A Beautiful Day On A Perfect Court
The Monte Carlo Masters is now officially two rounds old. As ever it has achieved a heady alchemy of the wearyingly familiar and the edifyingly refreshing. In the former category may be found Rafael Nadal’s annual disavowal of his own favouritism, which would carry more credence if it wasn’t delivered from atop a golden throne fashioned from his eighty-two previous Monte Carlo trophies. In the latter category one will discover Fabio Fognini, Grigor Dimitrov and Jarkko Nieminen, all of whom have progressed farther than one might have expected, scattering seeds along the way.
All four of the top seeds had been granted byes through the first round, in order that they might today parade for the delectation of the Court Central ticket holders. It was a packed ticket on one of the world’s prettiest tennis courts. Tomas Berdych kicked things off in confessedly grotesque fashion, seeing off Marcel Granollers in a pair of rather skewed and terribly scrappy sets. He conceded that it hadn’t been lovely, but rightly suggested he’d take the win anyway.
(3) Nadal d. Matosevic, 6-1 6-2
The most heavily anticipated match of the tournament is surely the potential third round between Nadal and Philipp Kohlschreiber. That’s the one everybody is talking about on the streets. But in order even to qualify for this epoch-fissuring rumble the Mallorcan somehow had to overcome Marinko Matosevic. It was here that Nadal’s form would be put to its first, and perhaps sternest test.
Matosevic won two points in the first four games, which turned out to be too few to claim any of them. Encouragingly, however, he won six points in the fifth game, in the process saving a break point, and he cashed these in for a lone game. He raised his arms aloft at this triumph, monumental in the circumstances. He won a few more points in the set – all of them were by definition memorable – but no more games. It wasn’t a long set, which was a mercy, because nor was it particularly exciting. Nadal was dominant, but it wasn’t the variety of dominance that expresses itself via torrents of winners, and nor was he obliged to display much virtuosity in defence. The television commentators had long since given up on pretending it was anything but a mismatch: ‘If these guys were boxers, they’d never meet.’
It’s a lazy commentary trope to suggest that a player changes his shirt in order to alter the match’s momentum. Sadly any hope that the practice will die out wasn’t helped when Matosevic returned to the court in a new top and promptly broke Nadal’s serve. Sky Sports duly correlated these events. Matosevic then held for 2-0, and moved to break point in Nadal’s next service game. The prospect of some significant resistance surfaced, far out near the Mediterranean’s serene horizon. Nadal saved that break point, and began to pick up his game, breaking back as the Australian netted a fairly straight-forward volley. The possibility of resistance submerged once more, along with Matosevic’s chances. The defending champion ratcheted up his pace, and didn’t lose another game. Suddenly the winners were flowing, the last and best coming on the final point. I think he’s the favourite, even if he doesn’t.
(1) Djokovic d. Youzhny, 4-6 6-1 6-4
There was some feverish speculation as to whether Novak Djokovic would actually play the event at all. Julien Benneteau’s revelation that he’d practiced with the world No.1, and that Djokovic had barely moved, was duly gasped at, and pored over. A practice set against Andy Murray yielded nothing more certain than that the Serb was indeed alive. It’s the kind of minor intrigue that’s hard to feel excited by at the time, given that it’ll soon be resolved one way or another. Djokovic would play or he wouldn’t. Then it turned out he would. And then he did. Now he has, defeating Mikhail Youzhny in a fine and sometimes finely-balanced contest.
Youzhny had shown rare poise in the first round – rare given his execrable form of late – delivering a bagel to Daniel Gimeno-Traver. It was supremely unlikely he’d manage the same feat against Djokovic, no matter how many or few functioning ankles the Serb had. Yet, at 4-0 to the Russian, an unlikely bagel wasn’t all that far off. Djokovic was playing poorly, moving gingerly, and probing the upper-half of the net with his groundstrokes. Youzhny served for the set at 5-2, and was broken at love. Suddenly Djokovic had stoked himself to life. Youzhny served for it again at 5-4, this time with rather more success.
Sadly, he would then lose eight of the next nine games, including the second set. Having well and truly attained his full stride by now, Djokovic moved ahead a break in the deciding set. At the time it was hard to imagine that this break wouldn’t prove definitive. This was evidently a failure of imagination on my part, and one that Youzhny didn’t share. Showing admirable belief, he broke back, and survived a titanic, superb seventh game to move ahead. He couldn’t hold onto his next game, though. Djokovic broke for 5-4, and served out the match decisively. It had been a test. Despite a tentative start, his movement appeared ultimately unhindered, and all the speculation about his ankle will hopefully cease. It won’t, of course, but one can hope.
In other, more upsetting news: Nicolas Almagro has joined John Isner in that special purgatory reserved for those players who take too little care with their scheduling, at least according to judgemental pundits. Almagro’s conqueror Jurgen Melzer will now face Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who displayed typical exuberance in taking down Nikolay Davydenko. Dimitrov will face Florian Mayer, and there’s no telling what will happen. The only certainties are that the sun will shine, the view will snatch away your breath, and Rafael Nadal really is the man to beat.