Best of 2010: Heartbreak in Bercy

Tuesday, December 14, 2010 /by

Now I understand why movie studios release their Oscar hopefuls so late in the year. It’s virtually impossible to remember anything that happened more than about a month ago (it’s dawning on me right now that all politicians must realize this fact very early in life). I dimly recall staying up late to see an outstanding match between Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Nicolas Almagro from the Australian Open in January. I’m sure it was an epic; in fact, I checked. It finished 9-7 in the fifth, so it wasn’t a product of my imagination. It may have been even better than my No. 9 pick, which took place in November, within my brain’s one-month statute of limitations. But at the moment it’s Robin Soderling’s nail-biting and heart-breaking third-set tiebreaker win over Michael Llodra in Bercy that sticks with me, both for its emotional content and its contrasting forms of play.

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First, I couldn’t find any highlight reels from this match. It makes a big difference. Once you’re used to seeing one awesome winner after another on YouTube, with nothing in between them, it can be surprisingly tough to go back to tennis in real time. I find myself thinking: “You mean they miss first serves and walk around in between points toweling off and getting the balls from the ball kids? How do I watch this sport?”

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Do you realize now how much you missed Robbie Koenig and company? Um, I have to say I’m not quite there yet. Give me another month. Maybe a month and a half. Though I did like hearing him say that this was a “Battle roy-al.”

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What is the most exciting play in tennis? From the evidence gathered in this match, it’s the sight of a player taking a ground stroke from at or just inside the baseline, using the shot as an approach shot—i.e. not trying to bludgeon it for a winner—then making the long dash through the court and all the way to the net, and winning the point. It doesn’t happen often, even when a net-rusher like Llodra is playing, but he pulls it off once here. There’s a daredevil aspect to it; you’re only used to seeing people run that far side to side. Maybe it should be required that every player has to attempt it from the back of the court to the front once per game. That would spice up the sport.

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I remembered the special Parisian energy that built up in the stadium for this match, but I didn’t realize how painful it all appeared to be for Llodra’s wife. He should have at least won it for her.

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I wrote during Llodra’s run at this tournament that the tough thing about being a serve and volleyer is that doing it right involves trade-offs. Western forehands and two-handed backhands are virtual deal-breakers, which means you put yourself at a disadvantage every time you’re forced to stay at the baseline (the Paul Annacone theory of tennis is beginning to make more sense to me). Watching Llodra try to break Soderling at 5-6 in the third, I realized how hard it is for a guy with a net-rusher’s game to finish off a break. His returns aren’t powerful, especially with his one-handed backhad, so he can’t grab the initiative unless he follows them all the way in. And his passing shots are weak. It’s hard to imagine any other player missing the forehand pass he had at match point. Llodra’s forehand is relatively flat and conservative; he doesn’t have the safety of topspin and net clearance that most other players do. Still, he should have made that one. Koenig said at the start of the game that Llodra had a chance to “cement his place in Bercy folklore.” He did it, but not the way he wanted to.

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While he lost, and while he ended the year on a tragic note in the Davis Cup final, Llodra gave us so much to watch this year, and in this match. The slice backhand that he circles through, with a follow-through that's all flourish. The change of pace flat backhand that he can unleash in the middle of a rally, to the astonishment of his flailing opponent. The inside-out backhand slice approach return (you don’t see that one too often). The smooth and simple service motion that leads him forward. The unusual angles that he carves the court into with his wide lefty serve and crosscourt backhand volley.

It used to be that serve and volley was the easy way to play; not so anymore. It takes a high degree of risk and skill to beat even a garden-variety two-fisted baseliner. There’s a also a higher degree of decision-making involved—when do I come forward, when do I fake like I’m coming in, when do I change the pace with my ground strokes? That can be confusing and lead to mid-point indecision, but it’s also a superior mental challenge. Maybe Llodra will inspire someone else to try it, someone with the young legs he no longer owns.

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Soderling offers little appeal from a playing standpoint, at least for me, but he ended this match the way I’d hoped he would. A fierce and almost confrontational celebrator at times, he went low-key and didn’t rub Llodra’s face in his own misery in front of the home fans. It’s not something I thought I would ever say about the heavy-hitting Robin Soderling, but here it is: Nice touch. Nice way to end a classic that, I hope, won’t soon be forgotten.

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