Marat Waves the White Towel

Friday, May 30, 2008 /by

DavyFor the first week of Roland Garros I'll be exchanging emails with TENNIS Magazine senior editor Jon Levey, who's in Paris to cover the tournament.


Steve,

Unlike March Madness I never fill out Grand Slam brackets. There’s just too many variables to consider and no money on the line. But if I had tried to predict this Roland Garros draw up until this point, I highly doubt I would’ve settled on the foursome of Ernests Gulbis, Nicolas Lapentti, Simon Bolelli, and Michael Llodra playing for a shot at the quarterfinals. Were any on your radar? Yet one of them will be part of the final eight in Paris. Cinderella wears a clay slipper.

That quarter got blown up when seeds (32) Tipsarevic, (17) Baghdatis, (11) Berdych, and, today, (7) James Blake took early exits. You were quite right, I spent a fair amount of time at the Blake-Gulbis tussle, and right from the start it was déjà vu all over again. With his quarter there for the taking, something he hasn’t been comfortable with at past Slams, Blake looked tight. He even got into an early spat with the chair umpire (a dead ringer for Ari’s assistant, Lloyd, from Entourage) over a call reversal that gave Gulbis the point.

Still, Blake jumped out to an early lead in the first set, mostly thanks to Gulbis errors. (I agree with you, though, the teenager does have all the tools. It’s funny you questioned whether he’s stout enough to endure the rigors of the Tour because he kind of reminded me of a sleeker Ancic. Let’s hope Gulbis is a bit more sturdy.) Once he stopped trying to crack his two-hander down the line too early in rallies he really settled down. Blake served for the set at 5-4, but played a sloppy game, giving the lead back. Right before break point, Gulbis took an usually long time to towel off his hand, and one finger in particular. An American from the stands shouted, “You’re giving him blisters James!” Gulbis looked in the heckler’s direction, shook his head and said with a mocking tone, “That is funny joke. Good humor.” Ladies and gentleman, I give you, “The Latvian Lip.”

During the tiebreaker that would settle the set Gulbis got the upper hand with two timely (perhaps lucky) drop shots that forced Blake errors. After the second, a stab forehand cut slice that barely made it over the net, Blake looked over to his camp and muttered, “two drop shots,” in disbelief. It would be prophetic, because the drop shot was really what did him in. All match he struggled to effectively return Gulbis’ dropper, which is far from feathery. Blake would hustle up to the ball and have no clue what to do once he got there.

Side note: Are players using more drop shots than ever? Feels like an epidemic this year.

In your earlier email you wrote that you enjoy watching Blake more on clay because it forces him to use more variety and show off his blazing wheels. In his presser after the match, he took the stance that your enjoyment spells his demise. With his Houston Astros cap pulled down just above his eyes, he stared down at the interview room table and made little eye contact as he answered reporters’ questions. The crux of his argument is he’s only effective when he’s bashing. Being patient, working points and other staples of clay court strategy don’t fly with Big Game James. He felt he was too passive today and let Gulbis dictate play. Variety maybe the spice of life, but it’s poison to Blake.

I’m not sure I completely agree with him. Yes, he wasn’t trying to paint lines as often as customary, but some of that had to do with the guy on the other side of the net. When Blake ran around his backhand, Gulbis wasn’t afraid to drive the next ball hard to Blake’s forehand corner, shifting him into scramble gear. Plus, I thought Blake took plenty of risks on his return of serve. He’s clearly a disciple of the Andre Agassi method – stand in and return with extreme prejudice. It makes for some great highlight shots, but it’s so difficult to maintain for a long match.

There’s an old tennis saying (this one is actually legitimate) in regards to strategy on the return of serve: 1st serve back, 2nd serve attack. It’s in line with the style that Federer employs to get himself into points. Blake clearly shifts the paradigm. For him it’s: 1st serve attack, 2nd serve disfigure. It’s hard to argue with the results because he’s gone further with his career than many expected. There are times, though, when you wish he wasn’t such a gambler.

Cue Nikolay Davydenko. I felt one of the biggest differences today in his win over Safin was he put more returns in play than the big fella. Once they got into even baseline exchanges, Davydenko was generally one stroke better. I have to give the guy credit, he was very impressive. From his feet brushing across the court to the tortured sounds he makes when hitting the ball, I’ve never heard effort quite like Davydenko. He’s such a hard worker I’m thinking of replacing the term with his name. For example: Bill from accounting is the first one in the office in the morning, the last to leave at night, and he never takes a lunch break. He’s a real Davydenko.

