When I flipped on the broadcast from Monte Carlo this morning, Tomas Berdych was standing at the back of the court with his hands out in front of him, a look of slight disbelief on his face. He was motioning to the people in his players box, asking them whether the shot he had just hit had been long. He moved his hands in and out, as if to say, “Was it almost in? Was it way out?” Two points later another Berdych ground stroke landed long, and he did the same thing. Replays showed that neither ball had been all that close.
It's a look that has crossed the face of every player who has ever played—even Bjorn Borg’s. It’s a cruel fact of tennis that the baseline is just far enough away that we can’t tell whether our shots have landed on it, crossed over it by a centimeter, or floated past it by a full foot. Everyone says that a player can tell by the way the ball comes off the strings whether it's going to be in or out. I think that’s true a lot of the time. But the fact that, like Berdych, we still don’t quite believe it when our shots do land long shows how powerful wishful thinking can be.
That was how my Monte Carlo day began. It ended in more surprising fashion. In the last match of the afternoon, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga led Gilles Simon 4-2 in the second set after losing the first. He appeared to have righted the ship against a player he'd beaten four of five times. I walked away from the TV set briefly, assuming that there would be a third. When I came back, Simon was serving at 5-4, 40-0, triple match point. This being Jo, should I have been surprised? Or should I have assumed that this would happen?
On Thursday, right after Tsonga’s win over Fernando Verdasco, there was a brief flurry on Twitter about how it might be Jo, rather than Andy Murray, who wins a Grand Slam soon. I didn’t see any more of those tweets today. Every day in tennis leaves you thinking something a little different.
Anyway, here are a few thoughts on what happened in Monte Carlo the rest of the day, and what we might see this weekend.
It’s a truism of tennis writing, and sportswriting in general, that players' personalities are expressed in their games. Truer, I think, is that players show a part of themselves that they don’t anywhere else. Arthur Ashe was self-contained as a person, but he played with a stubbornly reckless abandon. Bjorn Borg’s icy distance was an attempt to keep his inner madman at bay.
What about Andy Murray? He’s known for his self-flagellating tirades on court, and he gave himself a few more whippings today in his loss to Berdych—it doesn’t seem like the stern presence of Ivan Lendl is going to keep him from chuntering away at the back of the court, the way it briefly did in Melbourne. Off court, though, Murray doesn’t come across as dour or negative as much as he does business-like and methodical in his approach. His early Spanish coach, Pato Alvarez, said that Andy was like that even as a young junior. Alvarez joked that wasn’t sure Murray even existed when he wasn’t on a tennis court.
When you talk to Murray, you know there’s a sense of humor or fun there, but in public he shows only the faintest traces of it. I think this is in part a reaction to the attention he receives from the British press and public. The media contingent that follows him is larger than any other player’s, and the crush during Wimbledon is like nothing else in the sport. Murray has said that when he practices during the fortnight, he tries not to make any wacky or angry faces, because he knows they’ll end up on the back of a tabloid—I guess he makes up for the lack of angry faces in practice during his matches. He was also burned as a kid, when he made his infamous, deadpan, “Anyone but England” answer to the question of which country he was supporting in the 2006 World Cup.
Having learned his lessons, Murray offers little humor or emotion to the press. And, despite his shot-making creativity, Murray offers little flash on court as well. As I wrote earlier this week, he's a creative type who typically chooses to play solid, straightforward, unflashy, high-percentage tennis. And it works; until it doesn’t. We know his forehand will never be the weapon that it is for so many others, and we know his second serve could use more depth and bite. But today, Murray was also risk-averse with his best shot, his backhand. He can go down the line with it as well as anyone, but he rarely took the opportunity, and Berdych was able to control the middle of the court. Most telling stat: Berdych went to the net 36 times, winning 28; Murray got there just seven times, winning four. Yet it’s Murray who has the better hands.
There’s more to Murray’s personality than he shows us; there’s more to his game than he's showing us as well.
Call it tennis truism day: The second one that came to mind was, “It’s all in the head.” I thought of this while I was watching Rafael Nadal beat Stan Wawrinka. Yes, the mental game is all-important, and Nadal excels at it. But which comes first, the mind, or the technique and athleticism? It’s no accident that Nadal also has a forehand that allows him to hit with maximum power and safety. The combination of his strength and his Western grip lets him to swing as hard as he wants, put plenty of air under the ball, and yet also get the type of penetration that most people get with flatter, riskier shots.
This helps Rafa simplify the game, and gives him an automatic fall-back option when things get tight—in big situations, it's not unusual to see him go bigger with his forehand. Up a set and a break today against Stan Wawrinka but down 15-30, Nadal suddenly upped the tempo on his forehand. He took two of them from midcourt, came in behind them, and won both points. Other times, he was content to hit safely crosscourt, with plenty of topspin—even Nadal's rally shots can seem imposing. Other times, he went with more pace down the line to Wawrinka’s weaker forehand. Other times he put extra air under it to force Stan to hit his one-handed backhand from above his shoulder. With Rafa serving for the match at 5-4, 30-0, Wawrinka made the mistake of approaching to Nadal’s forehand. I think you know how that ended: with a passing shot winner to set up triple match point.
For Rafa, it’s in the mind, but it’s in the arm, too. His forehand, which is his bread and butter (and jam, and anything else he wants to put on it) shot the same way Pete Sampras’s serve was for him, should go down as one of the best shots in the game's history. Knowing you have it can't hurt your mental game.
Tomorrow Rafa will take that shot into a semifinal with the surprising Simon. Nadal, despite having said that Simon can be tricky, is 4-1 against the Frenchman, and all four of those wins were in straight sets. His only loss came in a third-set tiebreaker at the Madrid Masters in 2008, when that tournament was on a hard court.
That’s not a gimme—Simon is tricky, and you have to hit a lot of balls to beat him—but it’s likely that the other semi, between Berdych and Novak Djokovic, will be more competitive. Er, well, maybe it will. Djokovic is 8-1 against Berdych, though they've never played on clay. But Berdych played an excellent, well-measured, three sets of tennis against Murray today, and he’s coming off a big, three-win Davis Cup weekend against Djokovic’s fellow Serbs.
Much will depend on Novak’s state of mind. It’s obviously been a draining couple of days for him. Will he be more motivated by his grandfather’s death to get his first win in his adopted hometown? Probably. Could he run out of gas, as well as some of that motivation, if he falls behind against Berdych? Possibly. Djokovic has hardly played his best or most ferocious tennis the last two rounds, but neither Dolgopolov nor Haase were up to the mental task of taking him out. Haase, in particular, appeared to be lost out there today.
As scratchy as that match was, though, it gave us one very memorable moment. After gathering up a drop shot and then running back for a crosscourt forehand pass, Djokovic let loose with his first punch-the-sky fist-pump since his grandfather passed. It felt cathartic, at least for this viewer, a tennis champ’s way of saying—roaring—“Life goes on.”
Have a good weekend.