Ace Race

Thursday, October 17, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

If you’re sick of those 34-shot rallies and five-and-a-half hour, knock-down drag-outs between the ranking titans of tennis, boy have I got a guy for you: Joachim “Pim Pim” Johansson. The only problem is that the lanky, snake-bit Swede may not be around long enough to satisfy your taste for slam-bang, 90-minute matches.

Johansson ranked as high as No. 9 at the tender age of 22 (you can check out his backstory in yesterday’s Career, Interrupted post). A right shoulder injury basically robbed him of a career, but he’s resurfaced for his third comeback this week at the Stockholm Open. Judging from the way he’s serving, you might think that when the surgeons worked on that shoulder, they sewed a stick of dynamite in there before they closed him back up. 

Thanks to a wild card offered by Stockholm Open tournament director Thomas Johansson (no relation to Joachim), Pim Pim won three matches to qualify for a place in the main draw. He won his first-rounder against Alejandro Falla, and yesterday came up against a player cut from similar cloth, Milos Raonic.

The 22-year-old Raonic is 6’5”, ranked No. 11 in the world, and is seeded No. 2 in this tournament. Johansson is 6’6”, and he looks somewhat startling, like he’s 15 instead of his official age, which is 31. He’s also unranked, unseeded, and, well, seemingly unlikely to do more than throw a good scare into any elite player. Raonic won the match, 6-2, 7-6 (3), in an hour and 23 minutes, interfering no one’s plans for a nice dinner out in Stockholm.

If you’re a fan of this game, you might have taken perverse pleasure in seeing Raonic have to take some of his own medicine. Johansson seems to have lost nothing on the serve that once carried him into the Top 10, so right from the start this shaped up like a race of aces. The winner was Raonic, who hit 16 to Johansson’s 11. That was more than enough on a night when Johansson had a lot of trouble keeping the ball in the court.

From the start, Raonic looked more or less put upon having to play this match—and in his shoes, who wouldn’t be? What could be more irritating that having to play a guy who’s been so long dead that he belongs in one of those Johnny Depp pirate movies, but who also—inconveniently—can inflict serious damage with a massive serve, and smoke groundstrokes that leave burn marks on the court. Take that guy and put him in front of an adoring home crowd and you’ve got a recipe for an upset, or even just a really annoying evening.

The trouble for Johansson was the hit-and-miss nature of his game. Just how much of that owes to rust, or age, or nerves is hard to say. Whatever the case, he was banging out glorious aces one moment, sending wild backhands into the tramlines the next. The match wasn’t really as close as the score suggests, and the break-point stats say it all: Raonic was able to convert only two of 11 chances, thanks to Johansson’s go-for-broke style. But just as telling, Johansson could do absolutely nothing with Raonic’s serve; he never got a look at a break point.

Still, given that this was Johansson’s first tour level tournament match since the same event in 2009, his overall ability was as impressive as it was problematic. That he could trail Raonic into a tiebreaker, and then lose it essentially because of a single mini-break is indicative of his power and residual skills. The bottom line is that with his gifts, he’s an outstanding example of a guy who, on the proverbial given day, can knock off anyone.

The interesting thing to me is whether or not he really did see this event as a lark, and has no plans to attempt a further comeback. Johansson looks extremely fit and strong, and there are a lot worse ways of making a living than winning two or three matches a week on the ATP tour—especially with a game that isn’t terribly demanding when it comes to stamina.

In order to put himself into position to even attempt a serious comeback, Johansson would have to beef up his ranking, probably on the Challenger circuit. Should he make the commitment, it might be fun to see the faces of some top players turn ashen when they see Johannson’s name paired with their own on a draw sheet. And after all, what would be more fun than a Wimbledon match between Johansson and John Isner?

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