than intent. He also concluded the match with a pair of double-faults.

Nadal didn’t play anything like as well as he had in the quarterfinal, even allowing for Gasquet’s superior skills compared to Tommy Robredo. But nor did he have to. Gasquet struck any number of flashy winners from the backhand, but as ever failed adequately to regulate the pace and depth on his forehand. Consequently Nadal merely made a virtue of patience and waited for his openings. When he struck, it was invariably decisive. As had been the case in Paris, an exciting first semifinal successfully depleted the crowd’s energy for the second. Gasquet wasn’t granted an on-court interview afterwards, and there was no standing ovation. Nadal was permitted to speak. The gist was that he was very pleased.

Being a noted expert in the glamorous field of randomly naming very high-ranking tennis players, I was in my element when asked before the US Open to predict who I thought would win it. I promptly named Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka, although I could have as easily chosen Nadal and Serena Williams. Arguably I should have, since those two were considered the pre-tournament favourites, an opinion that no one has since bothered to revise. Being a self-avowed contrarian I opted to be rebellious, but really affairs are in a sorry state when Djokovic represents the most iconoclastic prediction one can make without lapsing into obvious caprice. As it is, both the men’s and women’s finals will pit the top two ranked players against each other, and in both cases the top two ranked players are also those most in form. Picking anyone else felt like a waste of time.

In some ways it is churlish to complain. Partially offsetting one’s legitimate terror that Djokovic and Nadal will reprise the eternal grind of last year’s Australian Open final is a desperate hope that they’ll produce a match more like this year’s Roland Garros semifinal. Furthermore, for all that the two finalists were pre-ordained, Gasquet and Wawrinka’s presence on the final weekend wasn’t. We should be grateful to see fresh faces in the last four, with fresh faces in this case denoting a couple of weather-beaten top ten players who’ve each been on the tour for almost a decade. Still, consider that in 2011 and 2012 there were no first-time Major semifinalists. Suddenly they’ve appeared at consecutive Majors. It’s something. Perhaps change is coming.


Filed under Grand Slams

All Manner of Absurdity

US Open, Quarterfinals

The US Open, an entity which I contend possesses not only impish sentience but an eye for proportion, thoughtfully balanced a pair of men’s quarterfinals that more or less lived down to expectations with two others that could have hardly conformed less. Two predictable blowouts and two extravagant upsets: what could be more formally elegant? There was a brief period in the last of these encounters, as Mikhail Youzhny stole a set from a momentarily unfocussed Novak Djokovic, when I feared this graceful symmetry might be fractured, or, more worryingly, that I might have to rewrite this opening paragraph. Fortunately the world number one steadied magnificently, and I was able to salvage my broader point, such as it is. Maddie Meyer/Getty Images North AmericaFor all that I would have enjoyed an audacious comeback from Youzhny almost as much as the tennis-starved punters in Arthur Ashe Stadium, I’d prefer it didn’t cost me whole minutes of work.

It’s a nice question whether Richard Gasquet defeating David Ferrer in five sets constitutes a more surprising upset than Stanislas Wawrinka beating Andy Murray in straights, leaving to one side the question of which was the more upsetting surprise. If one were writing a screenplay, which result would cause viewers suddenly to rediscover their disbelief, and simply walk out? Cinema audiences will put up with all manner of absurdity – midichlorians, Nicholas Cage – but there are limits. This is the US Open, not Wimbledon. It would probably be more convincing had the scores been swapped: Wawrinka might have prevailed in a tough grind, while an incandescent Gasquet might conceivably sweep the formless Ferrer aside quickly.

(2) Nadal d. (19) Robredo, 6/0 6/2 6/2

It was always likely that Rafael Nadal would make short work of his quarterfinal, given his exalted hardcourt form and Roger Federer’s exit in the fourth round. But the fact that he was facing a veteran who’d never progressed beyond this stage of a Major in several dozen attempts put it almost beyond doubt. Realisation that this veteran was a compatriot of Nadal’s removed even that modicum of uncertainty. Add in a single-handed backhand and it was hard to see how the encounter would stretch far beyond eighty-minutes. The opponent was Tommy Robredo, who two days earlier provided a sturdy platform for Federer to ritually disembowel himself on. Robredo brought a similar commitment into his match with Nadal – standing way back, looping groundstrokes and retrieving like a terrier – with the result that he won five whole points in the opening set. These points sadly weren’t clumped such that they equated to a whole game. Forget eighty minutes, maybe it wouldn’t last the hour.

The next two sets were marginally more competitive, but such terms are relative, and it was never a contest. Before the match Nadal had somehow maintained a straight face while declaring that in order to have any chance at beating Robredo he’d have to play his best. As it happened Nadal did play somewhere near his best, with the result that Robredo had no chance whatsoever. Nadal has moved through to the semifinals, an outcome he subsequently described as ‘unbelievable’, which I think translates as ‘very believable’, considering he has made it at least that far in New York every year since 2007, apart from last year when he didn’t reach the first round.

