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.
By James A. Crabtree
So yes, it is still in the very early stages.
But am I just imagining this or has there been an absurd amount of five set matches, thirteen at last count. Absolute proof the game is decided not only by the power of a serve but as much by a will of nerve.
Milos Raonic was made to work and work against Santiago Giraldo, but his big serve came in handy. Janko Tipsarevic scraped through as did fellow seed Marin Cilic who next faces Daniel Brands another five set survivor.
Surely these guys, after such a gruelling day at work deserve an immunity pin or something.
But reality TV this is not. You lose and you go home. No chance of a recall here just because you are a fan favourite.
Speaking of recalls how long has Radek Stepanek been around? Surely he remembers the better movie Total Recall with Arnold Schwarzenegger over the latest disappointment with Colin Farrel. Anyway poor old Radek lost a tough four setter, dressed in a shirt paying homage to the statue of liberty, finding no such liberty from 11th seed Nicolas Almagro. Gilles Simon was more successful in his tough four setter against another old guy, thirty four year old Michael Russell.
Remember back in the eighties when they said to be a great tennis player you had to be dominating the tour before you needed to shave or were legally allowed to drive. How and why has it changed so much? Are we going to see players play to a Ken Rosewall and Pancho Gonzalez vintage? Will we ever see the likes of a teenage Boris Becker or Michael Chang again? Or is it simply because the older guys employ an improved diet and fitness regime whilst the younger guys play on their iPads and update their FaceBook status. It’s complicated.
Interestingly the only teenie within the top 100 currently is Bernard Tomic. Now correct me if I am wrong but Bernard is most certainly an old school name and the young Australian does play quite a flat forehand and uses the almost antiquated slice backhand to a devastating effect. Maybe that is the secret, be young but play old. This is getting confusing. Anyway he is playing the old Andy Roddick next.
Now, speaking of confusing Andy Murray did escape losing a set in his match to Alex Bogomolov Jr and Ivan Dodig. However, as has become quite normal for the Scot we had to witness his usual facial pains of distress and sudden hamstring grasps. If it were not for the score line you could have sworn he was down and out, not safely into the next round. Typical whinging Brit
And a bit more whining. I am so disappointed in Grigor Dimitrov. If your style emulates Roger Federer we want the same results as Roger Federer. Is that really too much to ask ? Oh yes, Marcos Baghadatis is playing Alexandr Dolgopolov in his next- that should be a good one. Remember when Baghadatis made the 2006 Australian Open final. Feels like more than half a decade ago. Actually it was.
Ok, enough of all that. Bring on the next round.
By Maud Watson
Poised to Dominate?
Last week marked an impressive run by young Czech Petra Kvitova, as she stormed to the WTA Championships title without the loss of a match. Kvitova has always had a big game, but en route to the title, the reigning Wimbledon champion also showed some great hands at the net, as well as some deft touch and feel that seems to be lacking in so many of the game’s other big hitters. Throughout the week, it appeared her biggest hurdle had nothing to do with who was on the other side of the net so much as what was going on between her ears. Her win in Istanbul also puts her just a mere 115 points behind current No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, and while no offense to Wozniacki, the WTA would probably appreciate Kvitova bypassing her to quiet the murmurs about a sport that has a No. 1 who lacks a major title. Kvitova definitely has the game to raise the bar and spark a new generation to follow her lead to create another great decade in women’s tennis. But don’t buy into her just yet. We’ve seen this kind of run from her before, and it’s always been followed by a severe dip in results. The start of 2012 may tell the tale. Hopefully she can strengthen the mental part of her game and firmly become the leader of the pack.
