Jesse Pentecost

Jesse Pentecost is a Melbourne-based prize-winning novelist for his first novel, The Con. He is also the founder of the men's tennis blog The Next Point and can be found on Twitter @TheNextPoint.
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A Beautiful Day On A Perfect Court

Nadal MC 2013 -3

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.

Three Unmissable Events of the Clay Season

Rome's Court Pietrangeli should be on every fan's bucket list.

The draw is whittling down nicely at Houston’s grandly titled US Men’s Clay Court Championship. The WTA has already completed a fine week in Charleston. Clay, whether we like it or not, is upon us. There are unbroken months of dirt ahead, and it’s only getting redder. Soon it’ll be everywhere – swirling into our eyes, clogging our nostrils and matting our hair. With the last of the clear air, I’m looking forward to the three landmark events that excite me the most about the coming European clay season.

Mutua Madrid Open, Madrid

Madrid was of course notorious last year for its blue clay, which was roundly condemned at the time, but has since grown so toxic in frenzied retrospect that it might as well have been laced with arsenic. Actually, Madrid’s surface was notorious for two things: its colour and its slipperiness. The organisers insisted repeatedly that these two factors weren’t related: the slickness was the result of a shoddy job when laying the court down, and had nothing to do with the colour. They pointed out that an older blue court had been available on the site for a year, and that it was no more slippery than the Madrid surface is in other years (which is to say quite slippery).

Nevertheless, cerulean dirt and insecure footing became so inextricably bound up in people’s minds that there was no way to separate them, even at the time. It didn’t help that the tournament’s owner Ion Tiriac is held out in such low regard that any attempt to defend his event has come to seem wilfully perverse. It was very easy to assume Tiriac was lying, because he’s a natural villain  It was harder to assume Manolo Santana and Carlos Moya were lying, as well. The consensus emerged that they’d been duped. There’s nothing that wicked Tiriac won’t stoop to.

In the end, Madrid’s blue surface – which improved televisibility (a word I just made up) and resembled nothing more lethal than laundry powder – was felt to be too unpredictable and too unsafe, and fatally disruptive to everyone’s Roland Garros preparation. It was so unpredictable that almost only seeded players made the quarterfinals (two non-seeded women pushed to the final eight). It was so unsafe that it saw fewer serious injuries sustained than most other events of similar stature; look at the recent Miami event, whose attrition rate was comparable to The Somme. Of course any subsequent niggle suffered by anyone was duly ascribed to the blue dirt, including shoulder twinges and a stomach virus. And it was so disruptive that the following week in Rome the men’s semifinals consisted of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer, who all went on to reach the French Open semifinals.

On the men’s side, Madrid produced the first decent Masters final in over a year; an electric blue tussle between Federer and Tomas Berdych. The women’s final was a perfunctory blowout, though this had nothing to do with the court. It had everything to do with Serena Williams playing as she can, thus rendering her opponent irrelevant, notwithstanding that her opponent was world number one Victoria Azarenka.

In any case, the chorus of disapproval was not merely deafening but decisive. Nadal and Djokovic declared they wouldn’t come back unless the clay was returned to its proper shade. Williams recently remarked that she doesn’t ‘know of anyone that’s going to miss the blue clay’. Consequently, this year it’s back to red. The irony, if we can call it that, is that the Madrid surface is always relatively slick. But you can be sure the tournament work diligently to guarantee secure footing this year, even if they have to lay down Velcro, and that everyone will claim it is due to the colour. I think it’s a shame, but I’m still looking forward to it.

Internazionali BNL d’Italia, Rome

Rome is my favourite combined tennis event outside of the four Majors.

It contrives the perfect alchemy of real and fake tradition; the real evoked by the thousands of fine matches it has hosted over the decades, and the fake by the kitsch faux-Classicism of the venue itself. The Foro Italico’s striven-for effect of gladiatorial antiquity is utterly undone by the slightest knowledge of the facility’s history: it is a Mussolini-era monument to Il Duce’s ego, and testifies to his overweening determination to connect his rule with ancient Rome. The adjacent swimming pool is a real eye-opener.

But in the heat of battle, especially in the semi-submerged old Court Pietrangeli, the absurd colonnades and statues become the best set dressing in the sport. Throw in ideal clay, typically excellent weather, and a local crowd only ever one inconvenience away from rioting, and you’re all but guaranteed a magical week in which high drama becomes the norm rather than the exception, especially when Italian players make a bold run through the draw.

Last year’s bold locals were Andreas Seppi and Flavia Pennetta, who both ran all the way to the quarters. Seppi’s excruciatingly tense victory over Stanislas Wawrinka was the match of the tournament, conducted in a restive twilight atmosphere on Pietrangeli. There’s no telling what the crowd would have done had the Italian lost. After Li Na’s morbidly fascinating third set collapse to Maria Sharapova in the final, the crowd really did lose it, indulging in some minor civic unrest when it was announced the men’s final was delayed. Boos rang out lustily, security stepped in, and the Center Court was littered with bottles.

Open de Nice Côte d’Azur, Nice

The Open de Cote d’Azur is an ATP 250 level event staged in Nice the week before Roland Garros, and it is cursed.

It first ran in 2010, taking the place of Kitzbühel on the tour calendar. The week before a Major is a tricky slot for a tournament, especially given that the top male players no longer bother with anything more strenuous than inconsequential exhibitions – think Kooyong or The Boodles – conserving their energy and time for meticulous acclimatisation and useless media events.