For a refreshing contrast he will next face a tour veteran to whom he has never lost, who employs a single-handed backhand and prefers to operate ten feet behind the baseline. This player is Richard Gasquet, and to say that Nadal has never lost to the Frenchman is slightly misleading. Gasquet actually beat Nadal fourteen years ago, in juniors. This result has no material bearing on their upcoming US Open semifinal except that Gasquet brought it up in his press conference, thereby proving that it’s no longer possible for a professional sportsperson to make a joking aside without having it overanalysed to death. Nadal was naturally quizzed about this ancient result during his post-match interview, and astonished everyone by recounting the match in granular detail. Even Brad Gilbert was left momentarily speechless. Jason Goodall reliably wasn’t: ‘I suppose he’s out for revenge in the semifinal, then.’

(8) Gasquet d. (4) Ferrer, 6/3 6/1 4/6 2/6 6/3

It is hard to imagine he won’t get it, but then it’s pretty hard to believe that Gasquet is there at all. Even to reach the quarterfinals he required five sets, and had to overcome one of the worst fourth round Major records in history (0-11 since Wimbledon 2007). Admittedly that was only against Milos Raonic, who himself had never progressed beyond the round of sixteen. In the quarterfinal Gasquet faced the fourth seeded David Ferrer, thus pitting a man who rarely beats those ranked above him against a guy who seldom loses to those ranked lower, a guy whose constant presence in Major semifinals has ceased to elicit surprise even if it is destined never to gain acceptance. Ferrer will drop out of the top four long before everyone stops wrongly assuming that his quarter of the draw is the one fated to collapse. It was once again to everyone’s chagrin that the only quarterfinal match-up that panned out according to seedings was Ferrer’s, although I maintain that it was only by the grace of Dimitry Tursonov’s delicate thighs that this was possible.

Gasquet took the first two sets in fairly convincing fashion, and it seemed likely that a perfunctory upset was underway. This would have been surprising in a sense, though hardly in the league of Federer’s loss to Robredo. Ferrer has been horribly short on form, and sometimes Gasquet is simply unplayable. It happens. But then Ferrer fought back, and levelled the match at two sets each. Gasquet was no longer anything like unplayable, and Ferrer wasn’t playing that badly. The scene – an idyllic French farm setting circa 1917 – was precisely the kind of one into which the Frenchman will typically plummet in a tangle of flaming wreckage. But somehow he remained aloft, mostly due to his serve. Despite his appalling record in fourth rounds, Gasquet has also never lost in the quarterfinals. But nor has he won a semifinal.

(9) Wawrinka d. (3) Murray, 6/4 6/3 6/2

Murray’s seppuku was only marginally less extravagant than Federer’s, though it was characteristically louder. Given he was facing a superior opponent on a bigger stage, it all worked out looking about the same. By losing to Wawrinka, Murray has failed to reach the final at a Major for the first time since Roland Garros last year (he didn’t play Paris this year). Indeed, aside from last year’s French Open he had reached at least the semifinals at the last nine Majors he had entered, going back to the 2010 US Open, where he lost in the third round to, as fortune would have it, Wawrinka. A mere coincidence, of course, though Murray’s many fans are no doubt right to be dismayed by the connection, since their man is supposed to have moved on from flaccid efforts like this.

Perhaps they can find some comfort in the suggestion that this new Wawrinka is a categorically superior version to the old one. The addition of Magnus Norman to his team appears to have worked a similar trick for the Swiss that it did for Robin Soderling a few years ago, although it’s worth bearing in mind that Wawrkina was still coachless when he almost beat Djokovic in Melbourne, so far the season’s finest match. Any changes that Norman has wrought in Wawrinka’s game – the focus appears heavily to be on buttressing his sense of self-belief more than anything technical – are refinements to the course he’d already set. Wawrinka’s faith in his own capacity to match top ten players was amply displayed against Tomas Berdych in the last round, and reprised today.

History, in the guise of countless mid-match collapses against Federer, had previously taught all discerning fans that it is rarely a question of whether Wawrinka will fall apart in a high-stakes tennis match. It is merely a question of when, and experts have learned to expect his disintegration. So it was today, when Eurosport’s English commentators tirelessly awaited a reversal that never came, even to the end. Wawrinka opened his final service game with a double-fault, then watched unperturbed as Murray smacked a return winner past him. From there it was all Wawrinka, all aggression – including a tremendous bounce-smash winner from the baseline – all the way to the end.

The defending champion is out.


Filed under Grand Slams

Those Lethal Cocktails

US Open, Fourth Round

A brief survey of the men’s quarterfinalists for this year’s US Open is revealing. For starters all eight men are Europeans, of whom three, naturally, are Spanish. Unsurprisingly, one of them is Swiss. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images North AmericaThree of these men are over thirty, while the youngest is twenty-six. Unbelievably, none of these elderly European gents is Roger Federer.

The match of the day, easily, was the terrific dust-up between Lleyton Hewitt and Mikhail Youzhny, which stretched to five sinuous sets, the last of which was eventually won by the Russian. Hewitt led by two sets to one, and by 4/1 in the fourth set. Hewitt’s mental fortitude was duly praised, or, as it happened, over-praised. Contrary to popular opinion, he was never an accomplished frontrunner, and even during his eighty weeks atop the rankings would often permit leads disastrously to slip. There might be other players as habituated as Hewitt to producing epics, but he remains unmatched in his determination to erect monuments to them even as they unfold.

From that perilous position, Youzhny clawed back, and won the next six games, in the process taking the fourth set and moving ahead by a break early in the fifth. From there it was Hewitt’s turn, winning five of the next six, moving to 5/2. Winning a sixth game would have snared him the match, but it wasn’t to be. Youzhny surged again, broke, held, broke, and served out the match, which is an exceedingly rapid way of describing a process that was fraught, frequently brilliant, and occasionally approached genius. A quarterfinal would have been a fitting result for Hewitt, who’d played so mightily to defeat Juan Martin del Potro a few rounds ago. Alas.

