Grass-Court Report: British stumbles; ugly Fabio
EASTBOURNE, England—After yesterday’s exodus of the top seeds, it’s left to home hopes Heather Watson and Laura Robson to liven up proceedings Wednesday in Eastbourne.
Watson opens on Centre Court against Lucie Safarova, whom she beat in Miami earlier this year. It’s a very different story today, as Watson competes well in the first set, but fades in the second to lose 7-6 (5), 6-1. Watching Watson scramble, absorb pressure, and redirect the ball, I’m reminded that although people talking about ‘weapons’ in a tennis context generally mean big shots, tenacity and competitive spirit are weapons as well, just more nebulous ones.
For those qualities to tell, however, Watson needs to serve well, and she’s not doing that today, just 52 percent for the match. She strikes only two aces and but a handful of serves which one would describe as ‘winning serves’ rather than service winners. The youngster gives up years, inches, and power off the ground to the Czech, and although Safarova’s game is chancy, in the end she makes more than she misses. Watson led 4-1 in the tiebreak and broke to open the second set, but both times soft serving lets her down. There’s a flash of steel in her press conference, though: ‘The more matches I play like this, the better I get at them,’ she says, lightly.
On Court 1, Laura Robson is playing Ekaterina Makarova, the former champion who upset Petra Kvitova yesterday. If you are looking for big shots, Robson has plenty of them: Deep, heavy groundstrokes and a serve that’s more effective today than I’ve ever seen it. She matches Makarova almost every step of the way, the Russian serving beautifully and just a little better at finding angles with her flat shots to tug Robson into awkward positions.
Robson, who keeps her eyes lowered resolutely to her racquet between points, hits two backhand errors at 2-2 to give up two break points, then emits a long, shaky sigh as if she’s trying to slough off the nerves before missing a forehand to give up the single break that ends up deciding the set. The second is even closer, as Robson starts to take more opportunities—although some still go begging—to step inside the baseline and into her shots. She earns a break point at 0-1 but loses it when she puts a return long on a soft second serve.
Again, it’s one poor service game that decides it: At 5-5 on Robson’s serve, a double fault opens the door for Makarova, and she attacks for 0-30. ’Lau-ra!’ Robson wails as she misses a forehand long on the run for three break points and is promptly broken; Makarova serves out the match, 6-4, 7-5. But it’s the best match I’ve seen from Robson, who looks to be headed firmly in the right direction, if also a reminder of just how brutally tough it is for young players to break through into the top echelon. The amount of pressure that quality players like Makarova and Safarova exert on every single point has to be experienced to be believed, and the only way to learn how to withstand that assault is to keep on putting yourself in the position to face it. It makes me wonder all over again what sort of person willingly commits to trying to make it as a professional tennis player. We’re very quick to leap to judgment about the fighting qualities or lack thereof that we perceive from the top players, but that rather overlooks the grim determination it takes to elbow your way inside the Top 100 in the first place. It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted.
Also not for the faint-hearted: The encounter between Bernard Tomic and Fabio Fognini on Centre Court later in the day. Tennis matches are similar to romantic relationships in more than the shared vocabulary of 'match' and 'love': They depend on chemistry above all else. You’d think that by taking the base of Bernard Tomic’s unconventional, all-court game and adding Fabio Fognini’s flair and penchant for drama, you would end up with a match that fizzes like water when you drop in Alka-Seltzer. Instead, the ingredients combine for some sort of lump of awfulness that just sinks to the bottom and lies there, inert and apathetic.
Tomic has a casual air about his loose-limbed, easy game, and it seems to be driving Fognini to try to prove he can play just as coolly and trickily. The strategy on both sides is to exchange lulling backhand slices, tempting the opponent to come in to the net so they can be passed or forced into a volley error. Unfortunately, when both players are using that tactic, the result is a baseline stand-off, the two men trying to outstare each other like cats at opposite ends of an alleyway until one or the other misses. It’s soporific for the spectators, as Tomic takes the first set 6-4, and as the second set opens, the quality declines further.
As Tomic approaches straight down the center of the court, Fognini eschews any attempt at doing something so boring as winning the point, opting to hit the ball behind his back instead and miss. Going for big strikes early in the point, Tomic makes a rash of errors and is broken, losing the set 6-3. As the match labors into the third set, Tomic is standing so far back that he is basically allowing Fognini the entire court to hit into, and several meters behind and to both sides of it; instead, the Italian makes error after error to fall behind 0-3. When Tomic more or less breaks himself serving for the match, Fognini finally starts exploiting the court position he is being allowed, injecting some pace on his forehand and playing a couple of drop shots. It’s all it takes to break Tomic, and Fognini serves out the match, 7-5 in the third. We will have to wait until tomorrow to find out which Fabio Fognini turns up for his quarterfinal against Andy Roddick.
Hannah Wilks is a frequent contributor to TENNIS.com. You can read more of her Grass-Court Reports here.