Consequently, the best Nice can manage to attract are a few standouts from the second tier. However, even to secure their services, the tournament has apparently struck a Faustian deal with Mephistopheles. Richard Gasquet won the tournament’s inaugural edition, then travelled to Paris and lost in the first round from two sets up. Nicolas Almagro won Nice in 2011, then lost in the first round in Paris from two sets up. Only divine intervention prevented another recurrence last year, in the form of Brian Baker.

Astute fans will remember that it was precisely a year ago that Baker shot to prominence, setting forth on his seemingly quixotic quest to have a professional tennis career. He won the USTA’s French Open wildcard playoff series thing, before travelling to continental Europe and qualifying for Nice. The rest is history. He pushed through qualifying, and then pushed further – all the way to the final. Although he fell to Almagro, his audacious run so impressed the tournament’s demonic patron that the curse was temporarily suspended, with the dire promise that it will return tenfold if Baker doesn’t reprise his heroics every year thereafter.

The Cote d’Azur is unquestionably an idyllic location at which to stage a decisive battle between heaven and hell, and Baker’s shoulders are slight ones upon which to place the fate of so many. But I think he’s up for it. In fact, he’ll probably win it. And then lose in the first round at the French Open from two sets up.

Hardcourt Retrospective (ATP)

Djokovic Murray AO 2013 -2

As the ATP tour descends with wrathful inevitability upon the clay of southern Europe and elsewhere – indeed the WTA has already made the switch – the time seems appropriate to look back at the prolonged hardcourt season just ended, the one that began in Atlanta last July, and concluded just a few days ago in Miami.

It is a useful way to view the tennis season: as a near-perpetual hardcourt marathon punctuated by those brief fevered months on the traditional courts of the Old World, with the year-end break merely the longest of several afforded to worn players. A wider perspective is always a useful thing to maintain, provided one can resist the persuasive distortions of the panorama.

This period incorporates the US Summer, the Asian swing, the European indoors, Australia, and the disparate events in February that culminate in the US Spring Masters, and therefore includes two Majors, six Masters 1000, the World Tour Finals, and a multitude of 250 and 500 events.†

Table 1. Hardcourt Leaders

This shows the hardcourt season leaders, including their number of points, titles, and win/loss.

It surely comes as a surprise to no one that Djokovic tops this list, across all three categories, or, presumably, that Murray sits in clear second place. After all, between them they won both Majors, and three of the six Masters events. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that Ferrer numerically out-performed Federer, at the Majors, the Masters and at 500 and 250 level. It’s interesting to note that Berdych accrued more points than del Potro, despite having a worse winning percentage and winning fewer titles. However, the Czech did play more matches than anyone else in this period.

Table 2. Points Gain

This table shows which players gained the most points. It will consequently favour the top players heavily.

How about that? Gasquet has gained the most hardcourt points since last July. His biggest hauls came in Montreal, Miami, and three 250 level titles in Montpellier, Doha and Bangkok. It’s more proof that he’s headed in the right direction. I am hopeful that this trend will continue for a while yet. These numbers merely add more wonder to the late career resurgence of Haas. Ferrer, meanwhile, feasted on his elevated seeding to gain excellent results in Paris, New York, Melbourne and Miami.‡

Del Potro made a substantial gain despite a dismal Australian Open loss, and he has gradually returned to an appropriate spot in the rankings. Djokovic gained points despite failing to defend titles at the US Open and Miami, mainly because he picked up titles in Shanghai and at the Tour Finals.

Table 3. Points Loss

This table shows which players lost the most points. Once again, top players are inevitably featured.

It’s hardly surprising that Nadal tops this list, given that he contested only one hardcourt tournament in this period (Indian Wells), though he did win it.Ψ Federer, on the other hand, has fallen away sharply, as the fistful of titles he claimed in 2011/12 to regain the No.1 spot have gone sadly undefended. Seeing these two atop this list does rather support the idea that we’ve seen the last of the ‘Fedal’ era, for better or for worse.

Tsonga is a worrying case, since there isn’t much evidence that his poor form is due to pick up. He still has tremendous weeks, such as Marseilles, but he also has too many stinkers. Fish’s health issues have been amply discussed, and it’s unlikely he’ll ever return to the top ten. Monfils has also suffered a dispiriting run of injuries (he’s prone to it, of course), and has tumbled outside the top hundred. It’s worth mentioning that John Isner sits just off this list at No.6. Like Tsonga, but more so, it’s hard to find much hope that his current slide has bottomed out.

Table 4. Rankings Gain

This table shows who made the biggest rankings leap into the top 100 since last July.

This reveals a mixture of seasoned professionals returning - Blake, Robredo - and youngsters on the make. De Bakker and Berankis were ranked unusually low, due to injury, and it’s good to see them reascend to a level more commensurate with their abilities, although I’d hazard that the Lithuanian is more likely to keep climbing much higher. I cannot see de Bakker breaking into the top 50, but a ranking around 70-90 seems not unreasonable. The same could be said of Donskoy. I suspect he’s ranked right at the limits of his current ability. His numbers attest to hard toil at the challenger level, and a nice run to the third round in Melbourne.

Table 5. Top 100 Entries

I include this list, and the one that follows, purely for the sake of curiosity. They show entry into and exit out of the top 100. Given the relatively modest number of points shared between these players, these figures are undeniably skewed by clay results in South America and elsewhere. Zeballos is a perfect example of this.

As with the previous list, as well as a few (too few) youngsters, there is a healthy number of veterans making late-career stands: Robredo, Blake, Hewitt, Tursunov, Mathieu, Becker.

