The Mice, at Play

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Welcome to summer. You spend the weekend driving and dropping your kid off at camp (thank the gods for MapQuest!), or bobbing around on a sailboat on some body of water where there’s no Wi-Fi cell service, and when you get home you check to see the tennis results.

Meusburger? Karlovic? Delbonis? Fognini? ATP, WTA, WTF?

That’s what you get for abandoning your post before the TV or computer in the weeks following three of the four majors (the exception is the French Open, because Wimbledon takes place shortly after it ends). The tournaments that follow those three majors cough up some new and unfamiliar names, because the top players tend to be on sabbatical for up to a month or six weeks. I’ve always found that sudden dramatic break from the Big Stories and Big Players refreshing. It’s always entertaining to watch the mice at play while the cat is away.

Except this year the cat hasn’t been away all that much, and that was especially true last week. You have to wonder if we aren’t seeing some sort of trend emerging here. Serena Williams and Roger Federer both played minor tour events very soon after Wimbledon. And remember that Rafael Nadal made good use of the secondary events after the Australian Open (which he skipped) to rehab his knees and recover his competitive mojo.

Williams did what she was supposed to do; she crushed the competition and won on the red clay of Bastad on Sunday. But Federer, who decided to re-open his relationship with the ATP 500 in Hamburg, toted his new, powerful racquet to Germany and he was . . . eliminated in the semifinals by Federico Delbonis?

Yep.  Delbonis is one of that class of player whom, if you watch a highlight reel, you find yourself wondering, “Where has this guy been, and why is he ranked just No. 65?”

The answer is that he’s a 22-year old, 6-foot-3 lefty from the cheerfully named Argentinean city of Azul. He has a big, explosive game (he won over 80 percent of his first-serve points against Federer).  He’s been struggling on the Challenger and qualifying circuit, but appears to have found the consistency to play regularly on the main tour. Since the start of the year, he’s halved his ranking; his runner-up finish to Fabio Fognini in Hamburg resulted in a jump of a whopping 49 ranking places.

Fognini was the mouse-in-chief this week, and his win over Delbonis wasn’t easily achieved; he was obliged to save three match points in the second-set tiebreaker before he was able to rassle down Delbonis in three sets. Temperamental and blessed — or is it cursed? — with matinee idol good looks, Fognini has an eye-pleasing, creative game that is all the more fetching in this day of brutally efficient, somewhat one-dimensional rally tennis. Fognini’s tennis is like jazz, while the popular form these days is more like heavy metal.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of Fognini’s success is that Hamburg was the second title he’s won in as many weeks, this last one built on a foundation of back-to-back wins over wildly popular German Tommy Haas (presently the ATP No. 12) and No. 14 Nicolas Almagro. Fognini also triumphed in Stuttgart, overcoming an always game Philipp Kohlschreiber. Just beating Haas and Kohlschreiber on their native soil in back-to-back events is noteworthy.

The best player in Italy, which lately has sent far more competent women than men onto the tour, Fognini is mercurial and stylish almost to the point of parody. His sudden ability to play not just a brilliant match here and there but to produce a series of wins  (10, to be exact) over a two-tournament span (a 250 followed by a considerably more challenging ATP 500) is all the more impressive because it seems so unlikely. As a result, Fognini leaped into the elite Top 20 (at No. 19, 12 places higher than before the start of Stuttgart).

Delbonis and Fognini stole the show from Federer and Haas in Hamburg, while unseeded Yvonne Meusburger was a pleasant surprise for her fellow Austrians. She won her first WTA title at Bad Gastein, proving herself a different sort of underdog success story. Unlike Fognini and Delbonis, the 29-year old Austrian is closer to the end than the beginning of her career.  But she’s one of those local heroes who seems to be inspired rather than cowed by the challenge of playing to her countrymen.

Just a few weeks ago, before the Budapest WTA event, Meusburger was outside the Top 100 and playing mostly on the ITF circuit (although she did qualify for Wimbledon, where she was shot to rag dolls in the first round by Agnieszka Radwanska). But she was a runner-up in three-sets in Budapest (l. to Halep) and her hand remained hot in her native Austria. Now she’s No. 58 and a direct entry into the U.S. Open — and most other WTA events.

The other surprise winner on the men’s tour was distinctly un-mouse-like, 6-foot-10 Ivo Karlovic, who swept the 250 event in Bogota without the loss of a service game — thanks partly to the combination of that fearsome serve and the high altitude at which the balls travel with extra zip. At 34 and just recovering from a bout of debilitating viral meningitis, Karlovic was No. 167 when the Newport tournament started a week into July.

Karlovic made the quarterfinals at Newport and went straight to Bogota, where the key to his victory proved to be a semifinal win over a fellow giant and ace-machine, No. 23 Kevin Anderson. “It’s like a bonus,” Karlovic said of his win — and a new lease on life and career following that terrible scare. “Every day now that I’m actually in a match, the atmosphere is like a bonus. I really like it now a lot more. I’m not fearful any more. The goal is just to be healthy and here. So it’s fun.”

The most surprising development of the last week pertains to this week — Federer’s decision to enter Gstaad. Now ranked No. 5, Federer apparently is struggling with his new racquet, although the more accurate interpretation may be that Federer is trying to recoup the confidence he lost after his early loss at Wimbledon with the added burden of having to adjust to a new racquet.

At this stage, you just know that the journeymen everywhere will be increasingly emboldened when they meet Federer.  And you have to wonder, should he lose in Gstaad, will he go right ahead and enter a small tournament next week? What, if any, statement is he making with this sudden push to accumulate matches — that he’s bent on getting accustomed to his racquet, or focused on getting his confidence back into shape for the summer Masters events and the U.S. Open?

One dimension of this saga that is bound to make U.S. fans anxious is that Federer, thanks to qualifying under the ATP exemption rules, can skip any tournament he likes without paying a rankings point penalty (other than losing whatever points he earned at said event last year). So you have to wonder, will we see him at all in Montreal, or Cincinnati, where he is defending champion?

The other day Serena Williams said clay courts can be good preparation for hard courts of the kind used at the U.S. Open, and if Federer shares that opinion it could spell trouble for the brace of upcoming Masters 1000 events. Right now, Federer is entered in both those events. So are the other big cats. Even if the all-time Grand Slam singles champ himself can’t prevent the mice from playing, the other cats can.

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