The Adventures of Alfatso

Wednesday, March 04, 2009 /by

NaThere’s something sultry and calming about watching clay-court tennis played at night. This is especially true in winter, when you haven’t seen red dirt for six months. And it’s especially true when you aren’t expecting to find it on TV. Drained after another losing bout with the PBS Newshour last night—thankfully I’ve reduced my New York Times subscription to weekends only; I don’t know if I’d be able to make to work otherwise—I flicked around for something a little less gloomy. I took a stab at the Tennis Channel. There it was, the South American tour in pungent orange, under the lights, before a packed and lazily buzzing Acapulco audience. This is as warm as the sport gets. There were even fireworks.

The tennis itself was equal parts brilliant and breezily knuckleheaded, which seemed appropriate—it's a Mexican resort town, not Centre Court. Gael Monfils and Nicolas Almagro were slugging it out in the final and having a few laughs while they were at it. Monfils joined in the wave with the crowd, and after one of his opponent’s bullet serves was called out, the Frenchman did a little dance as he inspected the line. He happily gave Almagro the point with a thumb’s up and a smile. It reminded me of what Nancy Lieberman said when Martina Navratilova hired her to be her coach in the early 1980s. The ex-basketball pro and all-around tough Brooklyn girl said, with a sneer in her voice, that Martina wanted to be "nice," to be "friends," to "get along." I get the same feeling about Monfils—he wants to be a good guy as much, if not more, than he wants to be a winner.

“Good guy” is not the phrase that comes to mind when I think of Almagro. He may be a gentleman and a scholar and a vegetarian in private, but he brings a volatile and selfish edge to his matches. The Spaniard sports dance-club hair, walks with a light, cocky, chest-out strut, and is always looking for a reason to lose his temper. He also happens to be a tremendous player to watch, as long as you’re not invested in whether he wins or loses. I happened to catch a couple minutes of a match of his on the Internet a week or two ago. Naturally, I came in at a point when he had stopped play and was haranguing the chair umpire about something, a look of blind outrage on his face. This was the same tournament where he inspired the crowd to derisively chant their favored nickname for him: “Algordo,” the Portuguese equivalent of "Alfatso."

I first saw Alfatso—the word isn't strictly accurate, but it does have a certain ring—at the Hamburg event in 2004. He rolled over the top clay-courter in the world at the time, Guillermo Coria, for one set. Almagro’s elaborately monstrous ground strokes touched down like missiles in the corners; everything he hit turned to gold. Of course, he also annoyed the entire stadium, Coria especially, by taking a lengthy medical break so he could have his little finger taped. Almagro’s shots eventually started missing; he lost in three. A month later I went to the French Open and made sure I was there for his first-round match against Gustavo Kuerten. The stands were packed, as they always are on Roland Garros’ sidecourts, and the low afternoon sun had me seeing spots, but we got five full sets of outrageous backhands and insane racquet-head speed. A 5-5, Kuerten reined it in, while Almagro kept belting with abandon like it was the first game of the match. He lost 7-5.

Almagro was a junior rival of Rafael Nadal’s, but that’s where the similarity ends. While he has established himself on tour in the last four years—Acapulco was his fifth career title—I think of him as the anti-Nadal (it didn’t help that Rafa steamrolled him so badly at the French Open last year, like a man playing a boy). Against Monfils, he went for forehand winners even when he was moving diagonally backward behind the baseline. When he made them, it was spectacular—I’m not sure anyone accelerates his racquet on the forehand side like Almagro—but the trouble was, he had to hit them for winners. Otherwise, he would have been completely out of position. Percentage tennis? Safe, deep shots? Leave it for Nadal. Who’s going to show us what risky tennis looks like if not Nicolas Almagro? He obviously loves the feeling he gets when he drills the ball past someone, and I’m not going to ask him to give that up.

Often, Almagro’s shots aren’t just good. They’re pointlessly good. On one point Sunday, Monfils gave him a nice, juicy, mid-court backhand. Rather than hit it into a corner and follow it to the net, Almagro flicked the ball at a more extreme crosscourt angle than seemed possible and finished with his trademark flourish at the top of his stroke. Another time, he and Monfils got into a dink contest at net. The Frenchman hit a crosscourt half-volley while intentionally looking in the other direction, like a guard doing a no-look pass. Almagro didn’t miss a beat: He hit his volley while looking the other way. Of course it was a clean winner. I would scold them for this, except that there was no shot I loved hitting more in practice than a no-look drop volley—nothing beats the feeling of absolute arrogance you get when you don’t bother to watch the ball bounce a second time, but you know your opponent hasn’t reached it. For some reason, after I’d tried this shot five straight times one day, my coach kicked me off the court.

To his credit, Almagro got down to business when he served for it at 5-4. On the first three points, he simply sent the ball back deep and let Monfils self-destruct. This was obviously way too easy and boring, so on match point the Spaniard took a short backhand and went for the jugular. It landed on the line. He may be fat, he may be a hothead, he may not live up to his potential all the time, but there’s something to be said for that feeling you get when you hit an ill-advised, all-or-nothing winner and you hear the crowd buzz—that seems to be what Almagro lives for.

Even if they do their thing in Acapulco rather than at Wimbledon, there’s also something to be said for breezy, talented, occasionally knuckleheaded players. In their hands, few things are as entertaining as some good old-fashioned low-percentage tennis.

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