Everyone was on Rosol’s case when he didn’t follow up on his upset of Nadal at Wimbledon with more astounding feats. But it should be noted that he has risen some 44 places, which is a pretty good effort (there are a couple of clay results mixed in there). It wasn’t all roses, though: he did get bagelled by Paolo Lorenzi.

Zemlja is also a pretty interesting case, leading the current Slovenian charge in men’s tennis, along with Bedene and Blaz Kavcic. His standouts were the run through qualifying to the third round of the US Open, and through qualifying to the Vienna final, defeating Haas and Tipsarevic en route.

The average age of these 22 players, incidentally, is 26.59 years. Make of that what you will.

Table 6. Top 100 Exits

Roddick, Ferrero and Chela have of course retired, and so their departures from the top 100 hardly merit further discussion. Excluding those three, the average age of the departed is 28.32 years. This number is dragged down slightly by the 26-year-old Monfils, who tops this list courtesy of a run of injuries, owing to bad luck and a playing style tailored perfectly towards crippling oneself. Assuming he can regain his health – never a safe assumption – he’ll be back in the top 20 before too long. Perhaps.

There is certainly a decent number of tour veterans who one suspects the race is overtaking: Karlovic, Phau, Andreev, Volandri, Mahut and Ramirez-Hidalgo. I hesitate to include Nalbandian on this list, but doing so has become increasingly hard to justify. His low ranking and poor results still somehow feel like a mistake that will one day be rectified, even though I know deep down it won’t be. Hope springs eternal, though Nalbandian clearly doesn’t.

Ebden, Stebe, Bogomolov and Young are excellent examples of that rankings quirk around this level, wherein one or two strong results will buy a journeyman twelve months in the big time, but no longer. Once that year is up, they inevitably subside. My apologies to those readers still hoping for big thing from Young, but I cannot see it happening. Of course, a return to the top hundred isn’t out of the question for any of these guys, but it will always feel like borrowed time.

† This period also of course includes the Golden Swing in South America. Where this has affected the figures I have made a note of it.

‡ Ferrer’s current points total includes 550 points from the Golden Swing.

Ψ Nadal’s current points total includes 750 points from the Golden Swing.

All On The Surface: What’s Happened To Miami?

Miami Stadium Court 2012

From my current vantage in Melbourne – which is either an ocean and a continent away or fifteen hours in the future, depending on the direction – the Sony Open Tennis in Miami has lost some of its erstwhile burnish. There was a time when it was, if not necessarily the most polished of the non-Slam events, certainly the biggest. It was a shining highlight on both the men’s and women’s tours. Now though, its lustre has dulled. Attendance figures are down, which is borne out visually by the dollops of empty seats dotting the strangely canted Stadium.

Even the players don’t seem that into it. It isn’t merely that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal skipped the men’s tournament, or that Victoria Azarenka pulled out of the women’s. There have been retirements galore at all levels – something like 13,050 at last count – of a volume that one associates with warm-up events staged the week before a Major. We expect players to pull out peremptorily for niggles when they have a more important event coming up, but that’s not the case in Miami. It’s supposed to be an end in itself, but people are pulling out with sore throats. Sergiy Stakhovsky quipped on Twitter that if Crandon Park began its renovations now the players would have an excuse to skip it next year. Jonas Bjorkman responded that the venue hasn’t seen an upgrade in 19 years, and that the revenues aren’t being reinvested into the event, or words to that effect.

As has been widely reported, Paul McNamee last week suggested that Miami should consider switching to clay, which sparked some debate. McNamee’s suggestion spoke directly to the specific issue of the tournament’s hardcourt surface, which has grown painfully slow in recent years, but also more generally to the tournament’s ongoing relevance to both respective tours. It’s well worth a read.

I’m not convinced that ‘relevance’ is a quality to which any tennis tournament should necessarily aspire, or be judged by. But it is a quality that Miami itself aims for: what are the tedious proclamations of its status as the unofficial ‘Fifth Slam’, iterated endlessly, if not a grasping towards relevance? If nothing else, we’re invited to judge. There was a time when it might have felt like a Fifth Slam, but they’ve now passed. Stakhovsky said that, too.

A move to clay would reposition Miami at the beginning of the mostly European clay swing. The current drive on both tours is to consolidate the many disparate events into coherent ‘swings’ (though this is a term I dislike). Thus the lead up to the US Open rebranded as the ‘US Open Summer Series’. The lead up to the French Open is called the ‘Road to Roland Garros’. The ATP has been more determined in this than the WTA: even September’s three week Asian swing has a clear shape, as it escalates from a pair of 250 level events (Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur), though a pair of 500s (Tokyo and Beijing), culminating in the Shanghai Masters. In a similar spirit, the two combined US Spring events are intended to complete the February hardcourt events staged throughout North America  and elsewhere.

As much as we (rightly) ridicule the idiotic bickering between Indian Wells and Miami as to which constitutes the ‘Fifth Slam’, there are reasons why the debate persists, and real ramifications for the winner and loser. As I say, back in the 1980s and 1990s Miami was the official unofficial fifth Slam; in the glory days of the Lipton International, players would themselves use the term. Indian Wells in those days still felt very much like an entrée to the main course. In fact it had a 64-strong draw in those years, and had yet to match Miami’s extravagant generosity towards the Bye family (the move to a ridiculous 96-draw came in 2004).