It is equally as fitting a result for Youzhny, if not to say a surprising one. I confess, watching on as he struggled to overcome Matthew Ebden in five sets in Melbourne in January, I’d believed that Youzhny’s best days were fast receding behind him. Ebden was actually pushing him around. One should have more faith, though that’s an easy thing to misplace when an aggressive player loses confidence. Tentative where once he’d been reckless, he now appeared indecisive and error-prone, and it was easy to assume he’d never regain his speed and certainty. I am pleased to be wrong, but surely not as pleased as he was today, saluting the crowd. It would’ve been nice to hear what he had to say, but Eurosport cut away to Barbara Schett, who was bringing her weaponised vivacity to bear on Victoria Azarenka. ‘You haven’t just been busy on the court, but off the court as well! I hear you’ve been involved in a photo-shoot for a campaign to help ex-smokers! Can you tell us a little bit about that?!’ ‘Well I’ve never smoked myself so I can’t really relate. But I do find them very inspirational.’

Sadly we couldn’t sip the dregs of this lethal cocktail of goodwill indefinitely. There was live tennis to be had, though live is perhaps a misleading term, if not an ironic one in the case of the sadly lifeless Marcel Granollers. One presumes he hadn’t held out much hope against Novak Djokovic, though he probably hoped for more than he got, or at any rate hoped that his inevitable beating might be less savage. He won only three games, all of which came in the first set, although this should not lead one to believe he was any closer to winning that set than the others. He failed to win a single point on Djokovic’s first six service games. Then he failed to win a game on his own serve for the rest of the match. Chris Bowers on Eurosport suggested that had it been a boxing match the referee would have stopped the bout. But it was a tennis match, and so Djokovic was permitted to go on pummelling Granollers for our entertainment, until the Spaniard lay unmoving on the side of the court and even his groans had ceased.

Afterwards, Djokovic granted Brad Gilbert a brief contractually-obligated interview, thus augmenting his total time on court by about a third. The world number one was typically classy, smoothly stepping around his opponent’s body, though if asked he’d no doubt subscribe to Andre Agassi’s view that one should not deny any opponent so rich a learning-experience. When quizzed about his magisterial serving stats, Djokovic took due care to praise John Isner, to scattered applause from the sparse American crowd. Realistically the assembled onlookers might have filled a less extravagant facility, but even sizeable gatherings can be lost within Arthur Ashe stadium. Presumably many of those absent had stepped out to relieve themselves or seek sustenance after the previous match, and hadn’t made it back in time. Tournament officials had by now scraped Granollers’ remains off the court, and Djokovic respectfully followed the procession up the tunnel. ‘He’s good, isn’t he?’ asked one Eurosport commentator. ‘Djokovic or Brad Gilbert? Djokovic, yes,’ responded the other.

We were returned to Schett. ‘He was just better in every compartment!’ she declared breathlessly. Apparently denied a studio of their own, she and Wilander were once more anchoring the Eurosport coverage from somewhere on the grounds. Djokovic soon joined them, looking as relaxed as a man who’d just won a tennis match very easily. He summoned a sensible response when queried about Federer’s loss, and the persistent demands for the great man to retire, although he might have pointed out that the persistent demands largely consist of the media asking questions like that. He didn’t think Federer should retire. He did point out that time catches up to us all, and that younger players are always appearing the tour, stronger and faster than ever. Presumably by younger players he was speaking of his own ‘generation’, and not the next one, who don’t much look like threatening anyone.

He was mostly right, although it should equally be pointed out that Federer did not lose to a younger player, but to Tommy Robredo, a veteran to whom he’d never lost. In some ways this was the most telling aspect of yesterday’s upset, not least because it continues a trend that has underscored Federer’s long decline. Defining when such things begin is mostly idle folly, and would serve no special purpose even if consensus were possible. But one cannot help but think back to late 2009, when there was still a large pool of very good players who had either never beaten Federer, or at any rate hadn’t beaten him for a very long time. Prominent among this group were Nikolay Davydenko, Robin Soderling, Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt, Mikhail Youzhny, David Ferrer and Tommy Robredo. Ferrer and Youzhny are still winless, but the rest of them have since defeated Federer at least once, in every case inspiring onlookers to recycle Vitas Gerulaitas’ old quip about no one beating him seventeen times in a row. The significance is that these players are all around Federer’s age. Failure to sustain his domination of them cannot be ascribed to advanced years, to being overrun by the race.

On the other hand, Federer going undefeated against these guys for so long is probably more amazing than any eventual loss proved to be, a fact we tend to overlook. Winning streaks work the strange trick of making it seem as though constant victory is the natural way of things, of normalising what is in fact exceptional. It is a paradox of sport that although the longest streaks are the most difficult to compile, they work to make any eventual loss seem aberrant. Even sprinting along a tightrope can look easy after a while, such that one forgets it only grows harder. Sooner or later there will be a misstep.

