Tennis All Over

Monday, February 18, 2013 /by

There were moments over the last five or six days that felt as head-spinning and overloaded as the middle weekend of a Grand Slam. You could fly, through the magic of multiple live streams, from continent to continent, and see matches played from morning to night. One minute Serena Williams was reclaiming No. 1 in Doha, the next minute Roger Federer had been upset in Rotterdam. By dinner you were squinting to follow the ball, and a struggling Rafael Nadal, on a sketchy clay court in São Paulo.

More winter tennis weekends should be like this one.

I’ll try my best to sum up what was most memorable in those three locations, as well as at the final men’s tournament in San Jose.

*****

She’s So Sensitive

We’re living in interesting WTA times, aren’t we? Yesterday in Doha, the day before Serena Williams ended Victoria Azarenka's 12-and-a-half month run at No. 1, Vika beat Serena for the first time since 2009. 

It made for a bittersweet ending to Serena’s historic week. After her quarterfinal win over Petra Kvitova on Friday, Williams had laughed, through her tears, and said, “I’m so sensitive these days.” Many of us were surprised by the joy Serena showed when she became the oldest woman to be ranked No. 1; she had always maintained that she didn't care what the computer thought of her. On Friday, though, she said that she had adopted that attitude in part because the top spot had felt so far away for so long. Either way, it was nice to see Serena revel in one more well-deserved career achievement.

But I was also surprised to see how sensitive Williams was in her final against Azarenka. The key moments of the match came at the end of the first-set tiebreaker. Earlier in the set, Serena had complained to chair umpire Eva Asderaki that Azarenka was messing with her rhythm by holding her hand up as Serena was getting set to serve (this is something that Azarenka does against other players as well). Asderaki said, “I’m keeping my eye on it.” 

But with Serena set to serve at 3-5 in the tiebreaker, Vika did it again. It annoyed Serena, who cracked a big serve and won the next three points to go up 6-5. It looked like she was about to make another of her customary clutch comebacks. Except that this time, at 6-5, with the set on her racquet, Serena got tight. She missed a first serve badly, then jumped anxiously and put a very makable forehand pass in the net. Instead, it was Azarenka, in the tiebreaker and again in the third set, who played her best, most aggressive tennis when she needed it. Afterward, Vika said she wasn’t intimidated by the opponent or the moment, and it showed.

Does this match signify a turning of the tide between these two? It’s too early to say that, and it could turn right back if they meet in the Dubai final this coming weekend. But the match does mark the second time in 2013 that Serena has looked vulnerable psychologically. In Australia, she lost to Sloane Stephens in part because she injured her ankle. But even before that happened, she had begun to play nervously, and she couldn't raise her game in the third set. The same was true against Azarenka yesterday. What was most surprising to me was that, when Vika served for the match at 5-3 and went up 30-0, I had no expectation that Serena would stage a comeback.

Serena may still have been hurting; she didn’t get as much on her serve as she usually does, and she made 48 unforced errors on the day. The loss may mean nothing in the long run. But this time, for the first time, as the deciding set progressed, it was Vika, rather than Serena, who I expected to come through in the clutch.

Interesting times, indeed.

*****

Hey Jules, Don’t Make it Bad

No, Julien Benneteau couldn’t take the sad song of his 0-7 career record in finals and make it better yesterday. The Frenchman lost his eighth straight, this time to Juan Martin del Potro in Rotterdam. That was no surprise. The big Argentine has made himself into a force indoors, where’s he’s now 67-32 for his career, and he didn’t lose a set all week. He hadn’t even dropped serve until Benneteau broke him to open the final. That would be del Potro’s only slip-up, until a nose bleed temporarily delayed him from serving out the match. Whatever his physical condition, this result was never in doubt.

Should we judge Benneteau harshly for his final-round futility? In the long run, maybe. He was the underdog against del Potro yesterday, but all of his previous final-round losses came against players he could reasonably have been expected to beat. Still, I'll save the judgment for later. For this week, I'll just say that the 31-year-old Benneteau recorded his second career win over Roger Federer, and that he showed off a game that, as it has gotten better over the years, has also become more entertaining and athletic. I like the Benneteau backhand approach in particular—he pulls it with everything he has. What he has, unfortunately, will probably never be enough to get him a win on a Sunday.

*****

Miles from Nowhere

More than any local resident, the man who will miss San Jose’s SAP Open the most is Canadian Milos Raonic. The Missile won his third straight title in the big barn, but he won’t win any more; this was the final edition of the tournament. Despite his Grand Slam disappointments, and his itchy tripper finger on his forehand, Raonic continues to progress. He’s ranked No. 14 now, with room to improve this season.

As for the event, which had been running since 1889, when I first heard the news that it would be ending, I had been resigned to the fact that the world changes and interest in tennis shifts around the globe. It made a sad kind of sense that even as this event was ending, a new 500-level tournament would be starting next year around the same time in Rio de Janeiro.

Today, though, now that there's no top-level pro tennis anywhere on the West Coast north of Palm Springs, I wonder why the game can’t succeed in a place where its roots run more than a century deep. There’s an audience somewhere out there, waiting for a promotion.

*****

Bad Court, Good Scene

What should we make of Rafael Nadal’s first title of his 2013 comeback tour? On the plus side, unlike in Viña del Mar, he came through in the final and got his taste of trophy since Roland Garros last June. On the minus side, his level of play over the course of the week in São Paulo was lower. Nadal returned serve from the far reaches of the stadium, and was pushed around by second-tier Argentines Carlos Berloq and Martin Alund, each of whom took a set from him. A Rafa loss to the 111th-ranked Alund in the semis may have ranked near the top of the all-time upset list. 

But Nadal got it together to win the third set easily, and win again the next day in a less-than-gripping final against his friend and doubles partner David Nalbandian. Nadal never looked comfortable on the thin, slippery, just-plain-bad clay down there, and it was no help for his knees. After this week’s beating, he said that he’ll have to see how he feels before he tests the hard courts in Indian Wells and Key Biscayne next month.

In that regard, Nadal may regret having gone to Brazil. But even watching his matches on a shaky stream where you couldn’t find the ball, the atmosphere in São Paulo felt special. The constant low roar that reverberated through the arena gave the matches the feel of major sporting events—Brazil really does deserve a new tournament, and a better one than this. It wasn't the biggest victory of his career, but I doubt it's an atmosphere that Nadal will soon forget. It's the wins and titles that make up the memories of a champion's career, and that make the comebacks worthwhile. But so do scenes like these.

More winter tennis weekends should be like this one.

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