Two factors have significantly diminished Miami’s cachet. Firstly, there is the severe reduction of the number of American February events, which has been gone over exhaustively, and shows no sign of being reversed. Indeed, the WTA this year only staged one modest event in North America before Indian Wells (Memphis). Any culmination feels lessened when no one cares about the build-up. Secondly, Indian Wells has now overtaken Miami in terms of sheer interest and excitement. Beyond the issue of prize money and an expanding facility in Southern California, it feels – I realise I’m being subjective here – as though the players can’t wait to get to Indian Wells, yet are keen to skip Miami given half a chance. (Serena Williams is of course the exception here, and I don’t mean to downplay the value she represents for  the US market in particular.) Indian Wells is now such a spectacle that replicating the excitement would be difficult for Miami, even if it was possible, or desirable. I don’t think this part of the season can sustain back-to-back week-and-a-half mini-Majors. Consequently, Key Biscayne has started to feel like a hangover. There are even fewer celebrities in attendance. Kevin Spacey is nowhere to be seen.

Nor has Miami helped its own cause with the surface. The Miami hardcourt is among the slowest on the tours (perhaps only Valencia is its equal on the ATP tour).  This is a quality that is only enhanced by the dense swampy atmosphere. Indian Wells has a fairly slow court as well, but this is offset by thin desert air. Miami’s courts are notoriously difficult to penetrate, and grant a fairly decisive edge to defensive players (which of course is not to say that attacking players cannot do well). Indeed the joke that Miami doesn’t need to move to clay since it already has, is one worth making. I can’t recall that I’ve ever heard a single player praise the Miami surface.

Converting Miami to clay might even help US tennis. Dirt has for some time been the weakest surface for American players. Indeed, José Higueras has pointed out for some time that the lack of clay courts in the States has contributed significantly to the nation falling away on all surfaces, believing that early development on clay provides a much better foundation, in terms of stroke production and footwork, but also through patience and the capacity to structure a rally. Having an important clay court event right near many of the United States top training facilities would certainly help. As McNamee says in his article, Florida already has the highest concentration of clay (Har-Tru) courts in the States. Given that the Orange Bowl is also staged there –the official Fifth Junior Slam – this would directly incentivice clay for the youngsters.

But switching to clay wouldn’t solve the issue of identity, or relevance, or answer the increasingly vexed question of why there are two big joint events in March at all. Running back-to-back events only makes sense when there’s a Major to follow; the sheer size of the Major seems to subsume the discrepancies among putatively similar lead-up events. I disagree with McNamee that it would function as ‘the grand opening of the major clay court season’. It would be far too far out from the French Open to constitute a meaningful warm-up. Indeed, even Monte Carlo’s value is questionable in this respect. It seems to be a structural requirement that these ‘swings’ start small, and gather steam as they go. I also don’t think the ATP tour needs a fourth Masters on clay, although it desperately needs one on grass.

If I was a dictator – as we all pray I one day will be – or at least granted executive powers in the matter of tennis scheduling, I wouldn’t convert Miami to clay. Until I could figure out a way to move it to Europe and play it on grass, I think the easiest solution would be to switch Miami and Indian Wells, since the current disparity between them is only going to grow as long as Larry Ellison has his way, or more accurately his wealth and energy. You might as well play the biggest one second. I’d also ban any more talk of ‘Fifth Slams’. Perhaps these measures would free Miami up to be whatever it wants to be. If players still skip it, or indulge in perfunctory retirements, it won’t seem so crippling.

I’d also speed up the courts. It’s getting painful to watch.

A Mighty Quartet: How Dominant Are the Big Four?

(Photo: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images North America)

With his victory at the Indian Wells Masters 1000, Rafael Nadal has contrived a brief return to the No.4 ranking, thereby granting men’s tennis a momentary break from the odd configuration whereby the Big Four aren’t its top four. At a stroke, Nadal has reasserted the validity of the Big Four as a concept, and realigned it with the actual rankings. Given that this was the first tournament they all contested since June last year, it’s frankly convenient.

To say this is hardly to lavish undue disrespect on David Ferrer, who is generally the first to concede his compatriot’s superiority. Lest Ferrer had forgotten the pecking order, there was the Acapulco final several weeks ago to remind him, in which he managed only two games, which was at least one more than he deserved. The point was further rammed home when he fell in his opening match at Indian Wells. The rankings will switch back after Miami, since Nadal isn’t playing there and Ferrer is. Nadal will inevitably subside back to the number five ranking. That’s just the way the rankings work.

I presume I do not astonish anyone by saying that the top four’s current dominance of men’s tennis surpasses anything that has gone before. You don’t need to know much about the sport to know that. In a way, it is a coincidence that there are four supremely good players at the top of the men’s game, although this is also a number reinforced by the structure of tournament play. Even if there was a fifth player with similar abilities, he would find it hard to break in.

It relates directly to seeding. The top four seeds will always be drawn to face a seed between five and eight at the quarterfinal stage. This can be a mixed bag: that top seed might draw Tomas Berdych in a monstrous mood, and potentially lose, but he might also face Janko Tipsarevic or Ferrer having a bad day, and cruise. On the other hand, someone seeded between five and eight will always draw a top four player in the quarterfinals, and, in the current era, those guys almost never have bad days. You might take out one of them, or even two, but then you’ll find another one lurking in the final. (This is what Juan Martin del Potro discovered in Indian Wells, although I’m sure he was already conversant with the theory.)

Consequently, on average the top four are more likely to reach the semifinals not only because they are by definition better at tennis, but also because they face lesser opponents to get there. Once there they are awarded more points – at the same time denying those points to other players – thereby reinforcing their position.