These are broadly satisfactory musings, perhaps, but they don’t tell us much about any specific encounter. They don’t quite explain how Federer actually managed to lose to Robredo yesterday. The answer, I suspect, is that everyone has bad days, and sometimes they occur on a big stadium against a guy you’ve never lost to. Federer had a very bad day, bad in almost every direction at once. His movement was sluggish, his decisions were poor, his returning patchy, his serve lacked bite and his outfit didn’t match. It was altogether a worse performance than the one that saw him lose to an inspired Sergiy Stakhovsky in Wimbledon. He was unfortunate that he had this bad day against a player as solid as Robredo, though the truth is that because the bad days are now coming more often, they’re more likely to come when it matters. Part of it is age, but I maintain that he’s mostly just short on form.

Robredo was admittedly outstanding, but Federer was still correct in declaring that he had largely beaten himself. Robredo pulled off any number of stunning passing shots, but they wouldn’t have been possible at all if Federer hadn’t so consistently failed to put balls away into the open court, or essay approaches with greater venom. Time and again Robredo simply stood his ground. By the third set even he stopped looking surprised when Federer hit the ball straight back to him. Often these came on crucial points, such as several of the many break points on Robredo’s serve. Federer produced handfuls of these after the first set, but could hang on to none of them, and that’s really the whole deal with break points. Similarly Robredo was dictating most of the rallies. It tells you everything about Federer’s lethargy that the Spaniard was permitted to do this from ten feet behind the baseline while maintaining a very high clearance over the net, and rarely going for the lines. On a reasonably quick hardcourt – Federer afterward said Louis Armstrong if anything played faster than Arthur Ashe – this should never happen.

But it did happen, and it seems to be happening with gathering regularity. As with Youzhny earlier in the year, Federer looked like a temperamentally aggressive player very low on confidence, plagued with uncertainty. Even comparing them feels odd. I hold Youzhny in the highest esteem, but Federer’s career has instilled in us a belief that even when his form was off he remained in a separate class. Even when he played badly he still won, such that some casual punters are surprised to learn he ever played badly at all. Now when he plays badly, he looks like everyone else playing badly, which is to say lost.


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Known Knowns

US Open, Third Round

There were several certainties heading into tonight’s third round match between Tommy Haas and Mikhail Youzhny, or, to render it in the brain-scrambling terminology made famous by Donald Rumsfeld, a number of known knowns. Firstly, it would be an entertaining all-court scramble between a pair of stylish veterans. Secondly, both men would at various moments lose form, and thereafter their minds, inspiring thrashed racquets and whimsical assaults on the scenery. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images North AmericaThirdly, I wouldn’t know which of the two men I favoured until the match commenced, or maybe until it ended. Both rank among my favourite players. Strangely, this sometimes makes it harder to remain impartial.

By the third set it grew apparent to me that my sympathies today were with Youzhny. The Russian was playing better tennis, and would have been crushed by a loss from two sets up. Paradoxical, therefore, was my concurrent realisation that I preferred to see Haas progress to the fourth round. He hardly deserved victory today, but there were good reasons to hope he’d remain active in the tournament. The winner of today’s match would face Lleyton Hewitt, who’d backed up the sterling upset of Juan Martin del Potro by seeing off Evgeny Donskoy in four sets. Hewitt and Haas have some (ancient) history – inevitably given they’ve both been on the tour forever. If Haas won that match, he would have reached the quarterfinals, thereby gaining a decent shot at returning to the top ten. Alas, he lost. I understood that I couldn’t have it both ways.

In any case, it was a stylish all-court scramble, one fairly bursting with dazzling rallies, bold offence and desperate saves. Anyone seeking to compile a highlights reel will have a lot of material to work with, and some tough decisions to make if they want to keep the running time under twenty minutes. Haas hit at least two backhand lobs as good as you’ll see, though only the first of them came off the strings. Sadly they were struck over an hour apart, and he committed a heroic number of errors in between. His performance through the second set was especially poor, and contributed to the nearly unprecedented sight of Youzhny winning a set by being the steadier player. Naturally there was a third set resurgence from Haas, prompting Youzhny to take to the on-court speedometer with his foot, and to the court surface with his racquet. It didn’t last. Haas was particularly virtuosic on his overheads tonight, but sadly this cannot be translated into a match-winning pattern at this level, especially as Youzhny displayed emphatic preference for flashing backhand passing shots over lobs. Youzhny took the fourth set with reasonable comfort, and afterwards saluted the crowd with obvious relish.

Haas’s loss meant that his US passport couldn’t be invoked in the event that no other American males reached the fourth round of the US Open, which hasn’t happened before in the Open era. John Isner was his nation’s great hope, or at any rate its faint hope, but his anticipated revenge match against Philipp Kohlschreiber turned out to be even less competitive than last year’s. With Isner (and Haas) gone, only the affable Tim Smyczek stood defiant in the face of history. Even as Haas trudged from Louis Armstrong, Smyczek was at that moment entering a deciding set with Marcel Granollers on Grandstand.

Thankfully the American was in rare form, gaining an early break in the fifth, and generally belting winners around at will. Chants of ‘U-S-A’ boomed around the stands, much as they hadn’t for Isner a few nights earlier. Granollers, to be sure, is no Monfils. Indeed, I’m still not quite sure what Granollers is, aside from one of the ungainliest players I’ve ever seen. Like Adrian Mannarino he appears to be a throwback to an earlier era, when even top pros were self-taught. I persist in thinking his current ranking of No.43 is if anything generous. Nonetheless, he took advantage of a rare weak game from the American, broke back, and eventually broke again. Smyczek’s inexperience truly manifested itself in the final game, when he should have made the Spaniard earn a tough hold, but instead relieved Granollers of any discernible pressure by over-hitting all his returns. Just like that, there are no American men left. In the absence of any official announcement to the contrary, we must assume the tournament will somehow continue.

