Reading the Readers: March 21

Thursday, March 21, 2013 /by

A Reading the Readers for the first day of spring—what could be better?

Unfortunately, I've had a hard time noticing any positive change in the climate, having just come from 90-degree, permanently sunny weather in Palm Springs to 40 degrees and mostly cloudy in New York. 

But I'm hopeful. April is almost here.

*****

Steve,

Be honest, which of the top men’s players, Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic, has the worst fans?—William

By "worst," I’m going to assume you mean the most passionate and defensive. If that’s the criteria, I honestly think it’s a three-way tie (whether that's a tie for first or last, I’m not sure). Like just about everything else in tennis, your own answer to this question will likely correspond to which player you prefer. It’s always the other guys’ fans who are the dangerous lunatics, not yours. 

But there are differences in emphasis among the groups. If I can generalize for a minute, I’d say diehard Federer fans tend to think of him as the man who Plays the Game the Way It Was Meant to Be Played. He does it with flair and without much obvious effort, with a one-handed backhand and an all-court style. He doesn’t talk about injuries all the time. He doesn’t take too long between points. He doesn’t look at his player’s box for help. He doesn’t withdraw from tournaments. He is tennis to many—if he’s not winning, there must be something wrong with the sport; the courts must be too slow, the game must be too brutal.

Nadal fans seem to be more protective of him as a person. Is he smiling? Is he happy? Is he worried? Is he in pain? These were the things that the people who waited (hours) to watch him practice in Indian Wells were asking each other. From his knee problems, to his facial expressions, to the fears and doubts he expresses, Nadal’s vulnerability is closer to the surface than Federer’s.

As for Djokovic, he obviously has a strong Serbian following, and his fans in general are as passionate and protective as Nadal’s and Federer’s, but I’m not sure what specifically about his game or personality or struggle draws them to him. Not that I can’t see what’s likable about Djokovic. He’s the most extroverted and entertaining of the three, he’s a good loser, he shows what he’s feeling, and he’s a tremendous athlete to watch. I’m sure some Novak fans can tell us more about why he’s their guy.

We often say how lucky we are to have the players at the top that we do. That goes beyond their skills and sportsmanship and includes their ability to inspire such loyal fan bases. They may be prickly and irrational, but their involvement raises the stakes around the ATP's biggest matches. The sport would miss that if they weren't there.

*****

You mentioned that you thought Nadal was the biggest media story of Indian Wells, but that del Potro might have been the biggest tennis story. Did you see something different from him there?—Delpo Fan

In the quarters and semis, definitely. Del Potro made two big strides, but wasn’t ready mentally for a third in the final against Nadal. What was most impressive and surprising was his third set against Djokovic. He was down 0-3 to a player who has mostly owned him. If del Potro was ever going to mentally pack it in, that was a logical place. But he didn’t.

He made comebacks and didn’t quit against Murray and Djokovic, but del Potro couldn't close when he a lead against Rafa. For a set and a half, he was the better player, and was even making it look easy. Serving at 3-2, he hit his best shot of the afternoon, an angled pass on the run that left Nadal shaking his head and the crowd roaring. Maybe del Potro peaked mentally at that point. When you're up a set and a break, you tend to start to believe that you should win the match, that people are now expecting you to win the match, which is never a good thing—now you have something to lose. In the same game as that great shot, del Potro started to show signs of agitation. He argued a service call for no reason, and wouldn’t let it go. When Rafa broke, the whole match turned around. 

Del Potro had enough self-belief to mount comebacks against the top players, but not enough to front run and win from start to finish. That’s next on the agenda. He may never pass those guys or be a No. 1, but I do think he’ll win another major someday. This was probably his most encouraging performance since he came back from wrist surgery two years ago.

*****

Steve,

I know you liked the idea of the ATP being more strict about time in between points, but it seems like it’s causing some problems. What do you think now?—Bethany

It’s true, a lot of players aren’t happy, and it is hard, with no clock on the court, to ask them to mentally calculate how long it’s taking them to serve. (Not that I think a shot clock is a good idea; see my reservations near the bottom of this post from last week.) 

Doing it right does require an alert and sympathetic chair umpire. I liked the way Mohamed Lahyani handled the Djokovic-del Potro semifinal in Indian Wells. He didn’t give the two players a warning after they played a very long point in the third set and took an equally long time to set up for the next one. This was only fair: It was ridiculously hot, it was late in the match, and the rally had been the best of the afternoon. Djokovic had even taken a second to smile and rev up the crowd afterward, while a doubled-over del Potro made his exhaustion into an entertaining performance of its own. There was no reason to ruin that moment.

But Lahyani wasn’t completely lenient, either. He called a time warning against del Potro at match point. Normally, that type of thing will, justifiably, anger a player, but del Potro wasn’t bothered by it. He tossed the ball without a blink and cranked a 133 M.P.H. ace for the match. Later, he said that Lahyani had mentioned to him that he was going to get a warning if he didn’t speed up. "I knew it was coming," del Potro said, which meant that “this time it was OK.” (Ironically, as you can see in the photo above, it was Lahyani who enraged del Potro with a blown call at Indian Wells last year; he never recovered and lost badly to Federer.)

When Hawk-Eye was installed a decade ago, there was talk about how easy it made the chair umpire’s job—and it was true, they didn’t have to overrule anymore. Now, with the ATP’s new time protocol, they have something else to worry about, and we need them to be at their best. 

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