Masters Lessons

Saturday, May 20, 2006 /by

The first Masters Series event of 2006 is in the books. What have we learned after 10 days in the Indian Wells desert?

Roger Federer knows when to win
The world’s best didn’t look good in his first two matches. His service motion was off against Nicolas Massu and he crawled past the 30th seed, Olivier Rochus, 7-5 in the third. After that he looked, well, pretty good, outclassing two dangerous players, Richard Gasquet and Ivan Ljubicic, on his way to the final.

There he faced James Blake. During the week, ESPN had miked Blake’s older brother, Thomas, as he watched from the sidelines. His comments had been somewhat less than profound—“Wow, great shot,” was the general idea. But Thomas, a recently retired pro, came up with a couple (accidentally) prophetic observations in the final. When his brother cracked a spectacular forehand to go up 4-1 and two breaks in the first set, he calmed himself by saying, “Long way to go.” Not quite—the rest of the match went by in a blur. Unfortunately, the only person who found it “long” was his brother, who won just four more games while losing 18.

Of course, Thomas was absolutely right, too: A three-out-of-five-set match is a marathon, and the crucial moment never takes place in the first five games. Federer, who plays more three-out-of-fives than anyone, has learned just how to approach them. The pivotal game yesterday, the one that broke Blake’s back, came with the American down a set and serving at 3-4. This was the best game of the match and—surprise, surprise—the first and perhaps only one of the afternoon where Federer reached his trademark “full flight” mode. After a series of effortless winners and superb gets, he finally broke. The set, and the match, were suddenly his.

Before that, though, Blake had let a big chance slip away. Serving for the first set, he inexplicably stoned a sitter high volley and dropped his racquet in disbelief. Or maybe it wasn’t so inexplicable. As the ball landed out, Thomas Blake asked James’ coach, Brian Barker, something like “How often do you think Federer wins points because the other guy gets tight?” The answer is all the time. Like Marcos Baghdatis in the Australian Open final, Blake came out Sunday with nothing to lose, swung more freely than usual, and hit winners from everywhere. The problem was, his good play immediately gave him something to lose—i.e., the lead. Up 5-4 and at deuce, Blake double-faulted for the first time. Then he did it again to lose the game.

Maria Sharapova can look good
The double hair flip and mini-jog before she serves are exasperating, and I’m not sure I would have the patience to stay in my return stance through her various rituals. Which is the point, I suppose. I timed Sharapova between a few of her service points and she clocked in at 26 or 27 seconds every time, just over the 25-second limit. Sharapova controls the tempo of a match—and drives her opponents crazy—with precision. This weekend, though, her play was more fun to watch than usual, as she steamrolled Martina Hingis and Elena Dementieva to win her first tournament in nine months.

Glamour girl status aside, Sharapova doesn’t play a pretty game. But watching her hack her forehand into the corners on Saturday I found myself thinking, “Well, Steffi Graf’s was no beauty either.” Not that the two are comparable, exactly—Graf’s forehand was one of the all-time weapons, and she was twice the mover Sharapova is. What’s impressive about Sharapova is how consistent she is with such a herky-jerky motion and small margin for error. With Federer, everything is effortless; with Sharapova, there’s nothing but effort. In every great shot she hits, you can see the hours of grindingly repetitive target practice that went into it. Which is just as impressive, in its own way.

Sharapova hadn’t won in so long, I forgot how she used to celebrate. Remember the screaming at God, the long kisses to the crowd, the way she crumpled to the ground and closed her eyes like she’d just been shot after she beat Serena Williams at the WTA Championships? Saturday she honed it down to a civilized, albeit girly, dual fist-pump.

Martina Hingis is a wallboard now
In her past life, Hingis had time to win with variety and placement, to give her game personality. Not last week. Against the power of Lindsay Davenport and Sharapova, she was reduced to pusher status. All Hingis had time to do was track the ball down and loft it back deep, which she did rather nicely. It eventually worked against Davenport, who started missing. But in her semi with Sharapova, Hingis couldn’t get the ball out of the middle and force the gawky Russian to run. That’s a recipe for disaster, and their 6-3, 6-3 match wasn’t as close as the scores.

James Blake has unique talents—and limitations
Blake was the story of the week from an American point of view. After years of whiplash-inducing streakiness, he ‘s turning into the reliable American, while Andy Roddick has slipped into a strategic morass where every move he makes is exactly the wrong one.

Blake can do things that no one else can, and he’s never less than entertaining. His running forehand is as dangerous, if less consistent, than Pete Sampras’ was, and his ability to wrist a crosscourt winner at full stretch is unprecedented. Blake’s also one of the few players who is equally lethal to either corner when he sets up for a forehand. But his recent success has come because of an improved backhand, and, more importantly, a smoother service motion. On Sunday, though, he reached his limit. Federer can do everything Blake can, but he’s not trapped by his explosiveness the way Blake often is. The American remains beholden to the spectacular forehand winner, which he tries to hit from pretty much any position on the court.

You can tell Blake is getting comfortable with success because he’s mastering the art of star speak, in which a player smiles and reveals absolutely nothing—other than how hard he’s working, and how proud he is of his work, and how he knows he’s put in the work. But maybe Blake has always had this skill. No less an authority on tennis stardom than Serena Williams once said of Blake that she should take speaking lessons from him because “he always knows just what to say.” A backhanded compliment, perhaps?

There may be a new American hope
Was there a changing of the teen guard at Indian Wells? As he did last year, top U.S. junior Donald Young took a wild card into a main draw and went down meekly to Tim Henman 6-3, 6-1. Meanwhile, Sam Querrey of California, who lost to Young in the final of the junior nationals in Kalamazoo last summer, won a match and took a set from James Blake. Querrey is a tall kid with—you guessed it—a big serve and forehand. He hits the latter with an appealingly relaxed and compact style. I wish he had shown a little more fire against Blake, but he may have thought it would be disrespectful of his American elder. As for Young, he should probably take his lumps in the minor leagues for a while before he brings his counter-punching game to the big show again.

"No matter what Marat Safin does to himself, he's still hot"
This was a lesson I learned from a female friend and tennis fan last week. Lucky for Marat, because he seems to have made his coach, the inscrutably hirsute Peter Lundgren, his style mentor as well. Samurai look or not, it was good to have Safin back in Indian Wells and playing well. Enjoy it these next couple weeks, before he burns out again.

Note: I’ll be writing from Key Biscayne this weekend, starting Friday.

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