If You Pay Them, They Will Come

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Roger Federer serves during his first round match in Dubai

Not all tennis tournaments are created alike, even those of allegedly equal standing. The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships awards precisely the same number of ranking points as the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships in Memphis last week, since both are ATP500 events. There the similarities end.

Dubai awards considerably more prizemoney, offers appearance fees only expressible using scientific notation, and an opportunity to be photographed in front of some of the world’s least restrained architecture. These factors doubtless account for the superiority of the field. The sixth seed in Dubai this year – Janko Tipsarevic – would have been the top seed in Memphis last week, had he bothered to show up. It also goes some way towards explaining why Dubai is voted best 500 level tournament nearly every year.

It probably helps that it gives the players an opportunity to venture outside, having been confined to indoor arenas in Western Europe for a few weeks now. (There is of course a whole other clay tour presently meandering through Latin America.) I certainly enjoy the sudden shift. Each year Dubai feels like a gust of warm clean air I hadn’t even realised I’d yearned for. It could just be a matter of convenience. From my vantage ten time zones ahead of Greenwich, it’s a treat to watch tennis matches that end before midnight. As I write, Tomas Berdych is mauling Tobias Kamke. The second round is already underway. Here’s how the first round went.

No less an authority than Lleyton Hewitt has anointed Marcos Baghdatis a ‘tremendous striker of the ball’. If balls are to be struck, then ‘tremendously’ is certainly high on my list of preferred ways to go about it (although I’m also partial to ‘infrequently’, depending on the circumstances). Faced with fourth seed Juan Martin del Potro, Baghdatis played more or less though he had nothing to lose, until he gained a break of serve in the third set. Then he had a break to lose, and duly lost it. A short while later he had three match points to lose, and he lost those as well, although I shouldn’t be quick to discount his opponent’s contribution. If Baghdatis grew tight at the key moments, then the Argentine grew loose, finally striking some tremendous balls of his own. Once the third set tiebreaker came round, del Potro’s victory was more or less assured; he has now won his last ten deciding set tiebreakers. It sealed a fine comeback from the world number seven, and a fine and dramatic match from both.

On paper, Nikolay Davydenko versus Tipsarevic was a first round encounter to savour. On court, it wasn’t, at least not if you were in a hurry. The first two games took thirty-one minutes, and both went to the Russian. So did the next four, in a mere nineteen minutes, delivering one of the most laboriously prepared bagels in the sport’s history. It was intriguing, although not from a strictly technical point of view, since the tennis was mostly poor. Davydenko later admitted to feeling exhausted after the opening games, and that he’d merely tried to steer the ball safely up the middle of the court. This proved to be more tactically prudent than Tipsarevic’s approach of spraying balls all over the place.

To be fair, he did land plenty of them in. Indeed, he won 34 points in that opening set, but no games. This provides a useful counterpoint to those commentators who believe they’re demonstrating a useful principle by converting points into games, i.e. ‘Isner has served sixteen aces – that’s four entire games worth!’ Really they’re proving little beyond their ability to reliably divide by four.

Having been bagelled, the Serb reconsidered his approach, and made some effort at landing even more shots within the confines of the court, and ensuring that enough of the points he won occurred consecutively. This had the happy result of putting him ahead a double break in the second set. Based on recent results, this was clearly an unfamiliar situation in which to find himself, and so he reverted to his earlier strategy, the one he’s been working on since the Australian Open. It yielded the usual result of losing in straight sets.

By some coincidence, Malek Jaziri also won 34 points in his opening set against Roger Federer, which turned out to be seven entire games worth, thus yielding him the set. This inevitably turned out to be more of a story than Federer’s eventual comfortable victory. Federer would insist, if anyone bothered to ask him anymore, that he never takes any opponent for granted, but I can’t help but wonder whether he initially saw Jaziri as a realistic threat. The defending champion was patchy in form, and frequently experimental in approach, charging the net, and volleying deep when a drop volley would have worked better by exposing his opponent’s suspect movement. Jaziri isn’t the spryest of contenders. Powerfully built, he has the presence (and features) of a low-level enforcer from The Sopranos.

But he’s a nice guy, and by his own admission he idolises Federer. All else being equal, Jaziri would undoubtedly have preferred to win, since he has to earn a living. Nonetheless I suspect he was quite satisfied to grab a tight set, and then to experience what it felt like once Federer’s forehand found its usual range and pace. For young players who grew up dreaming of facing Federer, deep down I’m sure they’d rather encounter him in decent form. The Swiss romped home 6-0 6-2, each set proving rather shorter than Tipsarevic and Davydenko’s opening pair of games.

It was also about as long as it took for Bernard Tomic to contract a crippling ‘general illness’ against Victor Hanescu. There was no word on whether this was an actual medical diagnosis. Requests for more detail have been rebuffed. Requests for less detail have been impossible to meet. The official word is that ‘something might have happened’ and that Tomic will recover ‘after rest probably’ or ‘some kind of surgery, maybe.’ At least it answers the question – which I posed elsewhere – of whether the young Australian’s fighting loss to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Marseilles last week will turn out to be a crucial moment in his development.

I submitted that it had been more crucial for Tsonga, since he’d gone on to win the Marseilles title in rather grand style, earning a disappointingly ordinary trophy and a peck on the cheek from a three year old. Before his cheek had even dried, Tsonga was off to Dubai, where Roger Rasheed was lurking in wait. Rasheed has already warned his charge (via the miracle of Twitter) that the hard work was about to begin. I’m not sure what was said in private, but upon taking the court Tsonga was a new man, one ready to turn around a six game winning streak against his opponent, Michael Llodra. He did this from a break up in the first set. An ace on game point was disallowed, the point was bafflingly replayed, confusion briefly reigned and Tsonga surrendered the break in a flurry of double faults. From there he looked truly lost. Afterwards he blamed the umpire, publicly. I suspect Rasheed will have words about that.

Anyway, Berdych has now finished off Kamke, Daniel Brands has seen off Mikhail Youzhny, and del Potro is tearing strips from Somdev Devvarman, all in brilliant sunshine. And it isn’t even midnight.

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3 Responses to If You Pay Them, They Will Come

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