Tuning Up for the Tune-Ups

Friday, April 15, 2011 /by

Jm This has been the mellow Monte Carlo. It used to be that the heart of the season began to beat right around now, but this time the tournament almost feels like a one-off, a clay tune-up for the more significant clay tune-ups to come, with the French Open way out there on the horizon.

You can chalk it up to a phenomenon previously unknown in tennis, something called the Novak Djokovic Effect. It’s akin to the John McEnroe Effect, and in more recent years to the Roger Federer/Rafael Nadal Effect: At certain points in time, the absence of any of these players from a tournament would have robbed it of a good deal of its urgency right from the start. Without them, an event didn’t quite matter, or matter nearly as much as it did with them. It’s a measure of how far Djokovic in 2011 has come that he has reached that status. Too bad, too: He was forced to choose between his two home tournaments, one in Monaco and the other in Belgrade. It’s been a little weird to hear about him practicing on the courts at the MCCC this week, but skipping this one and, hopefully, living long enough to fight in Paris was the right decision.

Along with the Djokovic effect, we’ve also suffered from the Incredible Shrinking Masters, that annual moment when we go from the Slam-like, dual-gender, 96-draw events in Indian Wells and Key Biscayne to a relatively sleepy 56 men at a country club. It’s about as close to the leisurely days of the game’s amateur era as we get today. But there are upsides to everything, right? The fewer players, the more individual attention we can give to the ones whom we do get to see. Which leads to thoughts, and questions, and the hazards of trying to answer them.

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The Tsonga Perplex: What is it with the guy?
One day, when he’s playing Juan Monaco, he’s clearly the tougher, stronger, and more motivated player. The next day, against Ivan Ljubicic, he clearly . . . isn’t. In that surprising defeat to the older man, Tsonga appeared unsure of himself, unsure of how to compete. It’s an even more perplexing case than that of his fellow free-spirited Frenchman Gael Monfils. At least with Monfils, flakiness is part of the deal up front, and, if you’re inclined that way, part of the appeal. Tsonga at least makes a show of being a serious character, but the results can seem just as flaky. Or is it just that his ball-striking has gotten less clean over the years, and he’s tried to rely on athleticism more and more?

The Gulbis Confirmation: He’s not the flavor of the month
For the last three or four years, and especially last year, Ernests Gulbis was a pet favorite of mine, a guy whose matches and even press conferences I would go out of my way to see. Now, not so much. It isn’t just because he’s gone back into flounder mode, though that doesn’t help—the guilty appeal of underachieving does wear off after a while. It’s also that a serious fan of anything, be it music or movies or fancy New York burger joints, ends up living for novelty. Indie rock fans, say, will always look forward to discovering a new band much more than they will waiting for the third album of a band that they already like—they’re old hat by then. The match between Gulbis and Milos Raonic this week was a good example of that cruel phenomenon. There you had the flavor of 2010 going up against the flavor of the last three months. We’ve gone from embracing the erratic and sometimes very funny baby-faced slacker to liking the methodical and serious baby-faced grind. That’s tennis—it’s appeal cuts many ways.

The Murray Conclusion: This guy is good
Was it me who began this week assuring you that we shouldn't expect too much from Andy Murray? Should I end it by speculating that he might just have the best chance of anyone of knocking off Rafael Nadal on clay this year? No, I won’t go that far, but these two played an epic two-set semifinal here two years ago, after which Nadal said that he, at least for that moment, feared Murray more than anyone on the dirt.

But no, it’s just a little early to crown Murray the French Open champion. We just had him washed up for the year a few short days ago. For now, I’ll just say how much fun it’s been watching him this week. He’s moved as fluidly as a genuine dirtballer, he’s played with the mix of craftiness, steadiness, and occasional aggression that the whole world has been calling for from him for years. And while he hasn't registered any monumental wins, it does make you think that clay is a nice place for him to ply his particular trade; he can hang back, be patient, and ultimately win with his superior all-around ground-stroke game. At a time of big rips and heavy top, it’s always fun to see Murray slow the game back down.

His match with Gilles Simon was a particular pleasure. The first set, with both guys carving around the ball rather than belting it, was relaxing. The second set, when the crowd whistled at Murray for drop-shotting an injured Simon, was edgy. What was most amazing to me was just good Murray’s drop shots were. So good that even the whistlers had to pause to applaud, before they went back to whistling.

The Federer Question: Did He Seem Less Than Totally Desperate to Win Against Melzer?
In the middle of the second set, down a break and with things looking bleak, Federer watched Melzer hit a mediocre drop volley and . . . kept watching as the ball bounced once, and then bounced twice. He pretty clearly could have tracked it down if he’d set out to do so from the start.

That’s not to say Federer wasn’t trying, of course, but there did seem to be a lack of outrage on his part about losing the first two sets of his career to the Austrian. Like Soderling and Baghdatis and Berdych and Davydenko and maybe even Gulbis over the last year or so, Melzer was due to get a win over Federer—he beat Djokovic at the French last year and Nadal in Asia in the fall. And he played excellent tennis from start to finish today. He pushed Federer back with his backhand, which he took early and hit deep. In the in end, with the wind swirling and the dust kicking up, Melzer did the smart thing by continuing to move forward. Melzer is a very human player; you can read his emotions easily. He was fighting to keep his excitement and anxiety down in the last two games. It was nice to see him get to let them out.

It’s obligatory at this point that we ask, after a Federer defeat, whether it’s a “sign of his decline.” It is, but as I said last year after his loss to Berdych at Wimbledon, it’s only another sign of his decline into normalcy. It’s against the normal run of things for a guy to keep beating other quality opponents every single time out for years on end. That period of his career is over, as are, almost certainly, the three-Slam seasons. But this stage doesn’t seem too bad, either, all things considered: This was, as we’ve been told many times already, Federer's first loss to someone other than Nadal or Djokovic in 2011; more significantly, it was his first loss before a semifinal since Wimbledon last year. Comde to think of it, even that is above the normal run of things.

Afterward, Federer, who blew a lot of break points, shanked a lot of balls in the closing stages of the match, and was on the defensive much of the time, said he was happy to get some clay matches in and happy to get to go train at home. Like Monte Carlo itself this time, there wasn’t a lot of urgency about Federer’s performance. As we’ve learned this week, Paris is still way out on the horizon.

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Have a good weekend.

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