Does tennis need more of Wayne Odesnik? Do we need more outlaws, à la pro wrestling? Vince McMahon couldn’t have trained up a better one than the snarling, stalling, defiant, and annoying Odesnik who showed up in Houston last week. He played his role perfectly right to the end, losing a tight three-setter to the shining, albeit hesitant, hero of the day, Sam Querrey. Not only was he not apologetic, it was Odesnik, the ATP pariah and alleged drug cheat, who could barely bring himself to shake his polite opponent’s hand afterward. This guy is box-office gold.
As objectionable as Odesnik’s presence at the tournament was, his semi with Querrey was one of the more entertaining matches of the year. Odesnik forced his opponent, a generally gentle giant, out his psychological comfort zone. One of Querrey’s strongest assets is his ability to stay calm no matter what the situation. His deeply even-keel approach is 180 degrees from that of, say, Rafael Nadal’s, but it serves him well. Now we know that it’s really the only option he has. As soon as Querrey made the match personal—he had guaranteed victory beforehand—he lost his cool, and his game went with it. Suddenly we had a voluble and irritable Sam Querrey on our hands, one who thinks out loud, shakes his head in confusion, visibly questions his own decisions, and even half-tries to drill a ball at his opponent. Personalized aggression isn’t Sam’s forte; I can only imagine that Andy Roddick would have wasted no time in leveling Odesnik in this situation. All of which made Querrey’s play at the end of the match more impressive. The final game was his best. He played with control and tactical intelligence, looping heavy balls deep before moving forward and going for a winner. Querrey may not make any guarantees in the future, but he did exactly what he said this time: He refused to lose. A lot of guys must be thanking him for it.
Now we put the ridiculous behind us and move on to one of the more sublime moments on the calendar. Today marks the ATP’s Continental shift to Monte Carlo, the Mediterranean, and red clay. It was all there this morning when I got up, just as I remembered it: The court on the cliff, the blinding sun above it, the sea rolling out behind it, and Richard Gasquet hitting an ill-advised jumping backhand into the net on it. Some things never change. I guess I’ve given up on Gasquet ever going as far as his potential could take him, but I still enjoy what head-scratching glimpses I can get of his game.
Who else will be seeing in Monte Carlo? Let’s start by asking who we won’t be seeing. Five of the Top 10: Roger Federer, Juan Martin del Potro, Nikolay Davydenko, Andy Roddick, and Robin Soderling. Consider it a warning about making fewer tournaments on the schedule mandatory. Monte Carlo, despite its history and locale, is 50 percent of the tournament it once was.
Has Novak Djokovic ever been the first seed at a Masters event? With Federer’s absence and Nadal ranked No. 3, he takes over the top rung on the draw this time. It’s a tricky moment for Djokovic. He played poorly in the U.S., and he just announced that he’s dropped Todd Martin as his sometime coach. The fit between the über-cerebral Midwesterner and the volatile Serb was an odd one from the start, and Djokovic’s serve certainly hadn’t thrived in their brief time together. This was the time last year when Djokovic played himself out of a slump and into three top-flight slugfests with Nadal, two in finals and one in a semifinal. He lost them all, but he came up with some of his finest tennis of the year during the clay season. That means Djokovic will have plenty of motivation, and plenty of pressure, to defend those points this time around. He’ll start that defense fresh, and presumably hitting away the way he likes.
He’s helped by his draw, which has put him on the opposite side of Nadal and Murray. Djokovic is slotted with the solid-but-bordering-on-too-tall-for-clay Marin Cilic; Fernando Verdasco, who somehow has never been past the quarters of any Masters tournament; the dangerous Tomas Berdych, who is showing signs of a renaissance; Tommy Robredo, whom I can't come up with any pithy phrase to describe; and Stan Wawrinka, who beat Federer here last year. Sleepers include David Nalbandian, Marcos Baghdatis, and maybe Igor Andreev, whose forehand has always made me wonder why he hasn’t had more success in clay Masters events. Like Mr. Sauce, he’s never even been to a semifinal.
Semifinalists: Djokovic, Berdych
Now that I think about it, this half, with the exception of five-time defending champion Nadal, is pretty much as open as the top. Murray is the second seed here, and he played Nadal in a tremendous semifinal at this tournament last year, but he’s also coming in wounded from the spring hard-court season. Clay, paradoxically, requires more point-ending ground strokes than slow hard courts, and that isn’t Murray’s forte—he was as shackled as he’s ever been in his losses at Indian Wells and Key Biscayne. The flipside is that he may feel a lot less pressure in Monte Carlo. He won’t be expected to win a clay event like this one, and he’ll be coming in having taken a last-minute wild card, which may help lower his expectations and free up his game. But I’m not counting on it.
Along with Nadal and Murray, this half includes the bottomlessly unpredictable Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the earth-bound Juan Monaco, the aggravating Nicolas Almagro, teen wild card Bernard Tomic, the gracefully aging Juan Carlos Ferrero, the dangerous—to himself and his opponent—Thomaz Bellucci (wait, I see that Bellucci already lost—the danger must have been all on his side of the court this time around), the dogged David Ferrer, the fabulously named Fabio Fognini, and the aging-even-more-gracefully-at-the-moment Ivan Ljubicic. We also have the sport's official new tank commander, Eduardo Schwank, who ended a recent match by intentionally foot-faulting on both his first and second serves on match point (I can't decide if that's funny or depressing). Unfortunately, one of my favorite players to watch when he was a junior, the sure-handed Oleksandr Dolgopolov Jr. of Russia, who I haven’t seen in the pro ranks yet, was beaten by Julien Benneteau in the first round. Hopefully, I’ll get another chance.
Not a bad lineup, but do any of these guys sound like a serious match for an in-form Nadal? Whatever his issues have been coming to Monte Carlo, they always magically vanish once he sets foot on center court. He likes this surface in particular; it reminds of the clay in Paris. When he find it under his feet again, Nadal hits with more authority and walks with a new spring. One by one, he takes his methodical revenge on the guys who have beaten him on other surfaces over the course of the last year.
Semifinalists: Rafael Nadal and . . . frankly, I have no idea. Considering that I was about to pick Bellucci, I think I’ll just leave the space blank. Who is your pick?
Final: Nadal d. Berdych