Blown Away

Sunday, March 24, 2013 /by

MIAMI, Fla.—It wasn’t exactly the kind of day you would choose to begin rebuilding a résumé, nor the kind of opponent on whose back you would expect to take that first big step. But Janko Tipsarevic knew he had to stop his slide; the longer it went, the worse it would get. He had to start the process somewhere—even if the 6’8”, ace machine Kevin Anderson stood in his way.

The kind of heat and humidity that drives a hound to sleep under the porch all day lay over Miami today, and just in case that was insufficient disincentive for quietly folding your hand, fierce gusting winds buffeted Key Biscayne. The only people who conceivably had it worse than the tennis players were fly-fishermen hunting bonefish on the flats around Virginia Key.

Tipsarevic is seeded seventh here at the Sony Open, but at the start of the tournament, he was still looking for his first win since the third round of the Australian Open—way back in January. He finally won a match here the other day, over qualifier Dudi Sela. But at 5’9”, Sela is more Bilbo Baggins than Anderson.

Anderson entered this event 13-4 on the year, and up to No. 29 in the rankings. But the numbers don’t do justice to the South African’s out-sized serve and slapdash game that can power through most anyone, especially on an outdoor hard court under conditions likely to have a precise baseliner like Tipsarevic weeping and gnashing his teeth.

“It was really tough to control the ball today,” Tipsarevic would tell me later. “Apart from the wind and sun there was tremendous humidity, and today Kevin was just smashing his first serve at me. It was more of a fight out there.”

The tone was set early, when Tipsarevic failed to hold a 4-2 first set lead and then watched Anderson bomb his way to four straight games and the first set. The big man wears full-length sleeve on his serpentine right arm, the color of dull aluminum, and it looks disconcertingly like a prosthetic device cobbled up to make his atomic serve even more lethal. “I think we were both of us just trying to stay in the point and control the game,” Tipsarevic said. “But with a lot of unforced errors from both sides.”

Tipsarevic, with his flat, laser-like strokes, is the kind of baseliner who might be able to play under the wind, but that’s a lot easier to write than to do. So Anderson, serving at 74 percent and doing his level best to curtail rallies, seemed to be in control—until he tagged a double fault to give up the fifth game of the second set.

The next game began with a point nicely representative of the day. In a rally, Tipsarevic shanked a forehand that flew high into the air, seemingly over the bleachers. He turned in disgust and started to walk back to the baseline. Meanwhile, the wind was blowing the suspended ball back into the court, ultimately forcing Anderson to win the point with a smash to which Tipsarevic reacted with a double take. Did I miss something? What happened?

Tipsarevic was unable to hold that lead, either, through no great fault of his own. But he was asking for trouble as the men careened into a tiebreaker, and he got it when he gave up the first mini break for 2-4. He was three points from losing the match in straight sets.

But Anderson is one of those guys who, to perversely twist the familiar refrain, always gets one fewer ball back.

With two serves to come and and a 4-3 lead, Anderson whacked an ugly forehand error to give back the mini break. He held his next serve, but Tipsarevic remained calm and won his two serves, bringing him to set point. He then did no more than you or I, as Anderson double-faulted away the set.

Tipsarevic would not let that change of momentum slip away again, wind or no wind. He survived a break point to hold, and broke Anderson in the next game. The errors began to pour off the face of Anderson’s racquet, even though his supporters in the player guest box kept crying out, “Relax that arm!” and, “Come on, Kev, positive energy!”

Their pleas were to no avail. Anderson continued to play like an angry man bent on punishing a ball that wouldn’t sit still for the beating. He wouldn’t win another game; the final score was 4-6, 7-5 (5), 6-0.

“I was feeling really lucky I was able to win that second set, especially with those conditions,” Tipsarevic told me. “Kevin is a Top 30 player. He won’t just make unforced errors if you’re just putting the ball in. My plan was to try to make him play and run as much as possible. Then with these conditions, if he takes the risk and hits the corners, you just say, ‘You were a better man than me today.’”

Reflecting on his recent past, Tipsarevic said: “I came back too early in European indoor swing. I was healthy but not really ready to play. I met two very tricky guys—[Michael] Llodra (in Montpellier) and Dmitry Tursunov (in Marseille). Suddenly I lost two first rounds, then in Dubai I have to play Nikolay Davydenko, who’s a great player, and then I am in a night session against Ernests Gulbis—who is coming from a 13-match winning streak and playing the tennis of his life.” Tipsarevic paused for a breath, sighed, and added: “It isn’t always easy.”

It wasn’t easy today either, but Tipsarevic managed to get the job done, and that was a big step forward. Just how big was obvious when he said, “It wasn’t pretty today. As Brad Gilbert would say, I was winning ugly. But I really, really needed this win today.”

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