Fortunately there remain a few foreigners whose names should be passing familiar to the general public, even if none of them have yet given anyone much reason to pay close attention. In every case the result has been an entirely known known. Novak Djokovic started his match against Joao Sousa well after Smyczek and Granollers began theirs, but didn’t tarry nearly so late in ending it. Sousa should feel immensely proud at becoming the first Portuguese man to progress to the third round at the US Open, and quite fortunate to win four games once he got there. Meanwhile Mannarino won only five games against Roger Federer last night, as did Julien Benneteau against Tomas Berdych today.

Florian Mayer got all the way to a first set tiebreaker against Andy Murray, but it wasn’t close, and nor were the ensuing sets. Rafael Nadal also saw off Ivan Dodig in straight sets. David Ferrer contrived to drop a set to Mikhail Kukushkin, but wasn’t seriously tested. So far through the three rounds the top players haven’t looked troubled in the slightest, and there’s no good reason to think they will be until they’re fated to face each other (apart from Berdych, who must face Stan Wawrinka, and Ferrer, whose match with Janko Tipsarevic almost certainly won’t reprise last year’s classic quarterfinal). For all that the first week has officially ended, the second week, with its vague promise of known unknowns, still feels some way off.

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Imagine That

US Open, Second Round

The second round of this year’s US Open is now complete, which, until the very last moment, was about all that usefully could be said about it. There was plenty being said, of course, but little of it was specifically about tennis, and even less was useful. It’s always revealing when the prevailing controversy centres around those parts of the tournament that don’t involve players hitting balls at each other. Al Bello/Getty Images North AmericaOften it reveals that there’s not enough transpiring on court. There is special devilry reserved for idle minds, especially when those minds belong to sports reporters with little to say.

For some among the idle-minded this has provided further opportunity to wax righteous on Andy Murray’s behalf. It has been another wearying reminder that burning indignation is a bad state for weak writers to find themselves in, made worse by the fact that for too many of them it is also their default state. For those subsiding in lexical poverty the call to outrage rarely leads to a feast of dynamic wordplay. Usually they just avail themselves of a pre-packaged vocabulary of clichés, a kind of journalistic fast food, with the consequence that they come to sound even more similar to each other, which hardly seems possible. Examples are myriad, but to take one: signalling ones disapproval of a particular decision or outcome by calling it ‘a joke’ is not insightful. It merely makes a lazy sports writer sound uncannily like every other lazy sports writer. Instead of labelling something a joke, why not make a joke? And just as all internet publications will tend towards the Cracked.com model – easily-digested list-based articles – so are many online writers limited to a range of adjectives culled from Cracked.com headlines. One could easily fashion a drinking game around the unremitting recourse to descriptors such as ‘ridiculous’, ‘insane’, ‘ludicrous’, ‘shocking’, ‘mad’ or ‘mind-blowing’, although the rules would need to be carefully calibrated. Downing a shot every time one of those terms appeared would render one insensate after the first article. I understand that not everyone can command prose like Edmund Wilson. I can’t. But anyone can aspire to.

In any case, justifiable concern at Murray’s very late first round finish has given way to disgruntlement at his second round relegation to Louis Armstrong Stadium. Rightly or wrongly, placement on the second court was held to be a slight on the defending champion’s status. Murray himself has previously made his distaste for the venue plain. Fair enough – he doesn’t have to like it. More problematic, apparently, was that by playing third today his match wouldn’t see completion before deadlines expired for the attendant British press corps. The USTA was taken to task for this oversight – let’s assume it was an oversight, and not a deliberate attempt to avenge biased press coverage during the War of 1812 – most notably by Neil Harman of The Times. Some responded that it isn’t the job of the US Open to worry on behalf of the English press. It was pointed out in turn that with newspaper revenues collapsing it was incumbent upon premium events such as this to ensure that newsprint journalists are given every advantage. While I certainly agree that the death of print journalism is deplorable, I’m not convinced it is the task of tennis tournaments to nurse it along more than they already do. Print outlets are already given preference over online interests, including priority seating for matches with limited capacity. Print journalists are also the keenest advocates for the suppression of interview transcripts.

Then again by broadening its attack from Britain’s top player to Britain’s media, the US Open has revealed a worrying escalation: next is the British public. It’s no wonder the British parliament won’t commit to Syria. Those forces are needed to defend Old Blighty from imminent attack. Amidst all this mind-blowing and ludicrous insanity, it’s worth remembering than Murray did actually win today in four sets over a surprisingly gallant Leonardo Mayer. Ivan Lendl is doubtless earning his salary by ensuring his man isn’t distracted by all this subsidiary nonsense, although I don’t doubt he’ll have some stern words about today’s third set let-down.