And the points are crucial, since in order to be in the top four, you must regularly accrue the kinds of points that are allocated for semifinals and above. As a general rule, the amount of points rewarded for each round at an ATP tournament doubles as you progress, until the semifinal. For example, the points allocation for a Major is as follows.

  • 1st Round: 10 points
  • 2nd Round: 45 points
  • 3rd Round: 90 points
  • 4th Round: 180 points
  • Quarterfinal: 360 points
  • Semifinal: 720 points
  • Final: 1,200 points
  • Winner: 2,000 points

As you can see, the points from each round apart from the first round are doubled in each subsequent round, until you reach the semifinal. These proportions are retained for every tournament of each level. A Masters 1000 event is called that because the winner receives 1000 points; aside from the early rounds, which are riddled with byes, every round awards half what a major does . You can therefore guess why 500 and 250 events are named as they are, and what the point allocations are.

At the Majors (and to a lesser degree Masters), the jump from the quarterfinals (360 points) to the semifinals (720 points) represents a break point of sorts. Consistently reaching the semifinal stage at those events bestows enough points that you can reach the higher ranking, while at the same time denying those below you the chance to do so. To be ranked in the top four in the current era requires a lot of points, more than ever before, and it requires reaching a lot of semifinals as a baseline, with regular titles and runner-ups thrown in.

To take an extreme example, world No.1 Novak Djokovic currently has 13,280 points, while No.2 Roger Federer has 8,715. The gap between them is therefore 4,565 points. That is greater than the points gap between the world No.7 Juan Martin del Potro and the world No.182 Agustin Velotti. Of course, Djokovic’s current points lead is enormous, while Federer has shed thousands of points in the last six months, but my point is that there is an enormous concentration of points in the top few spots, especially at the moment, and that in order to achieve those points hauls you have to be consistently reaching the semifinals.

So just how many points are concentrated at the top? Well, there are various ways to look at it. One useful metric is to examine the absolute maximum number of points the top four players can have, which would be achieved if all four of them reached at least the semifinal at every event for twelve months. To keep the comparison consistent we can limit this to ‘mandatory’ events, meaning the four Majors, the nine Masters and the World Tour Finals. For the record, the maximum number of points that four players can accumulate from all these events is 42,740. The present top four have actually accumulated 32,450 points between them, which 75.92% of the maximum possible. Bear in mind that this number is lower than it could be, given Nadal was absent for seven months, a period that included two Majors, four Masters, and the WTF.

The following graph demonstrates how this data compares historically, against year-end data going back to 2000.

As can be seen, the dominance of the top four has increased dramatically in that time, peaking in 2011. There has been a slight tail off since then. Nadal’s recent absence had something to do with this (the main beneficiary was Ferrer), as well as general improvements from del Potro and Berdych.

It is interesting to note that over that same period, similar data for the top ten reveals a slighter though still noticeable increase:

The points are increasingly concentrated at the very top, which means the so-called Little Four (Ferrer, del Potro, Berdych and Tsonga) are maintaining their positions with relatively modest results (although Ferrer’s results, as mentioned, have been slightly inflated). If anything, this makes it even more surprising that the top ten is as stable as it is: it’s currently the same as it was last December.

The Little Four only require consistent quarterfinals and the odd semifinal in order to stay where they are, and the wonder is that they’re managing to do precisely that. They managed to fashion a rather stable camp just below the rankings summit. In some ways this is far more startling than the news that the Big Four are so dominant, which isn’t really news at all, any more.

Indian Wells, Where Character is Destiny

Dimitrov IW 2013 -1

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.

Site Unseen: A Lament for the Untelevised Early Rounds at Indian Wells

The Indian Wells Outer Courts, scene of many unwitnessed classics.

The main draw matches at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells are scheduled to commence today, which is to say on Wednesday morning local time. Even as I write, the men’s qualifying draw – dense with fascinating matches – is slimming down to an even dozen. The women’s qualifying draw is already there.

Television coverage is due to begin on Friday, provided initially by the Tennis Channel. In the dreary parlance of marketing, we are informed that this is ‘one day earlier than the network’s traditional first-Saturday start’, ‘tradition’ in this case being employed capaciously to denote anything that previously happened for any length of time at all. For the arithmetically challenged, this radical new Friday start will occur fully two days after main draw play begins. I’m not the first person to note this discrepancy, and I won’t be the last. Nor would I be the first to suggest that the decision to delay coverage until the third day of play isn’t driven by money.

In any case, pointing it out is redundant, since no one, including the networks, is pretending otherwise. Instead we’re left to bask in the rapturous news that ‘the tournament will culminate with 12 live hours on ESPN networks’. One cannot elude the impression that the fans are supposed to be grateful. Any fans particularly overcome by gratitude are encouraged to call up the network and let them know.

However, it is debatable whether the main draw really begins today. Indian Wells, like Miami, doles out an extravagant selection of byes: all thirty-two seeds are granted safe passage to the second round, the point at which Andy Murray ‘traditionally’ loses. This is precisely one third of the main draw (which is 96 strong). The remaining 64 players – qualifiers, wildcards and those unwashed members of the top hundred whom Ernests Gulbis cannot pick out of a police line-up – are left to vie for the privilege of facing a seed. By this rationale, the Indian Wells first round is really just a supplementary or transitional qualifying round. In order for a seeded player to win the title, he or she must win six matches. A non-seeded direct entrant or wildcard must win seven matches. Qualifiers must win nine matches. It doesn’t seem fair, but, once again, I assume that’s the point.

