Failure to Launch
EASTBOURNE, England—Ivan Dodig, while he’s ranked just 50th in the world and has never been above No. 32, has always seemed to me to be a model competitor. He treats the game like a job; he tries what he can, and if it doesn’t work, he doesn’t turn it into a personal reflection on himself. He knows his limits and works within them, and doesn’t indulge in the angst and self-torture that we see from many of his more talented colleagues. Dodig, at least, knows that he has limits.
Maybe that’s because, from a physical standpoint, Dodig is an unlikely-looking tennis player. He has a stocky build, rather than the long and lanky one we normally associate with the sport. Like his fellow lunch-bucket artist David Ferrer, he goes about his business with his shoulders hunched, and his shots are utilitarian rather than artistic or creative—in his hands, the racquet is a tool rather than a wand. The 28-year-old Croatian is not a performer in any sense; every move and expression is related to the work he has to do (though it should be noted that he's not above the occasional rage-filled outburst). Today, on grass against 6’5” Milos Raonic, serve-and-volley was his best tactic, so he served and volleyed. At one point in the second set, Dodig slipped and fell and spun out on the turf. His legs whirled out from under him like a break dancer’s. But when he stood up, there were no Murray-esque moans, no glares of anger at the slippery patch of grass beneath him, no time spent walking it off or feeling embarrassed about his tumble. Dodig got up and got on with it.
He also got on with upsetting Raonic, the top seed. Raonic has been here this week with new coach Ivan Ljubicic, and their practices have involved a fair amount of time spent rushing the net. Raonic tried to use that tactic against Dodig, to little avail. If he wasn’t passed at the net, he was caught in no-man’s land. To be fair, Raonic was equally hesitant from the baseline. If he wasn’t throwing a lame backhand slice into the net, he was late getting around for his inside-out forehand. Despite all that, Raonic still had a set point in the second-set tiebreaker, but somehow he failed to get in position for a simple backhand near the net. He caught it late, and pushed it wide. It wasn't Milos' day.
Asked about his new coaching arrangement with Ljubicic, Raonic said, “Obviously, I think it needs time, that’s for sure, and I think the approach and things we’re trying to achieve are a bit different. We’re trying to incorporate things and understanding that it’s not always going to work, try to sort of win the matches but sort of think about what I’m trying to improve. It’s about having a long-term goal.”
At the All England Club in 2011, one veteran tennis writer predicted that Raonic would win Wimbledon within four years. With that serve, it didn’t seem like an insane thing to say. Next week we’ll be halfway there, and while the Canadian has steady progress during that time—he’s No. 15 in the world—he hasn’t shown a special aptitude for grass. He lost to Sam Querrey in the second round at Wimbledon last year, and so far in 2013 he’s 0-2 on the surface. Today he expressed some misgivings about trying to round his game into shape while having to practice on it.
“I’ve got to figure out my thing,” Raonic said. “It’s like I’m just not executing the things I need to execute. Obviously the surface doesn’t make it easy. I think it’s easier for me to figure out things on hard courts.”
Raonic, a big man and bigger server who does his best to think and play like Pete Sampras, seemed like the model of a Wimbledon winner when he arrived on tour. But the missile-throwing model is starting to look pretty creaky. What I noticed most today was how easily Dodig was able to get Raonic out of position and make him look a step slow. The slice serve out wide in the deuce court, the sharp cross-court backhand, the drop volley—Raonic struggled to find answers to all of these. The last Raonic-esque ace machine to win Wimbledon was Goran Ivanisevic in 2001. Since then, there have been four champions, Lleyton Hewitt, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic—speed merchants all.
Afterward, Raonic was upbeat, albeit in a decidedly morose way. “Can’t play much worse," he said, "so it’s only going to get better. I think I should be positive in that sense.”
As bad as Raonic was, I enjoyed seeing Dodig find his way to an upset victory. Early in the second set, he knew he had chance, but he couldn’t convert the break to put it away. After one mishit, Dodig stopped, looked down at the court, and brought his fingers toward his face. It appeared for a second like he might jab them right into his eyes, but he held off. It was a violent way of telling himself to stay focused, and about as close as he gets to hamming it up.
Today Dodig stayed focused and kept Raonic moving. His shots, while hardly artistic or even powerful, put him into winning positions—nothing more, nothing less. When it was over, he allowed himself to do a little performing. After the handshake, Dodig crossed the net, looked up at his coach, and, very briefly, jumped for joy. Then he hunched his shoulders again and put his racquets—his tools—back into his bag.