Of course, the United States has its own issues on the home front, which must be dealt with before armed forces are diverted across the Atlantic. The enemy is within the gates. Many of them were in the Louis Armstrong Stadium crowd last night, watching John Isner play Gael Monfils. Television viewers were presented with the unusual spectacle of an American crowd showing vociferous support for a guy who wasn’t born in the same country as them, as opposed to the guy who was. Much has been made of this; rather too much, in fact. It was no coincidence that Monfils, who is immensely popular everywhere – except, often, with his own fans –gained favour when he picked up his game while trailing by two sets to love. This change in sympathy was briefly noted on Eurosport, afterwards acknowledged by Isner himself, and dissected exhaustively on ESPN. Really, the crowd just wanted a few more sets, and appreciated the things Monfils was doing with his body and the tennis ball. He still couldn’t serve, and Isner often did little else, but it nonetheless transformed into a very entertaining match. The crowd got its wish, which I suspect always included eventual victory for Isner. The American was afterwards lavish in praising his opponent.

In other results, both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were  imperious and utterly untroubled against Carlos Berlocq and Rogerio Dutra Silva respectively. There’s a real chance they will actually meet in the quarterfinals, although it’s possible they’re just lulling us into complacency. Stan Wawrinka started slowly against Ivo Karlovic, but was quite excellent once he regained the break in the first set. Novak Djokovic also took an age to get going, and almost dropped the first set to Benjamin Becker. Marcos Baghdatis, on the other hand, began superbly and stayed that way until the end against Kevin Anderson. For all we know Baghdatis’s brilliance didn’t abate once he left the court. His momentum was such that he’s probably doing a first-rate job with his dinner even as I write, delivering bon mots that have the table on a roar.

Dan Evans’s excellent New York adventure continues. He beat Bernard Tomic quite comfortably to reach the third round, although his understandable elation at this accomplishment was tempered by the sobering discovery that the result came too late for British print deadlines. For his part, Tomic was typically frank in assessing his own shortcomings: ‘I think I get lazy on the court, my tennis sort of comes a bit slow. I don’t really know how to put guys away.’ I imagine a proper coach could help with that. No one is sure where Tomic’s game is, but his ability to make the right noises after losses now rivals Ryan Harrison’s.

The delightfully articulate Dimitry Tursonov remains a fine advertisement for the sport, and for my powers of prescience: I suggested he’d be the one to emerge from David Ferrer’s quarter, and he has now reached the third round. Even if he somehow loses to the eighth seeded Richard Gasquet, I still get to be half-right. Meanwhile, Tommy Haas moved another round closer to a return to the top ten, defeating Yen-Hsun Lu in straight sets. As far as I can tell he’ll need to reach the quarterfinals at least, which means he’ll have to beat Mikhail Youzhny in the next round, unquestionably the pick of the round.

Lleyton Hewitt tonight recovered from two sets to one down to defeat Juan Martin del Potro on Arthur Ashe Stadium, a match that entirely justified its primetime scheduling. Del Potro has notoriously never recovered from a two set deficit, and for a time appeared fortunate that he didn’t have to put that record to the test. The Australian led by a set, and served for the second at 5/4, but didn’t acquit himself well on either of the set points he gained. The Argentine broke back, broke again to take the set, then again to open the third. He took that one, but then conspicuously failed to gallop away with the fourth. Instead Hewitt pressed, and broke again. Again he failed to serve out the set. Del Potro, capricious in his way, defied every assumption that he’d once more make Hewitt pay. The tiebreaker was all Hewitt, except for the errors, which were all del Potro’s. From there Hewitt went on with it, and broke three times in the final set, which ended with a double fault and a delighted Australian veteran.

It was a strange match, the type of upset that resists easy categorisation. The quality varied immensely, especially from del Potro, whose left wrist inhibited his backhand and who sometimes grew oddly fearful when he wasn’t behind. Still, the overall inconsistency of momentum guaranteed consistency of drama, further heightened by the occasion and the venue, and only slightly lessened by the heroic sequence of toilet breaks enjoyed by both men. Hewitt is fond of saying that it is for occasions such as these that he still plays, even if he is earning fewer opportunities to say it as the years advance. It is his first victory over a top ten opponent in over three years. Whether he’ll go on with it is a nice question, although even wearied he must fancy his chances against Evgeny Donskoy in the next round. After that he might face Haas, with whom he shares an aggregate age of 67. In the fourth round of a Major. In 2013. Imagine that. Mind-blowing.


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A Return to Sanity

US Open, First Round

Two days of the 2013 US Open are now complete, with the usual result that the first round remains incomplete and everyone is already anxious about the weather. To these outcomes I suppose we can add that Ernests Gulbis has contrived to disappoint everyone, Sam Stosur has once again provided an opportunity for someone else to achieve the finest win of their career, and the tournament has somehow managed to wrong Andy Murray, to the Scot’s apparent indifference and the vociferous outrage of the British tabloids. Nishikori USO 2013 -1It’s something to do with scheduling, I think. This would certainly make sense: scheduling is not a task at which the US Open excels.

The requirement to fit seven rounds of tennis into a fourteen day tournament has famously proved to be an insoluble mathematical problem for US Open organisers, who’ve now decided that the only realistic solution was to add an extra day at the end. The reasoning, apparently, is that it has been years since the men’s final wasn’t played on the third Monday anyway, so why not simply make it official? The reasonable response is that the inclement weather that wrecks an already rickety schedule each year can just as easily delay a Monday final as a Sunday one. If nothing else, it is further proof that anything can come to seem worthy of preservation once it has persisted for long enough. Some suggested that it would be a shame to see the US Open revert to a Sunday final. But Monday finals aren’t something to be protected. They’re ridiculous.

