Indoor Temporary Superstar

Monday, October 30, 2006 /by

(Ed. note: Correction appended - PB)

A few weeks ago now, I wrote a post (Unsurprising Surprises; category: Miscellaneous) after Rafael Nadal lost early to Joachim Johansson in Stockholm. I floated away on a nice little reverie on the vagaries of the volatile and, frankly, redundant indoor season. Well, that set off quite a little firestorm, during which I was hammered for failing to give Johansson his due, as well as for suggesting that "nobody cares" about the fall indoor circuit.

Ooh_1 In that post, I wrote that this is the time of year when newbies, struggling contenders and almost-rans frolic, while top contenders and veterans who have passed muster for the year thus far tend to be distracted, fatigued (mentally, if not physically, although only the latter is considered due cause for pulling out of an event), and downright grumpy  about having to play indoors, often at night, at a time when the seasonal glories of fall are whispering: put down the sticks, buckaroo, put your feet up and relax. . .

Here's a line from that entry: Given the quality of the talent in the game today, I'm predicting an indoor men's season awash in upsets; look for big servers and go-for-broke baseliners to feed like a pack of wolves on what amounts to the scraps of the season - sorry, Bercy!

I respectfully submit that the analysis stands up, and little did I know that Masters Series Paris (Bercy) would underscore my point this convincingly: The Mighty Fed, Jet Boy, Jiffyljub, Boy Andy and  David Nalbandian all are taking a pass on Bercy, the tournament that, with all due respect to Ion Tiriac's operation in Madrid, is the high-point as well as the closing ceremony for the year in tennis.

How's that: a closing ceremony where nobody shows up. Ironically, given the location of Bercy, the most telling comparison here would be with the clay-court circuit and the closing ceremonies that take place at Roland Garros. Never the twain shall meet.

I half-suspected that things would go this way Wayne Arthurs mastered Tommy Robredo in St. Petersburg, severely crippling everyone's favorite Who baby's chances of locking down a berth in the Shanghai Masters Cup. Alright, Robredo isn't, oh, Roger Federer; he's a mercurial performer who's better on clay and hard courts than indoors, so the loss can hardly be called shocking. But my real point is made more convincingly by Arthurs, who almost hauntingly represents the Missing Link to the glory years of the Aussie tennis empire.

Arthurs, who's a creaky 35, is a fast-court, serving-and-volleying throwback, And while he's struggled this year and announced his imminent retirement, he's one of those fair dinkum Aussies who's always willing to, as they say,  give 'er a go. That is, he shows up ready to take anything anyone will give him, on any surface, on any continent, in any season (I was vastly entertained by his run to the fourth run at Roland Garros in 2001, where he showed a salutary indifference to the notion that he wasn't supposed to do that kind of thing, not at all). While I don't want to make too much of that St. Pete result, Arthurs fit the indoor-season warrior stereotype to a T: There was money to be made, points to be earned, and listless Top 10 players to ambush, at a time when many of that august company has already pushed back from the feasting tables of spring and summer.

Gonzo But, wait. I have an even better example: The Santiago Psycho (see my post of that title from the U.S. Open), Fernando Gonzalez. This smoking gun personifies the kind of player apt to make a move during the indoor season, as I articulated in a follow-up (The Human Litmus Test, category, Miscellaneous) to my original controversial post. Gonzo is a solid player who's always in the mix, stroke-wise, but one who didn't quite manage to make a big move before the end of the Grand Slam season in New York. 

But with loads of points and money on offer in the fall, he took full advantage. He has reached the last three finals (Vienna, Madrid, Basle), riding a go-for-broke game that unrolls nicely on relatively fast surfaces (Counterpunching? Who needs it! Let's see if I can leave a third-degree burn on the baseline, or Roger's left cheek!). He's strong as a bull, fit, and, as was once said of the late President Richard M. Nixon, "tan, rested and ready to go."  Here he is, folks: this year's Indoor Temporary Superstar.

Think I'm kidding? Gonzo's record for the year is 49-21 (TMF, by contrast, is 87-5); but peel off the past three events and Gonzalez was a middling 25-21 (Sic - see correction below)  embarking on the indoor season. In other words, he had incentive galore, as well as good reserves, to make this run. The result: Gonzalez has moved within eight points of Robredo for the No. 8 spot in the Champion's Race, and within nine of James Blake, who sits at No. 7.

Mario Ancic is another good example of the indoor warrior. In winning St. Petersburg, he's positioned himself to grab a Master's Cup berth if he can make the quarters in Paris.

Out of action because of injury from just after Wimbledon until Beijing, Ancic has made made up for a lot of lost ground. If he gets to the quarters or better in Paris (and, given the scorched earth there, he's be a great pick to win the whole shooting match), he's into the Masters Cup.

In the aftermath of my original post on the unpredictable indoor season, I also mentioned that it's presents young players with great opportunities to  bag points, trophy heads, and beef up their confidence for the upcoming year. Given the number of indoor events (including two critical, high-value Masters Series events) you can wind up feeling pretty good about yourself and your chances for January when the last ball is struck in Paris.

Catfeet In winning Lyon last week, French native Richard Gasquet could go off like a bomb filled with ripe cheese in Bercy: I'm looking for Gasquet or Ancic to win the event, although Gonzo has to be a strong contender despite his fatigue. So there you have it: a trio that pretty accurately fits the type I described in my Litmus Test post. In fact, here are the exact words I wrote early in the indoor season:

You all are familiar with how different pre-season baseball and football games are from the real deal, right? Well, in some ways the indoor schedule is like a post-season-pre-season. . .

Oh, sure, the really big events. . .are to some degree exceptions. They can be very telling. But by and large, this time of year is feasting time for the opportunistic and ambitious almost-haves (as opposed to the have-nots and haves) - that is, if you can characterize guys like Ivan Ljubicic (winner in Vienna) or Davydenko (winner in Moscow) as such.

Now I know this all may seem vaguely disparaging to the players who put up the big results at this time of year, and I'm a little sorry about that. The Gasquets and Ancic's and Gonzalez's deserve all the credit in the world. Winning is winning, it isn't their fault that the top dogs are mentally or physically fried - although glutted might be a better word. And it sure beats losing, any day. But I also think this is a great example of the way a tour with an unrealistic number of events and the expectations they create can lead to some results that appear somewhat skewed. It can also break hearts, as anyone now holding a ticket for Bercy can attest.

Note in the BBC story linked above that Bercy tournament co-director Cedric Pioline, a former U.S. Open finalist, suggested that players ought to be suspended for pulling out of events for less than airtight reasons. About this, he is right: no amount of monetary punishment is going to bother any guy in the Top 5 or 10. But Pioline's is not an opinion you expect to hear from a recent player, who's familiar with all the pitfalls of the game. You probably noted that the tournament backed away from outright criticism of the top stars who decided to take a pass, but the point was made. They're angry in Bercy. They're giving a closing ceremony and nobody's coming.

This undoubtedly is a tricky issue, and perhaps the only thing worse than having an schedule stuffed fuller than a Thanksgiving turkey (and containing about the same degree of filler, a la celery and breadcrumbs) is getting into a war with the players over their refusal or inability to complete the long trek of the calendar. Meanwhile, we can expect the charade to continue; it tells you something when none of the available options seems fair or satisfactory.

(Correction: Hat tips to astute reader Nik and the Tribe's resident mathematician Ptennisnet for noting that I got Gonzalez's record wrong: he's 49-21 before Paris, but 37-18 before the start of the indoor season.)

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