We hear a lot about what tennis doesn’t do well. According to its detractors, and even some of its players, the sport is undermarketed and overscheduled, its stars are either boring or spoiled, and the women clearly make too much money. We don’t often hear about one thing that it does do well, one thing we take for granted for much of the season: Its ability, even on a slow week, to end it with one, two, three, even four good finals and feel-good stories. The emotion from the winner on your average Sunday may not equal that of a Grand Slam champion, but it's a difference only of scale. Dominika Cibulkova’s smile on the campus at Stanford University yesterday was just as wide as Andy Murray’s was on Centre Court earlier this month.
Here’s a look at three of the happenings from this past average summer Sunday in tennis, and three ways we might understand them. There was so much going on that I didn't even have a chance to catch the fourth, Mikhail Youzhny's victory in Gstaad.
As proof that the tallest final in ATP history doesn’t also have to be the most boring
In their introductory segments to the Atlanta final yesterday, the commentators at ESPN mentioned that breaks would be extremely rare and points would be extremely short between 6’10” John Isner and 6’8” Kevin Anderson. I agreed about the breaks, but I wasn’t sure about the points. While neither man loves to grind, they’re both baseliners at heart. And while the length of the match and its scores—three sets, three tiebreakers—were entirely predictable, the points and games were not as brutal as advertised.
Most prominently on display was Isner’s brinksmanship—as long as the matches are two out of three, and played in the southern United States, he knows how to win the close ones. Anderson had 11 break points, two of which were match points at 5-6 in the third set, and he was the better player overall, but he still went home a loser. The biggest reason was Isner’s serve, of course; he hit 24 aces and came up with a 143 M.P.H. service winner to save the first match point. But this time it was also because of his return—one return in particular. On the first point of the third-set tiebreaker, Isner took a big step to his left as Anderson tossed the ball for a second serve. Isner guessed well: The ball, which Anderson aimed at Isner’s left hip, ended up in his forehand strike zone instead. The American redirected his return down the line and completely surprised Anderson, who hit a backhand into the net. Isner had his mini-break, and after two good service points to go up 3-0, he had the match in his grasp.
“I lived on the edge all week,” Isner said afterward, "and seemed to come through each and every time. It’s very encouraging.”
Isner remains the Big Enigma, and no one should start thinking this means much for him at the U.S. Open—it might even be the start of a long, tiring summer that leaves him with little left by the time he gets to Flushing Meadows. Which means you should enjoy the clutch version of him while he's still around.
As further evidence that Dominika Cibulkova is a good winner
I don’t mean that she’s gracious in victory, though she seems to be that. I mean that when she wins a big match, as she did yesterday over Agnieszka Radwanska in Stanford, Domi lights up the place with her unguarded reactions and beaming smile. It’s a nice contrast to the fast-forward intensity we see from her the rest of the time.
In Atlanta we had the tallest winner of the year; in Stanford we might have had the smallest in Cibulkova, who is 19 inches shorter than Isner. We also had one of the least likely champions. Earlier this year Cibulkova lost to Radwanska in the Sydney final, 6-0, 6-0. Domi hadn’t forgotten, either. When she won the first game of the match on Sunday, she turned to her coach and said, “I’m here, I’m in this.”
As always, Cibulkova punched way above her height class, and kept punching through her nerves when she served for the match at 5-4 in the third set. She knew she would have to finish Aga off with a winner, and she did, with what might have been her biggest cross-court backhand of the match. Her father was so fired up that he jumped onto the court and gave her a hug before she even reached the net. When Brad Gilbert asked her who that madman was, Cibulkova assured everyone that it was OK, she wasn’t in any danger, it was just her excitable Dad.
Hopefully, we'll get to see Domi's championship smile a little more often in the future.
As a sign that not all tennis players are out of touch
The summer run of Fabio Fognini finally came to an end yesterday. The Italian had won tournaments in Stuttgart and Hamburg the last two Sundays, and he reached the final in Umag after an epic train-wreck victory over Gael Monfils in the semis. But the train's tank was empty yesterday; even Fognini’s hand gestures lacked conviction. Tommy Robredo tuned him up, 6-0, 6-3, for his second title of 2013.
Better than the match, though, was what Robredo said afterward.
“I’m more than happy,” he told us. “I’ve been a professional for nearly 15 years and this is my 12th title, so there have not been many times with trophies. I love the emotion. Before the match, I was talking to my coach and I was saying, ‘It’s lovely to be waiting to play a final and you are nervous.’ Money can’t buy this feeling, and I’m lucky to be part of this sport and lucky to have the chance to feel these feelings.”
The 31-year-old Robredo really does seem to have perspective at this point, and not just about himself. In his trophy speech, he said something you rarely hear from victorious athletes. In thanking the tournament’s sponsors, the Spaniard mentioned the tough economic times in Europe, and how fortunate the sport was to still be able to hold events like this all over the continent.
A much-maligned big man who showed off his game at its smartest. A woman who beat back her nerves and beat a player who had humiliated just a few months ago. A veteran who knows how to savor the good moments when they come. Not bad for a slow weekend in tennis.