The goal of seeding is to protect the best players from having to face each other early on, thus limiting the opportunity for upsets. A little over a decade ago the seeding in 96 (and 128) player draws was expanded from sixteen to thirty-two players, which provided added protection. The bye system provides even greater protection. Even without a bye it is eminently unlikely that, say, Victoria Azarenka would lose in the first round, but the bye removes any doubt whatsoever, thereby transforming a theoretical unlikelihood into a practical impossibility. For the general sports fan – who really just wants to see the most famous players facing off – this probably isn’t a bad thing.

More to the point, it isn’t a bad thing for ESPN. Those twelve hours of semifinals and finals coverage that we’re supposed to be grateful for didn’t come cheap. ESPN will do everything it can to guarantee the best return on its investment, and from their point of view the best return is to have Federer, Sharapova, Nadal, Williams, Djokovic and Azarenka present at the tournament’s conclusion. (Williams of course won’t be at Indian Wells, and you can be sure that the presiding television interests aren’t thrilled about that.) The only exceptions are if a local player makes a deep run. Last year’s men’s event was thus pure spun gold: Federer and Nadal in one semifinal, and Isner defeating Djokovic in the other. Each protagonist was recognisable to a general sports fan, and the narrative of local boy making good is always compelling.

And it’s those general fans that provide ESPN’s revenue, which has invested considerable time and effort grooming Chris Fowler in order that he can render the eldritch intricacies of the sport comprehensible for the layperson. In and of itself, there’s no inherent problem with having the best players contest the later rounds at every tournament. Some may (justifiably) contend that seeing the same few players fight for titles each week grows stale. On the other hand, the freshness gained by seeing a new face is often offset by the perfunctory thrashing they receive when they encounter an elite player. But it is a problem when the urge to see certain outcomes causes the sport to tilt results in that direction, which is more or less the tacit goal of the bye system (and, let’s be frank, the seeding system). The top players have an objectively easier time reaching the later rounds than their lower-ranked peers, notwithstanding that they’re already better players anyway.

Unlike ESPN, the Tennis Channel by definition caters to viewers with a specific interest in the sport itself, who’re willing to pay a premium to watch tennis theoretically whenever they want to (though in practice they’re often constrained by the superior purchasing power of rival networks). These are fans whose interest extends beyond Sharapova or Nadal, all the way to, say, Gasquet and Kuznetsova, and beyond. Although, apparently not far beyond. Not far enough that they’ll get to see the WTA’s first round, let alone any qualifying. Fans who are that hardcore will have to resort to alternative means, such as audio coverage through the website.

The combination of the 96 draw and a midweek start (rare in tennis) conspires to make the qualifying event feel more like a part of the tournament than is elsewhere the case. Qualifying began on Monday, which is the point at which tournaments traditionally begin – and here the term ‘tradition’ is warranted. Meanwhile having a weirdly inconsequential first round helps the qualifying tournament shade into the main one. In some ways, this would be a nice thing, if it wasn’t so effectively undone by the clear message of the television coverage, which is that the initial few days (and the men and women playing on those days) aren’t worth the effort. The three levels of fandom, it seems, neatly correlate with the three classes of players in the respective tours: the big names, the lesser names, and the unwatchables.

Sadly, the lack of early-round coverage hardly helps the lower ranked players, whose already anaemic aspirations might be starved by a lack of exposure. What Indian Wells really does is reinforce the multi-tiered system that seeding originally created, and that the expanded seeding arrangement later augmented. The television schedule then makes it clear for all the non-seeds that their necessary toils do not merit a wider audience.

The BNP Paribas Open likes to refer to itself as the unofficial fifth Slam. This is mostly a fairly meaningless marketing term, but it is only rendered more so by the consideration that the last Major we enjoyed – the Australian Open – had coverage not only from day one, but high-definition streams running through qualifying. Indian Wells certainly has the money – the prizemoney increase this year is to be heartily applauded – and the technological wherewithal. I can watch Thiemo de Bakker play Christian Garin at a Challenger in Santiago, but I couldn’t watch Gulbis play Christian Harrison in southern California. Is it too much to ask to have some cameras rolling from the outset?

 

If You Pay Them, They Will Come

Federer Dubai 2013 -2

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.

The Forever Men

Seppi Belgrade 2012 -7-crop

Last Sunday afternoon, Milos Raonic became the first man to win three consecutive titles at the SAP Open, at precisely the same moment he became the last man to win one at all. This edition of the San Jose was the last, bringing the rich history of professional tennis in northern California to a close. Raonic will therefore reign as defending champion approximately forever.

It can be a tricky matter to define precisely when a tournament actually expires, or even if it has. There are technical points to be made about licences and ownership, such that it is theoretically possible for an event to survive across endless variations of geography, surface and draw. Has Los Angeles really gone, or has it just moved to Bogota, simultaneously shifting continent and soaring into low orbit? What about the Memphis 500 event, which will relocate to Rio? What, if anything, about that tournament will truly endure?

Such discussions are apt to grow philosophical, as we’re compelled to wonder at the ineradicable essence of a tennis tournament, such that it can retain its identity when everything important about it has ostensibly changed. Apparently these things have ineffable souls, or at least durable traditions that might be strung out indefinitely.

On the other hand, aficionados of professional tennis in southern California are in no doubt that the LA tournament has ascended, not to Columbia, but to that great tennis boneyard in the sky. They might well be insulted if the next champion in Bogota was appended to the long and illustrious list of past LA champions, which includes Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe. The fans often know when a tournament has really perished, just as they know when it is being artificially sustained on life support.

