Grass-Court Report: Del Potro and Malisse, from Top to Bottom

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Editors' Note: Below is the first of many grass-court reports you'll read over the next two weeks, as the pros head toward Wimbledon. Hannah Wilks starts us off, with Steve Tignor arriving in the UK later this week.

LONDON—The best-laid plans—my plans, at least—are seldom, if ever, equal to the vagaries of a British summer. Looking at the order of play for the AEGON Championship today, one match leaped out at me: Grigor Dimitrov against Lleyton Hewitt, an archetypal confrontation of youth and experience. A rising star—albeit one whose ascent has been erratic at best—against one in eclipse. A clichéd gift to the tennis writer in the early rounds of a tournament like this. Third on Centre, too: Perfect.

Or it would have been, had not the fractious weather insisted on raining just enough to keep stopping play for prolonged periods, while refusing to rain enough to provide any sense of progress in clearing the clouds. As it was, it took Sam Querrey around six hours, all told, to win his match in three sets, and it was clear that my match of the day wasn’t going to finish, if it even started.

I don’t know how more seasoned professionals deal with this sort of thing. I deal with it by watching tennis—any tennis—and frantically taking notes, all the while berating myself for not being at other matches; anybody who’s attended live tennis must be familiar with the creeping and constant dread that wherever you are, the real action of the day is happening somewhere else. Queen’s Club is particularly tricky for this, because the press seats are high in the north stand with your back to Court 1 and the outside courts beyond it. You hear the score being called and the crowds reacting, but no matter how quickly you twist around in your seat, you’ve always just missed whatever has happened. There’s no big-screen replays; it’s irrecoverable.

The matches I did get to watch weren’t quite as narratively straightforward as I naively hoped Dimitrov-Hewitt would be; so far to the contrary, in fact, that I watched Juan Martin del Potro beat Xavier Malisse, 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-5, from start to finish and am still not quite clear what happened or quite how the Argentine walked off court a winner. Earlier in the day I had watched Feliciano Lopez, approaching veteran status at 31, recover from a dreadful start to beat the talented but still raw Ricardas Berankis, evolving from a slipping, stumbling, swearing first set to easily working over the Lithuanian with the kind of all-court craftsmanship that looks so peculiarly attractive on grass. Like Lopez, Malisse’s most notable results—he was a Wimbledon semifinalist in 2002—have come on this surface, and he made del Potro look, for large stretches of their match today, as inexperienced as Berankis, in career terms so much more the neophyte.

In the first game, the two played a marathon rally in which del Potro’s less effective slice sees him forced to back further and further off the court before being neatly drop-shotted, left stumbling and flailing. Shortly afterwards, Malisse played the first of many, many exquisite pick-up volleys off his shoelaces and ghosted in to the net to pick off a gorgeous cross-court volley. It looked, like the best grass-court tennis, deft and insouciant.

By contrast, del Potro, who has been out of commission since Rome due to a virus, is unsure of his footing in every sense, although it takes a while for his first spectacular sprawl on the turf to materialize. At 4-5 on Malisse’s serve, there was a palpable delay when del Potro stood back after a big cross-court backhand before belatedly realizing he should follow it in and pick off the high ball at net. He managed to do so, but it was a close-run thing and encapsulated the jerky, inconsistent timing of his performance throughout.

Although del Potro fought off the only break points he faced and edged the set in a tiebreaker after a poor Malisse error, he was quickly broken in the second, largely because of the Belgian’s greater degree of comfort in the forecourt. Malisse yanked del Potro around the court from pillar to post, opening up more than enough space to unleash his groundstrokes. He raced to a 5-0 lead, took the set, quickly broke in the decider, and all of the beautiful, gasp-eliciting tennis was coming from his side of the net. By contrast, del Potro had started yelling in frustration even before he inevitably fluffed his volleys—never a good sign under any circumstances.

Malisse should have coasted to victory as Lopez did earlier, but del Potro is no neophyte. He’s capable of opening his shoulders and taking flight at any moment, and the fact that he might not for a certain length of time is no guarantee that he won’t, as Malisse learnt to his cost when del Potro suddenly produced consecutive forehand winners—a commodity in scant supply throughout the match—to pressure a break back for 3-3. Del Potro failed to hold his serve, but responded by picked Malisse off at net with his first successful passing shot. Slowly, del Potro was making the match all about him, win or lose. After he successfully challenged on consecutive points, punctuating each one with long, ominous stares at the umpire, he got two lucky netcords which helped him immeasurably to get back on level terms.

If you attend the same tournament every year for a few years, you get accustomed to seeing the same players, especially in the early rounds. I’ve written about Malisse at this tournament here and there, mostly in passing because, despite the fact that he has a game which causes the staidest spectators to ratify each shot with cries of ‘Sublime!’ and ‘Outrageous!’, I don’t feel inspired by him—maybe because, when push comes to shove, I have little faith that he’ll produce the goods.

Today’s match was a case in point. At 4-5, serving to stay in the match, Malisse produced the sort of service hold that should be bottled and sold on the black market: Crisp groundstrokes, delicate volleys, a display of grass-court expertise that so effectively dampened any budding momentum on del Potro’s part that one would suspect he had it in reserve for the perfect moment—if what had followed hadn’t summarily disproved the argument that he had that degree of control over his game.

After del Potro somehow clawed out an ugly hold, struggling back from 0-40 down, the pressure was back on Malisse, who responded with the antithesis of his previous service game: Three unforced errors to give up three match points. When del Potro put a return winner right on to the line past the half-heartedly advancing Malisse, even the capacity to hit the outrageous winners had somehow been stolen out from under his feet. Game, set, and a match that could so easily—and perhaps should—have been Malisse’s to del Potro, without anybody quite being able to understand how. The best-laid plans.

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