After some positive statements about the WTA looking into the grunting issue, WTA CEO Stacey Allaster has backpedaled to the point that it sounds like little will be done about the problem. Allaster has done well with the WTA, but she’s way off on this issue. Her argument that all of the “grunting” is a natural byproduct of how hard the players are hitting the ball is for the birds. If a player the size of Henin can slug it out with the likes of the Williams Sisters and Sharapova and hardly utter a sound, you can’t tell me the “grunting” is necessary. The argument that it’s okay that the women do it because the men do too is also lacking. While the difference in vocal registers means that grunting in the men’s game doesn’t garner has much attention as it does in women’s, it’s a problem that should be addressed on that our as well. And finally, just because the other players aren’t coming to complain to her or chair umpires about the noise level on court doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. With the game’s greatest stars and top-ranked players being the biggest culprits, it’s unlikely the quieter players will speak up. Rules never seem to apply in the same way to the stars as they do to everyone else, and the player who complains runs the risk of coming out on the shorter end of the stick. Allaster needs to open her eyes and fix the problem. There are too many other potential great things going on in the game to have something like this be one of the hottest topics dominating the sport.
Shaking off the Rust
After lengthy layoffs, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have returned to action this week in Basel. While neither has looked anywhere near their best, it’s apparent that they are starting to find the range once again. This is a special blessing for Djokovic, who earlier this week stated that he was coming back from the most serious injury of his career. The other positive for these two players is that their stiffest competition will be going into the ATP World Tour Finals fairly cold. Murray pulled out of Basel with a right gluteal muscle strain, while Nadal has pulled out of the Paris Masters in order to better focus for London. It’s going to be interesting coming down the stretch of the 2011 season.
Scrambling to London
And speaking of making it interesting down the stretch, that’s exactly what the remaining London hopefuls are doing in the final weeks of the regular season. In fact, they’re making it a little too interesting, much to the chagrin of the people in their respective camps. Fish, teetering in the eighth spot, was forced to withdraw from Basel with an injury, as did Tipsarevic. Meanwhile, Tsonga struggled to win his first round match against a Spanish teenager in Valencia before bowing out to Querrey in the following round. Simon also failed to capitalize on his opportunities this week, as did Berdych, and a handful of other London hopefuls. Injuries aside, the inability of many of these players to produce their best when the chips are down is disappointing. It may make for an exciting finish to the race, but it is also a blatant example of why the gap is so big between the top four players and the rest of the field.
One of the more absurd pieces of news this week was the story that Serena Williams locked herself in her panic room when she thought a burglar was attempting to break into her home. The alleged burglar was in reality a drug tester, who showed up at 6am for one of the required random drug tests that tennis players must submit to. Undoubtedly the ITF’s anti-doping program is too extreme, and 6am does seem a ludicrous time to request a sample. But some should also question if Serena didn’t overreact. In many of the anti-doping stories, players have frequently cited the random drug testing as an annoyance, specifically mentioning that 6am call. Given Serena’s status as a veteran of the game, it’s difficult to believe this is the first time someone has come knocking at that hour of the morning. But when you’ve had to file a restraining order against someone, perhaps locking yourself in the panic room is the logical step. Either way, we’re used to the fact that there’s no shortage of drama where Serena Williams is concerned.
Serbian fatalism was in full swing at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington, D.C. last night as the two remaining Serbs, world #15 Viktor Troicki and #25 Janko Tipsarevic went out to John Isner and Gael Monfils, respectively. Being from the former Yugoslavia myself, I have an intimate look into the way Serbians, as a culture, are hard-wired and these two young men are no exception. Perhaps, they are the example.
After losing the first set, 7-6(5), Troicki could have easily faded away thinking Isner was serving just too well for any opportunities to arise. Instead, he took advantage of Isner’s fading confidence and broke him to go up 3-0 in the second set. As Isner became increasingly negative with his own movement, Troicki’s belief and body language surpassed any inkling of doubt he may have had earlier in the match. He began to play like a dangerous top player and won 91% of his first serves pushing Isner into a hole. Isner himself even stated that in the second set, he was “either missing wildly or missing weakly into the net” and that was a true tale of the type of pressure Troicki was putting on him.
