Grass-Court Report: Big names fall, big games remain
We begin with an all-seed encounter, fifth seed Feliciano Lopez against ninth seed Kevin Anderson. It’s one of the oddities thrown up by an Olympic year that Lopez, three times a Wimbledon quarterfinalist and undeniably Spain’s second-finest grass-court player behind Rafael Nadal (whom he beat here in 2010), won’t be representing his country in singles at London 2012. When he serves-and-volleys every single point in his opening service game, it’s clear that we are in for something resembling ‘traditional‘ grass-court tennis.
Lopez—his hair rumpled, something about his grey kit unfortunately reminiscent of pajamas—looks like he’s just got up from bed, and on the wrong side, too. Even before he surrenders an early break to go 1-4 down, he’s reacting to every point with a long, stone-faced stare to the court or his coach, in the manner of a man grappling stoically with the iniquities of an uncaring universe. As Anderson serves for the first set, Lopez makes inroads with a brilliantly-held backhand pass, only to spread his hands wide and shrug as disconsolately as if he’s just lost the point. After getting back on serve and losing a 5-2 lead in the tiebreaker, Lopez responds to a great point by turning to his team and yelling in Spanish, tracing a deliberate line around his throat with his index finger, like a noose. When Lopez loses the set by swinging and missing at a ball that takes a low bounce, it‘s a farcical moment thoroughly appropriate to the mood his histrionics have created.
Anderson, on the other hand, is completely unruffled; the only sound that he really makes is the creaking of his ankle braces as he bends back and serves. His face hidden by a baseball cap, nothing eye-catching about his game except for that booming serve, he seems the consummate professional. Against all Lopez’s tricks and flourishes, his own game seems stripped down to the bone, unadorned but brutally effective. Not averse to serve-and-volleying himself, Anderson prefers not to render himself vulnerable to his opponent’s return today, mainly staying back unless he can choose his moment to come in and blanket the net. The effect is that Lopez seems to be punished whenever he is audacious. When Anderson chooses the perfect moment to whip a cross-court forehand winner and take the second-set tiebreak 9-7—and with it the match—he waits until he has shaken hands and sat down to collect his gear before he gives the tiniest, most infinitesimal fist-pump. It’s a gesture meant for no other audience than himself, and it looks like confidence.
The Court 1 crowd doesn’t have long to miss Lopez’s entertaining reactions, because into the frame steps Julien Benneteau, a man not shy about expressing his emotions, as a code violation after five games can attest. In contrast to Anderson-Lopez, however, we see the first serve-and-volley after seven games, and only when the set seems to have gone away from Benneteau. His opponent, Sam Querrey, won the tournament here back in 2010 after another mass slaughter of seeds, but he’s here today with a humbler ranking and a 7-11 record for the first half of 2012. He’s playing beautifully, though, and a couple of minutes’ watching suffice to remind me of just why he has had success on this surface. His big, flat shots seem perfect for the low bounce of grass courts, and are causing his opponent no end of trouble as he takes the first set, 6-3. His backhand slice has improved immeasurably, too, really biting into the surface and he’s quick to approach the net to press his advantage.
Querrey's shots may be explosive, but in the face of Benneteau’s lengthy, emotional monologues, the American's impassivity and calmness is evident and appealing. It can shade into carelessness, though, and a lackadaisical service game more or less loses the second set for him as Benneteau steps up his game. Once the third set gets towards the business end, however, Querrey increases the pressure in every service game of Benneteau’s. With the Frenchman serving at 3-4, Querrey runs him from side to side with big groundstrokes until Benneteau is literally bouncing off the hoardings, then smashes for a break point. Benneteau double faults, and Querrey—calmly—serves out his best win for a while.
The last singles match of the day represents one boundary of whichever spectrum Anderson and Lopez are on the far end of. Marin Cilic is playing the Czech Republic’s Lukas Rosol, and both players are approaching the net rarely, reluctantly, and only when dragged in by an involuntary short ball from their opponent. It’s clear that both prefer to battle from the baseline, and although Rosol takes an early break, Cilic is simply better at that particular fight. The Croatian lands some deep returns to force a double fault from his opponent and get back on serve, then starts mixing up his gorgeous, left-wrist-heavy backhand with slice in the tiebreak, throwing Rosol enough to take a mini-break and the first set.
Like Querrey, Cilic has been troubled by injury since he made his initial breakthrough. I’m watching him trying to understand what he is missing that the player who made deep runs in Grand Slams a couple of years ago had. The only answer that I can come up with is confidence, a commodity that Cilic clearly grows in throughout the match. As pumped-up as Rosol tries to be, it’s clear that his is deflating rapidly as Cilic races through the second set. At the end of the day, it seems that what matters is not how loudly you cry Vamos! or Allez!, nor how vigorously you pump your fist or protest when things aren’t going your way, but how well you play in the biggest moments. As rain falls and seeds tumble, those who come through on Court 1 may not be world-beaters, but they quietly believed they could win the match in front of them. It’s enough for today; it’s clearly beyond many big names.
Hannah Wilks is a frequent contributor to TENNIS.com.