Indian Wells, Where Character is Destiny

In the final analysis, I wonder if my desire to be surprised is outweighed by my desire to be right. Would I prefer the talented headcases to pull themselves together and grind out tough wins under pressure, or do I secretly relish seeing them cave in yet again, abject in a deciding tiebreaker after squandering match point? Under light interrogation, many fans insist that they’d like to see the prodigious youngsters break through against top players. But who can forgo the hot flush of satisfaction when the youngster loses to a top player by the almost clichéd score-line of 7-6 6-1?

I’ve no doubt that part of it is garden-grade Schadenfreude, the default setting for many who spend their lives on the internet. Beyond that, however, I suspect people derive genuine pleasure from those moments when reality conforms to the stories we tell about it. It feeds into our latent belief that character is destiny, even in tennis. I assume no one is dismayed to hear this; everyone, at some level, must relish the idea that their special area of interest is structured like a Greek tragedy.

Two results from yesterday clearly stood out in this respect. These were the losses of Nicolas Almagro and Grigor Dimitrov, to Tommy Haas and Novak Djokovic respectively. Each loss cleaved closely to the standard view of each man. Both permitted the self-avowed experts among us to nod knowingly, as though these matches couldn’t have played out any other way. Strictly defined, Almagro’s loss was more a comedy than a tragedy, although we shouldn’t hold that against it. Sometimes it’s good to laugh.

Almagro has so far had a mixed year, ‘mixed’ in this sense being a euphemism for ‘poor’ (‘year’ means pretty much what you’d think). There was of course that Australian Open quarterfinal in January, in which he failed to serve out the match no fewer than thirty-seven times (I’m going from memory here). Afterwards it was debatable whether he was more spooked at the prospect of finally defeating David Ferrer (on his thirty-seventh attempt) or of reaching his first Major semifinal.

After Melbourne, Almagro made his way to South America, to join the so called Golden Swing he has recently made his own. This sequence of otherwise inconsequential clay court events has become interesting in recent years for the way it perfectly showcases the pecking order in men’s clay court tennis. The first tournament in Chile, lacking top players, is entirely a lottery involving South Americans and second-tier Spaniards. Almagro typically shows up for the second event in Brazil, and commences winning until David Ferrer arrives and takes over. Two years ago Ferrer didn’t show up until the fourth tournament, which is Acapulco. Almagro consequently won Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo. Last year Ferrer showed up a week earlier, leaving Almagro with just Sao Paulo. This year the whole was thrown into disarray by the presence of Rafael Nadal from the get-go. This resulted in Almagro winning no titles at all, a dismal outcome from a portion of the season that is his best opportunity to shine, and earn.

Today Almagro lost to Haas after failing to serve out the match at 6/5 in the final set, and, more specifically, failing properly to dispatch a frankly hopeless drop shot from the German on the first match point. Admittedly, the drop shot landed on the service line and might conceivably have been an even worse lob – context suggests otherwise – which might account for Almagro’s indecisive disposal of it. He planted it cross court, and was as interested as everyone else to discover his opponent had anticipated this possibility, and arrived just in time to plonk the passing shot into the acre of open court. Haas, encouraged, subsequently broke back, and then compiled a tiebreaker that was almost perfectly unlike the one he’d lost to conclude the second set.

I don’t mean to belittle Almagro, since I find his game stylish and attractive. It was an excellent match, as virtuosic and dramatic as one could hope for, and the Spaniard provided almost exactly half its entertainment. Theatrically, Haas displayed a greater capacity for histrionics (racquet tosses, shirt changes, and pointless remonstrations with the umpire), although Almagro was better able to project to the back row. I won’t pretend I’m displeased that Haas won, since he’s nearly as old as me and he won’t be around for ever. But my point is that I was also not displeased that Almagro’s manner of losing seemed so perfectly characteristic, not to say comedic.

At about the same time Almagro and Hass were breaking their tie in the third set, Dimitrov and Djokovic were doing the same in their first set. From a strict chronological perspective, Dimitrov’s match thus ended about twenty minutes after Almagro’s.  However, the loss occurred earlier. It happened as the Bulgarian served for the first set at 5/3, whereupon he set about confounding the persistent comparisons to Roger Federer. Federer would surely never serve four double faults to be broken back, but that’s precisely what Dimitrov did, proving emphatically that his spiritual progenitor is really Fernando Verdasco: He’s less Baby Fed than Baby Fer.

A tiebreaker ensued, which Djokovic won 7-4 (including one point that he graciously conceded). Dimitrov had led 5/2 in that first set, and hadn’t been all that far from 5-1. He made it to 5-1 in the second set, although he was sadly on the losing end by this time, and it was merely a prelude to going down 6-1. No one bothered to sound surprised as Djokovic galloped away with the match, especially among the Sky Sports commentators, who only briefly gave off excoriating Dimitrov in order to praise the world No.1’s professionalism.

They were hard to fault on both counts. Djokovic did everything he should have, right until the end, whereas Dimitrov only managed it for eight games. Once momentum has swung against them, it seems all but impossible for a young player to wrench it back, and instead they just spiral away. The score-line of 7-6 6-1 is a perfect illustration of this. It seems very common in these types of matchups. Once Djokovic had broken back – he afterwards admitted he hadn’t had to do much – even the contour of the result seemed grindingly inevitable. It felt like fate. It felt like a Greek tragedy, but not a very good one.