By providing the illusion of an extra day, this masterstroke really ensures that the tournament won’t be forced to abandon any of its cherished follies, most notably Super Saturday – alliterative titles are sacrosanct – and having the opening round conducted over three days. I cannot see the appeal in spreading the first round out this way, unless you simply cannot wait for the commencement of the doubles. The French Open works a similar trick, although it adds the extra day on the front of the schedule, and being clay isn’t undone by drizzle. Why is this so hard to get right? Is it really just television?

Wimbledon almost gets it right, and the Centre Court roof helps, but that anachronistic rest-day on the middle Sunday can cramp the second week if there’s any weather about. For all that Wimbledon’s second Monday is putatively the finest day of tennis on the annual calendar – all fourth round matches are played – it can prove commensurately disappointing if it’s rained out, as it mostly was last year. It certainly isn’t national pride that leads me to assert that the Australian Open is the only Major that actually gets its schedule right. To the contention that the presence of two coverable showcourts makes scheduling a breeze, one can only respond that the capacity to successfully divide fourteen by seven doesn’t hinge on being insulated from the elements.

Anyway, on to the actual tennis. I suggested a few days ago that David Ferrer’s quarter of the draw was, generously, a golden opportunity for any man fortunate enough to reside within it. I mentioned Dimitry Tursonov specifically, if somewhat whimsically, and was thus more than a little pleased when he won his opening match, finishing in style over Aljaz Bedene. On the other hand, I did not mention Andreas Haider-Maurer or Maximo Gonzalez at all, which was remiss of me, since they went on to beat Gulbis and Jerzy Janowicz respectively. Indeed, it was a bad day in general for Polish men’s tennis, which only recently learned what a good day feels like. In addition to Janowicz, who was clearly injured, both Lucasz Kubot and Michal Przysiezny lost. Fernando Verdasco, apparently in sympathy with Polish fortunes, has produced a similar arc, following up his magnificent Wimbledon performance with a first round exit in New York. It was a particularly painful five set loss to Ivan Dodig, though I didn’t find it especially surprising. The same went for Nicolas Almagro’s loss to Denis Istomin. One hesitates even to term these results upsets. Marinko Matosevic lost his eleventh straight first round at a Major. I’m not sure what to term that, either.

The youngsters in general have fared poorly, providing rocket fuel to those who derive satisfaction in forecasting imminent doom for the sport. Grigor Dimitrov fell before the noted hardcourt leviathan Joao Sousa, while the most startling upset came early when eleventh seed Kei Nishikori fell in very straight sets to Dan Evans, who, admittedly, is younger than his opponent. He was also excellent. Ryan Harrison lost to Rafael Nadal, as ever following up a sound thrashing by providing earnest and comprehensive analysis of a radically different match from the one we’d all just watched. World number one junior Nick Kyrgios acquitted himself reasonably well against Ferrer, although even in his reduced state the world number four remains an impenetrable barrier for newcomers. Still, it’s hard to imagine Kyrgios won’t become a significant figure in years to come, although it pains me to think that the cringe-inducing ‘#NKRising’ hashtag he insists on using will gain legitimacy from being correct.

Meanwhile the highest seeds proved utterly untroubled. Nadal, as mentioned, beat Harrison very soundly. Some of it was spectacular – especially that running forehand semi-overhead pass early on – but none of it was close. Ferrer ran around a lot, and dared Kyrgios to hit more winners than errors. Tomas Berdych looked ominous in seeing off Paolo Lorenzi, although Lorenzi’s assigned task seems to be to help top seeds look fearsome in early rounds. Grega Zemlja provided a similar service to Roger Federer. IBM’s ineffable Slamtracker suggested that Zmelja’s ace count would be a decisive factor, but failed to mention double-faults or passing shots, of which he executed too many and too few. Federer was rampant in the forecourt.

As ever at Grand Slam level, the commentary is a smorgasbord, although thus far it was one I’ve partaken of only sparingly. Where possible I’ve stayed with British Eurosport, who’ve done themselves a great service by hiring Jason Goodall. They were as ever fine during play, but really surpassed themselves when at one point they cut to Mats Wilander and Barbara Schett but apparently failed to supply the hosts with working microphones. I briefly flirted with American commentary, incarnated by Al Trautwig – accomplished as the network guy with the deep voice and limited insight – and Luke Jensen, who was frankly painful. When Jensen wasn’t rehearsing platitudes (‘I’ve always thought of Djokovic’s backhand as a dangerous shot’), he was compounding inaccuracies by delivering them with wearying assertiveness. A return to Eurosport ensured a welcome return to sanity. ‘I have a feeling we’re going to see a massacre here,’ conceded Chris Wilkinson, as Novak Djokovic broke Ricardas Berankis for a second time. So it proved.

Edited to fix some errors regarding Wimbledon’s second Monday. Thanks to those who pointed them out!


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Luck of the Draw: US Open 2013

The draw for the US Open has been released in the traditional fashion, which is to write the names of every eligible player on little slips of paper, place them all in an antique cannon in the middle of Arthur Ashe Stadium, and fire them straight up. From there the strong prevailing winds take over, and a player’s placement within the draw is determined by where in the Tri-state area his name flutters to rest. It is for this reason, one presumes, that the year’s final Major is always contested during hurricane season. Sadly, the USTA has announced that from 2017 there will be roofs over the main stadiums at the Billy Jean King National Tennis Center. TENNIS-OPEN_ROOF143203-REUTERSThe US Open will have to find a new way of conducting the ceremony (since it is unthinkable that something as momentous as populating a tournament draw could be accomplished without due pomp). It’s always a shame when old traditions disappear.

