Shanghai Short Takes

by: Steve Tignor | October 10, 2012

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Well, that makes sense. Two days after Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic give us a rare glimpse of what the future of men’s tennis might look like in Tokyo, they’re gone from Shanghai. Both of their matches were close and neither loss was a major surprise—Nishikori nursed an ankle injury while falling to Top 25-American Sam Querrey 6-4 in the third set, while Raonic went out to the still-talented Marcos Baghdatis in three tiebreakers. But that’s the thing about being the present, rather than just the future, of men’s tennis: You have to do the turnarounds. You have to win a final, and then win a first-round match somewhere else a couple of days later. These guys should get better at that, but Raonic’s loss does leave a concern. Like his fellow beanpole rocket-launcher John Isner, he obviously wins a lot of matches in tiebreakers. It’s hard to think of any long-term Grand Slam champion who made his living so precariously, especially in early rounds.

So we’re left mostly with familiar faces and golden oldies in Shanghai, which isn’t such a bad thing. It’s shaping up to be an interesting week, with ramifications for London and the No. 1 ranking. And, now that Roger Federer has arrived, the crowds have, too. Here are five thoughts from the first two days at the Rolex Masters.
Tiebreakers Good, Five-Setters Bad
Speaking of John Isner, he kicked off the event by doing what he does best. Winning in a third-set tiebreaker. Isner lives off breakers; he’s 40-15 in them for the year, and while he needed a gift from his opponent, Kevin Anderson, late in the last one, Isner does have a knack for making the important shot when he needs a mini-break. His passes, in particular, get lower and more accurate. Like Raonic, he lives on the edge, but after a season in which he did well everywhere other than the majors, you would think he would make the most of any opportunity he has in a three-out-of-five-set tournament. Isner plays Stepanek next; the winner should get Murray.
Pardon My Tangent
It’s been a long season; are the Masters Series TV commentators getting a little punchy as they near the finish line? So far in Shanghai we’ve heard them discuss their gym workouts, their nicknames for each other, their love of the 80s pop played during changeovers, as well as a thorough discussion of the tours’ recent rule changes designed to speed up play. 
But if a match’s dullness is measured by how far from tennis the announcers drift, Tomas Berdych’s straight-set win over Andreas Seppi today must have been the snoozer of the week so far. For at least one game in the first set, Jason Goodall and Robbie Koenig left the match behind to give us their differing opinions of Mamma Mia—thumbs up, I believe, from Robbie; thumbs down from Jason. 
Here’s hoping for more theater and music criticism along with the tennis this week. It must beat having to say “Federer makes it look easy” for the 100 zillionth time.
Roger’s Return
Not that the commentators got out of saying that line a few more times today. Federer mostly made returning from a month off look easy against Yen-Hsun Lu. He played some good defense and used his second serve well. Even better, perhaps, Lu made him work, and maybe even sweat. Federer’s aura preceded him, of course: Twice when Lu was broken, he lost the game on a double-fault. 
Two notes: (1) On some forehands, Federer finished by whipping his racquet above his head, not unlike Maria Sharapova or Rafael Nadal. Is that new? (2) Lu must have deceptive strokes, because he had Federer moving completely in the wrong direction twice. I’m not sure I’ve seen that before.
Federer plays Wawrinka next. He needs to win to stay at No. 1 for a 300th (yes, 300th) week.
Nole the Pro
At this time last year, Novak Djokovic looked like he wanted no part of tennis. His fall consisted of retiring from one match, giving another opponent a walkover, losing a 6-0 third set to Kei Nishikori, and going 1 for 3 at the World Tour Finals. He was injured, of course, but I also got the feeling that he didn’t want to jeopardize one of the best seasons we’d seen from any man in the Open era. In the end, unfortunately, he made it a little less perfect.
Fast forward 12 months and we see a very different Nole, one who isn’t trying to defend perfection. He’s played the same number of matches, 76, that he played in all of 2011, but at the moment he's getting stronger with each one. What had appeared, during the summer, to be something of a disappointing season compared to his last one, is now looking like a consolidation of the gains he made in 2011—it’s the solid, professional follow-up to the work of genius. Djokovic has lost five more times, and hasn’t closed at the last three majors or the Olympics, but he has virtually eliminated bad losses. He hasn’t gone out before the quarterfinals of any tournament since 2010. His one slip-up—literally—on the blue clay at the Madrid Masters (the defending champ, he lost in the quarters while Federer won the tournament) is one reason he’s not ranked No. 1 at the moment.
Today Djokovic outclassed the young Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov. He won the first 6-3 and broke Dimitrov at love to start the second. It’s been said, by myself and others, that Djokovic wins not so much with weapons, but with a lack of weaknesses. That’s true, but it also makes the individual parts of his game sound kind of average, which they obviously aren't. Today Djokovic won the first set with a second serve that Dimitrov returned long. It didn’t look like much, just a second ball in the middle of the box. Until you realized that Dimitrov had to take his one-handed backhand above his shoulder. Like much of Djokovic’s game, his kick is deceptively good. He plays Lopez next.
Paire-ing It Down
“You have to learn to lose every way possible before you can learn to win.” I’ve quoted those words—they were said by a master pool hustler—many times here before. But I was reminded of them again while watching Benoit Paire lose two close sets to his countrymen Jo-Wilfried Tsonga today. Paire has been a bright spot, in his own dark way, on the men’s tour in 2012. The Frenchman, once thought to be all flash and no substance, has gone from pure cult status to the second round of Masters events.
For a few seconds, he appeared ready to go even farther today. After fighting off two set points against Tsonga in the first-set tiebreaker, Paire earned one of his own, on his own serve. He hit a strong first ball, started to come forward, but got caught in no man’s land by Tsonga’s desperation floating return. Paire, who had the entire court open and the set seemingly in his pocket, wasn’t sure if the ball was going to go out. So he took a swing at the last second and hit a two-handed backhand volley long.
As it sailed, Paire dropped to his knees in disbelief. It was a novel way to lose, at least. Hopefully he can check it off the list and learn never to do it again.
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