Indeed, reading down the past champion’s lists for many of these cancelled events is bittersweet, evoking sepia-tinted glories, now fading irrecoverably with the tournament’s passing. While some were new ventures that evidently didn’t pan out, many more were decades old, and the winner’s list tells a salutary tale of prestige giving way, gradually or suddenly, to irrelevance. You can understand what is lost, even as you can see why it had to go.

Sometimes what is lost is an invaluable start. It is fascinating to note that each of the Big Four won his first title at a tournament that has since been cancelled: Roger Federer (Milan 2001), Rafael Nadal (Sopot 2004), Novak Djokovic (Amersfoort 2006), and Andy Murray (San Jose 2006).*

In any case, today I’m going to look at those men currently active on the ATP tour who won the ultimate edition of a tournament, whose names will remain the last one on the trophy. I won’t pretend that great insight will be thereby gleaned – perhaps a pattern will emerge – but sometimes it is enough merely to catalogue such things as they pass. There is a sense in which such compilations are subjective; I think I could mount a good argument why the tournament in Sao Paulo is the basically same one that was in Costa do Sauipe, while disputing the idea that Brisbane is a continuation of Adelaide, but I understand that others may not feel the same way. (I do encourage anyone who spots glaring factual inaccuracies to let me know.)

Milos Raonic (San Jose 2013)

The Canadian is only man on this list who goes out as back-to-back-to-back champion. He has won three San Jose titles in a row without dropping a set, in the process breaking records and Fernando Verdasco’s mind. It’s interesting to think how different it might have been had Gael Monfils contested their semifinal in 2011. He didn’t, Raonic gained free passage to the final, and the rest is history, in every sense. It’s even more interesting to think what the tournament’s disappearance will mean for Raonic from here. San Jose accounts for 75% of his career titles.

Sam Querrey (Los Angeles 2012 and Las Vegas 2008)

Querrey is one of two men who merit inclusion on this list twice. He is the forever champion in Los Angeles, which he won a total of three times. Indeed, one report archly implied that his dominance was part of the reason the event was consigned to oblivion (or Columbia). He was also the last man to win the ill-fated Las Vegas event, which is where the Scottsdale tourney went to undergo palliative care.

Andreas Seppi (Belgrade 2012)

When the old Dutch Open was sold to the Djokovic family, they probably dreamed it would last longer in their home city than five years. Alas, the event more or less lived and died according to the presence of the family’s most famed member, which is a parlous situation for any tournament. Nonetheless, Seppi was a worthy final winner.

Kevin Anderson (Johannesburg 2011)

At the time, I joked that Joburg’s days were numbered when Feliciano Lopez was marketed as the star attraction in 2011. Initially things seemed okay, with players such as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and David Ferrer lured to South Africa, presumably with their consent. But geography and scheduling proved a fatal cocktail. Staged the week after the Australian Open, at the far end of the earth, it just couldn’t work. It was, nonetheless, Anderson’s first title. It also boasted a truly ludicrous trophy, as so many do.

Nikolay Davydenko (Pörtschach 2008 and Warsaw 2008)

Davydenko is the other twice-tainted forever man. He remains the eternal champion in both Pörtschach and in Warsaw (which were to St Poeten and Sopot what Las Vegas was to Scottsdale: a nice spot for the tournament to sit with a rug over its knees as it quickly slid into its eternal goodnight). Both of these events were staged for the last time in 2008, which was something of a watershed year as far as these matters go. If the prevailing trend is for the United States to shed tournaments, five years ago Europe was suffering a similar affliction. It is curious that almost alone among this list, Davydenko is rare for being a player who was at the top of the game when he won these tournaments (ranked world No.4), although this says more about how modest his profile was even in his hey-day.

Ivo Karlovic (Nottingham 2008)

In 1998, the towering Croat became the two-time defending champion in Nottingham, which used to be the Wimbledon warm-up that almost no one played. On this surface, facing a weak field with his serve, Karlovic had no trouble making hay from the emerald sward. Nottingham was replaced (but not relocated) on the calendar by Eastbourne, which became a dual-gender event. The current Nottingham Challenger is a totally new tournament.

Michael Llodra (Adelaide 2008)

The French net-rusher was the last man ever to win the ATP event in Adelaide, also in 2008. The technical argument is that this tournament was moved to Brisbane, and combined with the existing WTA event. Technically this may be true, but really the Brisbane International is nothing like the old warhorse at Memorial Drive, where Lleyton Hewitt famously won his first career title as a 16 year old.

Richard Gasquet (Mumbai 2007)

The tournament that finally found peace in Mumbai had led a troubled journey through what some Australians quaintly persist in calling the Far East, beginning in Shanghai, moving briefly to Ho Chi Minh City, and finally gasping its last in Mumbai. After Gasquet won the final instalment, it was supposed to move to Bangalore, but security concerns cancelled the event the following year, and after that everyone seemed to lose interest. It was replaced by Kuala Lumpur, meaning that India, the second largest country in the Asia, lacks a tournament within the now-unified Asian Swing.

Filippo Volandri (Palermo 2006)

I confess I don’t know too much about this one, although I’d suggest that the days were numbered on any tournament whose final featured Volandri three years in a row.