Of subsidiary interest, the placement of the top two seeds is decided by where their names fall in relation to David Ferrer’s. As it happened, Rafael Nadal was the luckier one. We can safely ignore scurrilous rumours that the slips of paper bearing the two Spaniard’s names had been glued together. Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic’s name turned up in Stamford, Connecticut. It could have been worse, I suppose.

Once again we’re invited to marvel at the vagaries of the ATP rankings, especially the situation whereby Andy Murray, reigning US Open (and Wimbledon) champion and eternal saviour of British tennis, is ranked number three in the world. This is one place lower than Nadal, who holds only a single Major (Roland Garros), lost in the first round at Wimbledon, and didn’t even play at the others. It is two places lower than Novak Djokovic, who holds only the Australian Open. As a result the Scot is seeded lower than both those men at the upcoming US Open. As far as the population of the small island positioned off the extreme western coast of the Eurasian landmass is concerned, this is nothing short of a cosmic injustice.

Although Sky Sports have never attained the febrile derangement of their compatriots at the Daily Mail, they have nonetheless elevated cheerleading on Murray’s behalf into something of an art form, and will reliably ascend to heights of outrage when they feel he’s been hard-done-by. While raucous advocacy presumably doesn’t reflect management’s official position, it certainly isn’t discouraged, and any failure to address Britain’s top player in sufficiently rapturous terms presumably results in disciplinary action. (This policy, incidentally, isn’t limited to Sky: word is that John McEnroe received a stern talking-to from ESPN after he repeatedly excoriated American players on air during last year’s US Open. He and his brother really did go to town on Donald Young one evening. Here in Australia, failure to sing the praises of either Lleyton Hewitt or Bernard Tomic will earn the offender a baleful visit from John Newcombe.) Anyway, Peter Fleming pronounced the latest rankings to be ‘crazy’. Marcus Buckland suggested it ‘seemed unfair’. Others were less circumspect, in each case betraying a deliberate ignorance of how the rankings actually work. It is understandable that the average punter’s knowledge of the sport ends with the Majors – we shouldn’t necessarily be thrilled at this, and American coverage in particular can be pathetically grateful at any public interest at all – but for those paid good money to follow professional tennis from week to week, the Majors should merely be the start. There is no mystery why Nadal is ranked higher than Murray. There’s more to tennis than Grand Slam events.

Anyway, the reason why the second and third seedings matter so much at this US Open is that David Ferrer is seeded fourth. There are probably kinder ways to say it, but the reality is that even when Ferrer was in decent form he represented a more benign semifinal opponent than whomever the alternative happened to be. Right now, however, he is in execrable form, and still troubled by a lingering injury. Not only that, but these are the potential quarterfinal match-ups based on seedings:

  • Djokovic – del Potro
  • Murray – Berdych
  • Nadal – Federer
  • Ferrer – Gasquet

Which of these is not like the others? Any one of Berdych, del Potro or Federer could have fallen in Ferrer’s quarter, and in each case would have been favoured to reach the last weekend. Alas, it wasn’t to be. So it goes. Let’s just call Ferrer’s quarter a grand opportunity for someone. There are nine qualifiers in this quarter, and four of them are facing each other. I’m going to venture out on an especially shaky limb, and suggest that Dimitry Tursonov’s time has arrived. Seeded thirty-two, the Russian won’t encounter anyone ranked higher until the third round at the earliest. By wisely choosing to be drawn in Ferrer’s quarter, he has ensured that he won’t face anyone truly terrifying until the semifinals. So pencil him in for that. Gasquet is in there, too, of course, seeded eighth. I could pencil him in for a quarterfinal, but history suggests that would be a waste of graphite. On the small chance that Tursonov doesn’t push all the way through to Super Saturday, I suspect either Milos Raonic or Jerzy Janowicz will. Or Ernests Gulbis, who is now seeded and can thus stop thinking of himself as the world’s most dangerous floater, since it was frankly getting him nowhere. But really it’s anyone’s guess.

Ryan Harrison’s appalling luck at Grand Slam level continues. He has once again drawn a lofty seed early on, in this case Nadal in the opening round. Last year in New York he faced Juan Martin del Potro in the second round. The upshot is that even last year’s modest points will almost certainly go undefended. It’s rotten luck, undoubtedly, though one shouldn’t pretend there aren’t other reasons why Harrison isn’t ranked high enough to elude this kind of misfortune. It’s bound to be a featured night match, and thus a test of McEnroe’s generosity. It’s hard to imagine either Nadal or Federer will suffer upsets before they meet in the quarterfinals, unlike at Wimbledon, where I totally foresaw those early losses to Steve Darcis and Sergiy Stakhovsky, but didn’t want to spoil the surprise.

Only one first round match really stands out – setting to one side the possibility that those qualifiers will entertainingly pulverise each other in fifth set tiebreaks – which is the one between Lleyton Hewitt and Brian Baker. Joints creaking and metal pins clanking, they’ll contest the chance to play del Potro. Whoever comes out of all that, it’ll be a triumph for medical science.


Filed under Grand Slams