The only indulgence he seems to allow himself is a white towel. A ball boy couldn’t find his white towel between points so another brought over a colored one and Davydenko nearly hit the kid with his racquet. He literally wouldn’t play until someone brought him a white towel. He’s the Linus of the ATP Tour. What he should really indulge in is some steak frites. It’s amazing how a guy who looks two-dimensional can hit his serve over 130 mph.

Tough day for Safin. Top to bottom Davydenko was just better. Safin actually did an admirable job of keeping his emotions in check. He did slam his racquet and launched a ball into the stands, but I think his respect for his opponent, and the occasion, kept him from going nuclear. I’ve been to the Bull Ring for several matches this year, and this was the first that attracted a hoard of journalists. (One leaned over to me and mentioned his favorite Safin moment, like yours, was the Mantilla mooning.) Even Marat’s mama was in attendance for the first set. After he lost in a tiebreaker, she bolted. What does that say to a child? I kept thinking of that crazy scene from There Will Be Blood – “I’ve abandoned my boy!”

For those who enjoyed the tales of Safin’s inner circle, the resumption of his first round match yesterday and today’s with Davydenko brought a new member to the group. A lanky, ultrathin, supermodel-type brunette wearing designer shades and pouty Angelina Jolie lips that…oh forget it. But you’re right, the women in Paris are an event unto themselves.  

It’s too bad you had to suffer through Mauresmo’s loss. I think the French fans have come to accept the reality that she’s not going to win this title. Don’t get me wrong, they’ll always pull for their Amelie. But when I was here in 2005 and she lost in third round (to a rising Ivanovic), it was a national tragedy. Today, it was just a feeling of inevitability. I hope she becomes more relevant again because I like her stylish game, but 2006 feels like a long time ago. Now that national burden gets relocated to the tiny shoulders of Alize Cornet. Does she ever launch herself into her forehand. I’m eager to see her next match with Radwanska, who impresses me more each time I watch her play.

I caught a little of Federer turning the tables on Montanes. Just enough to make sure the first set loss was mostly a mirage. They also had to play a good bit of it with a steady rain coming down. That has to affect performance, especially in someone as precise as Federer. Speaking of which Wednesday was Kid’s Day, and another journalist told me Federer is not a supporter. I don’t think he’s adverse to grade schoolers, but it does add a background soundtrack of constant chatter that is foreign from all other days at the tournament. The Bull Ring was like a kid’s cocktail party. Federer’s idyllic setting is the pristine conditions of Wimbledon’s Centre Court. Wednesday felt like the tournament had been moved to Euro Disney (if anybody actually went).

Luckily for Federer he averted that crisis. He still faces the problem of Rafa. I’ve watch a sprinkling of his two straight-set demolitions of qualifiers and each follows a similar pattern. His opponent plays inspired for the opening set, then realizes he doesn’t have the skill or stamina to maintain such a high level, and quickly taps out.
I have to confess, though, I don’t love watching Nadal. That’s different than not admiring his game. He’s a total beast, and arguably the greatest clay court player ever. But something about all his obsessing between points and the relentless groining ruins the experience. I will admit there is something cool about watching Nadal operate on Chatrier. That’s become his personal office and he’s yet to have a bad day at work.

Somebody I am partial to watching (and not just for the obvious reasons) is Ana Ivanovic. I saw her pummel Safarova the other day and, while I could do without that odd squeal she releases when she hits the ball, I’m impressed by her court presence. She genuinely enjoys the fight and allows herself to express both joy and anguish. I get the feeling that she’s feeling. Earlier in the day I saw Safin finish off his first round opponent on the same court and it was such a labor for him. At one point he was starting to hit some exceptional shots and he unloaded on a Y2K Safin flamingo backhand for a clean winner. The fans exploded but he trudged himself, and his boulder of pain, back to the baseline with an expression on his face like they just announced last call. Not so with Ivanovic. She’s always engaged, and it’s unfortunate we won’t get to see her trade stares with Serena in the quarters. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Serena as despondent after a loss as she was after falling in straights to Srebonik. When one reporter asked her if she was puzzled by the result, Serena responded: “I’m not puzzled. I just don’t want to be here.”

The match I’m looking forward to on Friday is Murray and Almagro. Can you believe they put that on Court 7? A fine place to watch a match, but I think this is worthy of a stadium. Both players have talent and attitude to spare and it should provide plenty in terms of drama. I think serving will be key. Almagro gets a lot more aces than people realize and Murray has a great return of serve.
I watched Murray dismantle Acasuso on Wednesday and unloading on his forehand was not a problem that afternoon. He cracked a few bombs that even Soderling would be proud to call his own. If Murray remembers to do that more often he’ll end any debate about how good he can be.

Well that was an eyeful. Hope you enjoyed it with a little café au lait and a chocolate croissant.

Enjoy the matches.

Nick

 

 

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