Robin Soderling (Milan 2005)

The Milan Indoors was one of those tournaments with a tremendous history and a champion’s list that scans like a who’s who of the Open Era (McEnroe and Becker won four times each. Lendl, Borg, Edberg, and Vilas also hoisted the trophy). Roger Federer won his first title here in 2001. Nonetheless, the entry list had thinned calamitously by the time Soderling won in 2005, years before the Swede found his place in the loftier echelons of the sport. At the time he was just another in a lengthening line of journeyman champions, a line that leads smaller regional tournaments inevitably to the scrapheap.

*Amersfoort later moved to Belgrade, which has also been cancelled.

Another Typical Day Watching San Jose

San Jose 2013 -1

The ATP 250 tournament currently called the SAP Open, and currently hosted in San Jose, California, has been continuously operating in some form since 1889, making it the second oldest tennis tournament in the United States. The current edition will be its last. Next year the tournament relocates to Memphis.

One would hope that in its final year the SAP Open would make a strenuous effort to honor its golden past. If today was anything to go by, the tournament instead appears content merely to showcase its dreary present, and to illustrate just why it had to go.

Last Saturday night an attendee at the San Jose Sharks ice-hockey game tweeted their disbelief that within twenty-four hours the playing surface would be replaced by a tennis court. Attached pictures attested that the floor of the HP Pavilion was indeed composed of ice, and that the stands were packed with people. Really, one must have greater faith in modern technology. Stage-managing the set switch from a hockey rink to a tennis court is relatively easy to accomplish. Convincing the people to hang around, on the other hand, is apparently an insurmountable problem. As ever during the SAP Open, the stadium today looked like it had been converted into a storage facility for unused bleachers.

It is debatable whether the prevailing vibe is more depressed in San Jose than it was in Montpellier last week, which attained transcendent new levels of banality in striving to entertain its few attendees. (The best moment – if ‘best’ is the word – came when the court was invaded by a dance troupe pretending to be synchronized swimmers. Unfortunately for those of us watching, the impression was uncanny, achieving a manic exuberance unmatched anywhere outside of a North Korean military parade.) The SAP Open boasts nothing as overtly weird, although ones awareness that this is its last edition certainly helps to deflate proceedings. It didn’t have to, though: you’d hope the imminence of its loss would lend proceedings a bittersweet piquancy. But the organisers seem determined that blandness will prevail, at least until the weekend.

It shares every other current event’s penchant for incongruous and blaring music at the changeovers. This is staple fare during the slow month of February, and each region has its own preferred playlist, although the selection never seems quite to align with local tastes. Montpellier had a great time with ‘Part Time Lover’. San Jose differs in that fans may make requests of the DJ via Twitter. So far today I’ve heard Bon Jovi, Nickelback, Bruno Mars and Chumbawamba, among others. It is therefore theoretically possible to track down those responsible.

In the spirit of commercialism, the SAP Open periodically alleviates these pop-medleys by advertising local businesses. I now know that Blue Mango was recently voted best Thai restaurant in Silicon Valley, which will come in handy the next time I want to travel 8,000 miles for dinner. Admittedly the ads are intended for those in the stadium itself, but given that there were only about twelve people there today, I’m not convinced Blue Mango is seeing a decent return for its advertising dollar. Along with sparse attendance, the tournament has struggled with sponsorship for years. The impression, across the board, is that the event has been left to drift aimlessly for a good decade, a far cry from the days when Barry MacKay toiled tirelessly in its promotion. As ever, the whole thing feels provincial, and, despite its cavernous venue, cramped.

For those fans who unfortunately cannot attend in person – apparently nearly all of them – the television coverage hardly encourages them to tune in. It is seemingly directed by Terry Gilliam in full Twelve Monkeys mode, and assembled from whatever security footage he has at hand. The default camera is positioned along the doubles sideline on the umpire’s side of the court, on a shallow angle. This is periodically switched out for a useful low-angle behind the opposite baseline, or to another less-useful camera suspended from the ceiling. The perspective and the ends switch about restlessly, thereby making it easier to lose track of which player is which. I know this is the tournament’s last year, but could they not have positioned a camera in the conventional spot?

Ryan Harrison today was the tiny but vociferous figure who wasn’t wearing a hat, while Benjamin Becker was the one in white, with his hat turned backwards. Harrison was by all accounts unwell, although as far as I could make out from the bird’s nest vantage he was competing with undiminished gusto, especially when he fought to break back in the final set. The crowd went wild, although their meagre cheers were immediately drowned out by the sound system’s efforts to entertain them. Alas, Harrison was broken again immediately, and Becker eventually served out the match. The best points came at the end, as Harrison saved a couple of match points.

Jack Sock was clad in yellow, and like Becker wore a hat, which counts as a highlight. Marinko Matosevic was hatless, in white. Sock led by a break throughout much of the first set, lost it, then lost the set in a tiebreaker. Thereafter he lost interest, and soon afterwards, the match. The hatless Ryan Sweeting fared no better against the presumably be-goggled Denis Istomin (the security footage made it hard to be sure), losing in straight sets. Later on Tim Smyczek upset Fernando Verdasco, thus saving Milos Raonic the trouble.

It was thus a mixed day for the young American men, but a bad day for an old American tournament. At least for the former there is some hope that better days will come. For the San Jose tournament the best days, in which the world’s top players would do vigorous battle for a coveted title, are only fading memories. The ATP website put up a nice video to commemorate the passing, appropriately valedictory in tone, rich with recollection, and entirely contrasting with the limping haggardness of the event so far. Thankfully, they’ve planned something special for the weekend. I hope it’s an appropriate send-off.

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