Then the third set began to unfold and with it, Troicki began to doubt. After a resurgence, his performance plummeted as his serve and return percentages dwindled, and he created a large gap in the deficit for his winners to unforced errors. Likewise, Tipsarevic stayed with Monfils for the majority of the match, but when the point was on his racquet, he succumbed, looking to his box and simply saying “nemogu,” or “I can’t” in Serbian, when referencing getting broken in the first game of the second set.
The word ‘fatalism’ is commonly used to refer to an attitude of resignation in the face of some event which is thought to be inevitable, as in the case of a loss. Even if a player believes he can win and does well initially, disbelief creeps in and takes hold, refusing to let go. In the case of both Troicki and Tipsarevic, good friends that fell out of the tournament in the same evening, it shows how contagious the doctrine actually is: they feel powerless to do anything other than what they actually do, because they are bound to lose in the end, no matter how much they put into the match. And although this type of attitude can be witnessed in other players who dismantle mentally on-court, it’s the Serbian political history that gives the greatest context. From the assassination of Austrian emperor Franz Ferdinand by a Yugoslavian nationalist to launch World War I, to the Serbia-Kosovo conflict last decade, Serbians and Croatians alike, have had a turbulent history that seems to be against our own best interest. As a culture and nation, we strive to be better people, and we achieve success, but the dark cloud still hangs over us and we doubt our abilities, even if we don’t want to admit it.
In his press conference, Tipsarevic referenced that the reason he lost wasn’t his “forehand or backhand, it was more my lack of concentration. I was getting so frustrated, that I couldn’t win free points off my serve and couldn’t finish off the points as I wanted to, and as I did in the previous two matches.” Fatalism isn’t always present, but it appears in the most inopportune times, making us believe that acceptance is appropriate, rather than resistance against inevitability.
But the reward will come one day for these two players, as it has for current #1 Novak Djokovic. After winning the Australian Open in 2008 at age 20, it took him three full years to win another grand slam. The time in between was filled with drama of apologies about on-court antics to a pronounced and immense struggle with his serve. And then a breakthrough occurred, and he became unstoppable. He was able to shun away any mental strife and play for himself, and for his country in the Davis Cup finals, winning it for the first time in Serbia’s existence. What was a handicap turned into the ultimate asset: Djokovic learned how to direct his energy to attain his goals, and even surprised a few people on the way up to the top of the men’s tennis game. Hopefully, Tipsarevic and Troicki can follow in his steps, but not without drama of their own.
In what was sadly seen as offensive, a photo and corresponding caption posted by Tipsarevic of him holding up a plastic gun at Djokovic with his hands in the air and reading “How much $$$ would Rafa gief … ”, stirred up a storm on the internet recently. Ben Rotherberg of The Daily Forehand got the full scoop by asking Tipsarevic to comment on the situation. Tipsarevic stated that “it was a bad joke. We were really happy that we won Davis Cup. We were at dinner … I think it was a plastic gun … it was a bet and a stupid joke. At the time it seemed funny because the joke was about how dominant Novak is [on tour], that nothing can stop him this season. The next day, I took it off Facebook and Twitter. As I heard later, it was all over the internet, people were blaming me for thinking that ‘I hate Rafa.’ I called Novak and Rafa the next day. I spoke to them and they were fine about it. They told me to be careful because of social networking and [how] people can get things like this in a wrong way.” This is Serbian fatalism at its finest, ladies and gentleman. But all credit to Tipsarevic for realizing how grave of a situation it really was and commenting whole-heartedly on it.
Tipsarevic finished appropriately with: “I still blame myself. I think it was a bad, bad joke. You can make a bad story out of anything if you want to. I apologize to anyone that thinks it was offensive to anybody on tour.” To a non-native speaker, expressing sincerity may be tough, but the aura surrounding Tipsarevic’s response ensured all those present that he meant what he said. And remember too, that he had just lost a tough match to Monfils not even an hour before.
Hopefully, one day in the near future, these two young Serbians will be able to channel their energy into attaining the goals that their talents are capable of. Until then, we can struggle in their drama-filled journey with them.
Follow me on twitter as I cover the Legg Mason Tennis Classic all week! @TennisRomi