Tommy. Can You Hear Him?

Monday, May 27, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

PARIS—He’s been ranked as high as No. 5 in the world, and he’s successfully fighting his way back from a devastating hamstring injury (and surgery) that derailed a model career. He’s spent 10 consecutive years in the Top 50 and earned 11 ATP singles titles. Men’s Health magazine once named him “the most stylish man in Spain,” and he’s a charter member of the Gorgeous One-Handed Backhand Club (president: Roger Federer).

But in spite of all that, and being sort of unforgettable as (probably) the only man in Spain named after the eponymous rock opera by the British rock outfit, The Who, Tommy Robredo seems to have an identity problem. He’s the forgotten man of Spanish tennis. That was put into stark perspective here at Roland Garros today.

Robredo is in resurgence, still on the comeback trail and already ranked No. 34 after starting the year at No. 114. With the withdrawals of Juan Martin del Potro and Andy Murray, that meant Robredo earned a seed. Yet in the daily match notes press packet, he was one of the few seeds not to make the “featured” (show court) match listing. 

If you like conspiracy theories, we can do some business here: Tommy is the lowest seed in the men’s draw. He was assigned to play on the utterly plain and ordinary penultimate Court 16, which is as far as you can get into the hinterlands without having to book a flight. And he was matched with Estonia’s Jurgen Zopp—did you notice his last name begins with a “Z?”

Of course, all this added up to a “must-see” match for me, so I camped out there, along with enough Robredo faithfuls (or perhaps it was just bored grounds pass holders) to fill the modest galleries paralleling either sideline. 

Zopp is 6’3” but looks bigger, kind of like an extra-large version of Jim Courier. He walks in the same, leisurely and confident manner. You probably would, too, if you had this guy’s atomic serve. Dressed in the tennis equivalent of the navy blue business suit, Zopp cut a pretty formidable figure out there.

But “Disco Tommy” has been to see the elephant. He’s 31, and plenty of other yeomen who like to hit big and attack have fallen at his feet. He looked calm and cool, and not just because he was wearing shades—sunglasses that actually matched his black-and-yellow kit. It was no mere show of bravado: Robredo broke serve early and took command that he would never relinquish in a relatively easy, 3-2-1 blast-off! win—6-3, 6-2, 6-1.

One thing about those far country courts, you find yourself very close to the players, and that makes you appreciate the effort they put in. Robredo still competes with the gusto of a kid. Zopp is no mere big galoot; he’s got very nice touch for a big man, and he likes to use the drop shot. It’s an especially effective ploy against a player like Robredo, who seemed most comfortable playing 10-12 feet behind the baseline.

Each time Zopp pulled up and carved under the ball for a drop shot, Robredo would expel a great grunt of “aaarrgh!” as he exploded forward to run down the ball. He made a few, missed a few, but always impressed with his effort. Like most of his peers, Robredo also issues a massive grunt when he hits his forehand, but when he hits that picture-book backhand he just blows out his breath in a long, drawn-out manner—he sounds like an old “iron horse” locomotive letting off steam.

But let’s get back to his court positioning. When Robredo received, he stood so far back that he looked like part of a chorus line also featuring the side and center-line service linesman and ball-kids. He starts out giving up a lot of ground, and while he can afford to against Zopp, some of the other characters he’ll have to meet on the way back up won’t be as easily contained from back there.

Robredo’s forehand is a thing of beauty, partly because he’s so light on his feet. It’s as if gravity is reversed for him and his natural state is airborne, even if gravity occasionally compels him to touch down between those huge cuts. When Tommy uncurls into the ball, clods of clay fly from his soles and beads of sweat fly from his head with such velocity that they leave divots.

I don’t know how well that forehand will continue to match up with the best of the day; against Zopp, he hit it very hard and very clean, but often with inadequate depth. There ought to be some kind of mathematical formula that establishes the relation between efficiency and the depth and angle employed in a rally; if there were, Roberdo wouldn’t score terribly high—at least not on today’s evidence. And nowadays just whaling on the ball only gets you so far.

The other possibility here is that the game has, every so gently, passed Robredo by. After all, he’s only 5’11”, plays an effortful style, has a history of injury, and he’s on the wrong side of 30. But he’s not really buying that the game has changed that much since his best years.

“The game is changing, but not that quickly,” he told me afterward. “But since I started from 18 years (of age) ‘til now for sure it has changed. The players now just hit harder, and they’re stronger. It’s true not just in tennis but all of sport.”

The forgotten man feels he can make up still more ground in the rankings, perhaps even approach his career-best. Like that other over-30 Tommy—Haas—Robredo learned a lot about himself during his struggles in recent years. 

“My mission is always to be where I think I deserve to be, and I think right now I am coming back. And I want to keep going a little more. I want to be Top 10. But right now, I’m 34 and my next goal is to be Top 30.”

It has occurred to me that part of the forgotten man’s problem is that he’s a little lost in the shuffle, too much like two other members of that GOBC. There’s the other Tommy mentioned above, and then the countryman who appears to have replaced Robredo in the beefcake sweeps and with a similar vibe, Feliciano Lopez. It might be enough to blur any man’s identity, maybe even to drive him into an identity crisis. No chance, says Robredo.

“I don’t have to take inspiration from Tommy (Haas). I take inspiration from myself. I want to enjoy every day, and am enjoying it now more than a couple of years ago. I really know why I’m here right now. I will try to enjoy everything until my last match.”

If that sounds like Haas, so be it. After all, they belong to the same club, and they’re both having the time of their lives.

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