Blue Notes

Wednesday, May 09, 2012 /by

McThe Mutua Madrid Open needed some sunshine in its life, and it got a lot of it on a bright and hot Wednesday. A week’s worth of simmering complaint about the new and slippery blue clay courts had come to a boil with Novak Djokovic’s head-shaking assessment of them the night before: “For me that’s not tennis,” Djokovic said after skating through a three-set win in his opening match. “Either I come here with football shoes or I ask Chuck Norris to advise me on how I should play on this court.”

The early bad vibes seemed to have been forgotten by this morning, cleared away by the blue sky, and Djokovic’s anger and denial had turned to acceptance in the words of David Ferrer. “A little slippery,” is how Ferrer, the hardest working man in tennis, described the courts. "But they’re working hard to improve it. It’s not a question of criticizing, just going out on court and doing the best you can.” Novak's diatribe appears to have helped. Tournament director Manolo Santana said today that the grounds crew worked on the courts until 4 A.M. this morning.

By this afternoon, it appeared to be official: We’d made it through the five stages of red-clay grief. Now, about those nasty shadows on the side courts…

It was an all-blue morning for me in the States as well. It’s a nice color, I admit, but not the right color. Or a good court. I watched the main stadium matches on the Tennis Channel on my TV, and kept tabs on the outer courts on the iPad. It was sort of, almost, kinda, not really, like being there.

When I go to a tournament, I normally take a day or two and record observations from around the grounds. I’ll try my best to do the same from the living room couch today. Unfortunately, it won’t include much on the women, or anything on Petra Kvitova’s upset defeat. The WTA has gotten the short end of the streaming stick so far from Madrid.

*****

Daveed’s Dance of Death
The dance of death: That’s what my colleague Peter Bodo used to call the little side-to-side hop that Jimmy Connors did as he blew on his fingers and waited menacingly for his opponent to serve.

Today David Ferrer is also dancing before each serve from his opponent, Radek Stepanek. It’s a different sort of dance from Connors’, with a different meaning. Jimbo exuded aggressive menace as he leaned forward and prepared to fire his famous two-handed backhand return into his net-rushing opponent’s gut. Daveed stays upright and never stops moving. Message: I’m not getting tired, I’m not slowing down, I’m not going anywhere, I’ve always got energy to burn. If the counterpunching Connors' was the quintessential dance for tennis’s rebellious 1970s, the indefatigable Ferrer’s fits right in with the war of physical attrition that is the modern game.

Ferrer beats Stepanek in a tiebreaker after a long first set. That’s all the Czech can handle, as he wilts and goes down 1-4 in the second. Ferrer keeps dancing, until he’s dead.

*****

Sometimes, It Just Doesn’t Happen
Having not seen much of Germany’s new/old hope, 24-year-old Angelique Kerber, since her semifinal run at the U.S. Open last year, I was curious to find out what she was doing right these days. I picked the wrong one of those days.

Kerber has her chances against Li Na, whose shots are getting progressively wilder and who appears ready to go off the boil at any moment. But Kerber is just slightly too distracted and pessimistic to push her over the edge. Li is the bigger hitter, and scrambling to stay in rallies discourages the German. She kicks the clay after one point, even though she’s not behind in the score. She calls her coach out and stares away from him as he talks to her. Kerber doesn’t have the belief today, and she lets Li off the hook, ending the match with a rushed, “let’s get out of here,” ground stroke into the net. Li survives, and will be dangerous.

*****

How Calm is Too Calm?
Yesterday I mentioned, in reference to Milos Raonic, that while we love to discuss tactics, so much of the game comes down to plain and simple execution—which, unfortunately, is very tough to say anything about (and which is why it’s so underrated). The same might be said for a player’s demeanor on court. As with tactics, the same attitude that works one day might not work the next, if you’re not making your shots.

Case in point: Marin Cilic. Back when the Croat, now 23, was a rookie on the rise, I praised him for his level head. He was businesslike in his approach. He did his best, tried everything he could, and if it didn’t work, it didn’t work. This low-key approach served him well when adversity struck.

Then, when Cilic had lost his way and appeared to be destined never to reach his potential, I criticized him for being too calm, for not firing himself up, for being too . . . businesslike.

Now we come to 2012, and Cilic, after a runner-up finish in Munich, is on the rise again. He’s the better player against the 8th seed, John Isner, in Madrid today. Still, he can’t shake the American. As Isner does so often, he finds a way to stay in a match despite being outplayed. He’s lost the first set in a tiebreaker, but is up 5-4 in the second, with Cilic serving. Isner hits a forehand that clips the tape and falls over. The score is 0-30; Isner is two points from the set. Cilic’s reaction? There is none. He puts his head down and starts the next point. He comes back to win the game and the match.

I get the sense today that Cilic’s calmness spills over into his play. He never rushes, he never goes for too much, he knows he can hold his serve and win the longer rallies. He plays within himself.

Or is this just my imagination? Is it a connection too far? Cilic likely would have had the same demeanor in defeat.

*****

First Things First
Fernando Verdasco and Alejandro Falla are in their own war of attrition on Court 2. The lefties grind out long rallies that leave both winded and taking their time between points. When chair umpire Fergus Murphy reminds Verdasco about the 25-second rule, Verdasco answers, "I cannot serve if I cannot breathe." He breathes long enough to earn a hard-fought win, 6-4 in the third.

*****

Nole vs. Nole
To finish, I’ll go back to Djokovic’s up-and-down performance from last night. After Nadal came out so proactively in his win over Nikolay Davydenko today—Rafa brought his green-grass game to the blue clay, and it worked—the pressure will be on Djokovic to get down to business as well.

Still, his initial reaction to the surface was hardly a surprise. It's Novak's style to let things get to him—in this case, the surface—before he can put them aside and play tennis. Unlike Federer and Nadal, there’s a small, highly strung part of Djokovic that doesn’t want to calmly and logically compete for an entire match. There’s a frazzled part of him that wants to pull the plug and just let the ball sail. What’s interesting is watching the more responsible side of Djokovic let that that guy have his say and then reel him in. It’s not the most efficient method of winning tennis championships, but for those of us who like to watch Novak and who try to play a little tennis too, it’s a familiar one. Fighting ourselves along with the opponent? We can relate. Djokovic, in his dramatic way, shows us how to make it work.

*****

Join me for a live chat about Madrid, and anything else that comes to mind, at noon Eastern time on Thursday, at http://tinyurl.com/bm7wwjb

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