Not-So-Hefty Lefty

Thursday, March 15, 2012 /by

by Pete Bodo

Making a point to watch Thomaz Bellucci a few times every year has become something like a ritual for me. The Brazilian may be in the running for the title, "Ranking Head Case on the ATP Tour," now that Marat Safin is gone, Tomas Berdych appears to have gone straight, and Fernando Gonzalez is on the cusp of retirement.

Belliucci hasn't come close to matching the results occasionally posted by those men, but that's one of the beauties of head-case tracking. What a head case hasn't done is even more important than what he accomplishes, because he has all that unrealized, natural ability.

PicI have a particular interest in Bellucci because he's a lefty, and I've always been fascinated by southpaws. I also mourn the passing of what I consider classically deadly left-handed tennis, as personified by John McEnroe, Rod Laver, Tony Roche, Goran Ivanisevic, and Andres Gomez—along with numerous lesser lights like Wayne Arthurs.

Bellucci is one of the very few players afoot today who has the makings of the classic lefty game that, when you see it, tempts you to jump out and protest that the basic advantage is so conspicuous that it's unfair. Yet he remains a not-so-hefty lefty.

Bellucci is currently ranked No. 50, 29 places down from his career high, reached in July 2010. Someone given to crass generalization might be tempted to say that because the 24-year old is a native of Brazil, his laid-back gene must be just too powerful, and anyways, you know those leftys—they're not to be trusted at the best of times, for left-handedness is the mark of Cain. Take it from a lefty who, as a youth, was presented with a right-hander's pitcher glove by a well-meaning but stubborn and superstitious dad.

However, Bellucci's countryman, Gustavo Kuerten, who may be the all-time laid back tennis player, is being inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame this summer, and it isn't because he had such a nice singing voice. Kuerten won three French Open titles as well as the year-end championships, and he finished No. 1 in the world in 2000 (edging out, ho-ho, Safin). So much for voodoo sociology.

I caught Bellucci's Indian Wells match with Roger Federer last night (my Racquet Reaction is here), and must report that little has changed with regard to Bellucci's game and prospects. Not that losing to Federer is something of which to be ashamed of; it's just that the way Bellucci loses is both fascinating and disappointing. This time, he roared out and bagged the first set with two breaks, but he never saw a break point thereafter, and not entirely because Federer undeniably lifted his game.

Bellucci has a lethal serve, and he seems able to hit all the spots, with all the spins, on a fairly regular basis (caveat: he had a mediocre day at the notch last night, serving just 52 percent). A lefty has two conspicuously attractive choices when serving against a right-hander, as well as appealing variations on them. The obvious go-to serve in the ad court is the heavy, swinging, bend-it-like-Beckham slice. For reasons that are beyond me, this isn't nearly as popular a go-to shot now as when McEnroe and Roche were at their respective peaks. This may have something to do with court surfaces nowadays, and the demise of the sense of urgency players—especially leftys—once felt about getting to the net.

For the most effective slice, the ball ought to be tossed further out and into the court, and almost all the masters of that serve really launch into the court as they reach up to hit the ball. Bellucci is much more of a straight up server, partly because he really likes to hit that kicker (which calls for a toss much closer to straight-up or slightly behind, and to the side of the server's head). His slice is excellent, and it could be downright deadly, a la McEnroe's—no small thing, when you consider that you play half your points from either side of the notch. 

But if you're playing on clay or a slow hard court, being prepared to handle what return there will be is paramount, and the further inside the court you land after serving, the quicker you must be to the return, and the more crucial is your ability to take the ball on the rise. Under today's conditions, leftys have learned that discretion is the better part of valor. Bellucci appears to have learned to live with this, and it has certainly reduced his effectiveness.

The other and far less frequently remarked-upon lefty service weapon is the deuce-court kicker. In his rivalry with Federer, the non-lefty-southpaw Rafael Nadal showed the world that the natural ad-court kicker to the backhand of the right-hander can be devastating. But the same serve in the deuce court, to the forehand, can also reap great rewards. 

Granted, serving out wide to the forehand invites the returner to smack the ball down the line. But that isn't the easiest of tasks, given how the kicker moves, jumping both up and away from the returner. Given the position of the left-handed server, covering the line isn't such a daunting task, and it allows the lefty to unload with his basic, safe, cross-court forehand, with an area the size of Texas waiting on his opponent's ad-court side.

Bellucci hit that deuce-court kicker well last night, but he didn't always follow it up effectively. Instead of using the lefty server's advantage to build a basic game plan—a set of two- and three-shot combinations intended to put him in a winning position—Bellucci tends to make his serve and then settle back into clay-court rally mode. He's good at that, in patches. Last night he out-hit and out-steadied Federer in the first set. But Bellucci has trouble keeping his groundstrokes inside the lines and sufficiently deep for the length of entire matches. 

I'm not sure what to make of that flaw, because it implies what must be called a basic lack of sharpness, or even interest. Tennis players are basically idiot savants, whose lives from an early age have been based on a degree of repetition that many would call mind-numbing. And it's unlikely that the best of players have hit that many more balls than the journeymen, or head cases, over the course of their development and careers. Could it be that some of them just plain do it by rote, at least partly because they have too much invested, and are too good even in their flawed state, to ponder doing something else?

Bellucci seems to lack a vital spark of desire that might enable him to focus better, for longer. When you lose focus and/or desire, you begin making errors; when you begin making errors your confidence slips. When your confidence slips, the spectre of choking looms larger and larger—and the next thing you know, you've blown yet another opportunity. Choking often begins long before you hit that ghastly shot that makes spectators avert their eyes and wince in sympathy.

The book on Bellucci seems to be that if you can just hang in there, some intrinsic lack of stick-to-it-iveness will kick in and he'll give it up. Bellucci is 24, so he still has time to figure out some of these things. I hope he can add some new chapters to that book.

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