London Broil

by: Steve Tignor | November 24, 2009

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RfThe WTF is a winner so far. I like the stagy lighting and the shimmering blue court. I’ve been impressed by the officiating. I’ve enjoyed seeing the guys in their schoolboy ties. And I’ve liked watching them play their matches over the first three days; while none will go down as classics, they’ve been close, back and forth contests, and of far higher quality than what you get in the opening rounds at a normal single-elimination event. Most of all, after the years in Shanghai’s cavern, I’ve relished the sight of people occupying every one of this stadium’s 17,500 seats for each singles match. The spectators may be hard to find in the dark, and they have a tendency to get up and walk around whenever they please; but you know that there’s a lot of them there, and that’s enough to make what’s happening on the court seem important and worth watching. London has elevated the men’s tour and done justice to the achievements of its top eight players. What would it take to get the women inside the same arena over the same week? Then we’d finally have an event we could call the fifth major.

For now, though, the WTF is just a few days into a five-year London run. And you never know how the quality and commitment will hold up in a round-robin event after certain players clinch their berths in the semifinals. What else has it shown us so far?

Juan Martin del Potro looks unsure

The impression I’ve gotten from the Argentine in his first two matches is that he’s had to convince himself to be fully invested in this tournament. I don’t know if it was the setting or the moment or what, but he looked nervous even during the coin toss before his first match, against Andy Murray. And he played like it to start. When del Potro immediately went down 0-3 and called for the trainer, I thought disaster was about to strike and he was about to DQ from his third straight event. Which made me wonder: Are del Potro’s defaults a result of physical, or mental, fragility? Do they happen because he’s hesitant about putting himself on the line? I don’t know, but as good a competitor as he can be, he doesn’t appear to always love the battle.

Still, against Murray he soldiered his way out of his funk and gave the match his best. And his momentum has grown from there: Del Potro won the second set of that match and beat Fernando Verdasco in a third-set tiebreaker today. He should be invested now.

Andy Murray and Roger Federer are off the air

The lights, the court, the crowd, it peaked with the match between Murray and Federer this evening. You could see that both guys were treating this with Slam-like seriousness, to the point where I thought that Murray might be a little over-juiced to start. But it was Federer who was rushing in the first set, pulling the trigger too early with his forehand. After six games, he had eight unforced errors and one winner from that side. Meanwhile, it looked like it could be a watershed moment for Murray. He was doing what he always does—that is, nothing spectacular, except mixing up depths, spins, and trajectories. But he was doing it at the WTF, in London, against Federer. If anything was going to make him feel like he could perform his best at a major—other than performing his best at a major, that is—it was winning this match.

A few days ago, Federer said that despite his losing record against Murray, their matches were always on his racquet. And it was true again today. Murray is like a lock for Federer to pick; he has to find and execute just the right combination of pace, angle, surprise, and consistency to put the ball past the Scot, who moves so well, recovers so well, and reads rallies so well. In the second set, using his first serve as the starting point, Federer found that combination by waiting a few shots to go for the inside-out forehand; by sending a ground stroke deep but not too close to the lines and following it to the net for a volley winner; by chipping and charging on a second serve at break point. Unfortunately, I don't know what he did after that; at 3-1 in the third, my TV and Internet connections both cut out. But since Federer ran it out 6-1, I’m going to go ahead and say that he ended the match in his finest form since the first set of the U.S. Open final.

Murray was left with nowhere to go in the third. At 1-1, he tried to take the offensive, and the result was an overcooked backhand long and a rushed forehand into the middle of the net. For the moment, he lacks the transition game that will let him put all of his vaunted touch and variety to use in the forecourt. Turning a match around by turning up the heat from the baseline isn't an option for him. Will this end up being a watershed match for Federer in their rivalry instead?

Novak Djokovic was good enough to survive

Djokovic, the hottest player coming into this event, lost the first set to Nikolay Davydenko yesterday. It goes to show that you can never anticipate anyone’s form on any given day, no matter how well they’ve been playing. That said, I thought Djokovic was hitting the ball well even when he was behind. More important, though, his recent run of good form gave him a sense that he should win this match. The last time he played Davydenko, a month or so ago, Djokovic had lost in a third-set tiebreaker. This time he stepped over the clutter of his own errors; he didn’t let his frustration get the better of him even after he was broken at 5-4 in the third; and he stayed just steady enough to let Davydenko self-destruct in the final two games. Djokovic used to have his sights set on being No. 1. He still does, but he also knows that he has to become No. 2 first, and that he can do that this week.

Rafael Nadal appears to be a shadow of himself

That also means that the current No. 2 could end the year lower than that for the first time since 2004. Thinner, hunched over farther, quicker to shake his head despondently, his smile more tentative, Nadal seems to have reached a low point in London, and the whole sport feels a little deflated because of it. His answer to Robin Soderling’s high strike zone was to go to the slice more. That’s not a bad idea against a tall guy, but Nadal’s slice is never going to win him matches. Like most players with two-handed backhands, he backs up and hacks at it rather than smoothly carving through it from high to low and back to high. In Australia at the start of the season, Nadal seemed to be improving his form and getting his slice to buzz through the court with some speed—remember the shots he produced against Verdasco in the semis? I haven’t seen those this fall.

Nadal has the right attitude about it all. After his loss to Soderling, he admitted that the rest of this year would be tough, that he’s lacking confidence and his favorite term, “calm,” but that he’ll be motivated to prove himself again at the start of 2010. Based on his record over the years, we can only believe him. But at the same time, Nadal has always relied on an otherworldly perseverance and stores of youthful energy—rather than, say, free points on his serve—to see him through. When will those youthful stores be tapped.

Jimmy Arias is a welcome change of pace

I’d forgotten how much I liked the snarky Arias in the booth. He’s funny, he’s not obtrusive, he’s not afraid to rip guys, he knows his tactics but doesn’t pretend there’s more to the sport than there really is, he reads body language well, and he doesn’t go overboard in his praise of the top guys, including Federer. What’s surprising to me is how well he knows the players' histories. During the Federer-Verdasco match, Arias claimed that Verdasco belted serves 135 when he first came on tour, but that he spun them in at 105 now because he didn’t trust his second serve. I had trouble believing that Mr. Sauce had ever hit anything 135 miles per hour, until he did exactly that at the end of his match with Federer, much to the delight of Arias.

Fernando Verdasco is . . . pretty much toast

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