The Expectations Game
For a quiet week in February, quite a bit happened in tennis.
There were surprises. Venus Williams’ second tournament victory since 2010, in Dubai; Ernests Gulbis’s win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Marseille final; and Kurumi Nara’s maiden WTA title all qualified as highly unexpected.
Then there was the complete opposite of a surprise. At the Rio Open, Rafael Nadal won his 43rd title in 49 clay-court finals and boosted his lead over Novak Djokovic for No. 1 to a gaping 4,000 points.
And then there was something in between, as Marin Cilic won his second title of the season, in Delray Beach.
I caught three of those five happenings, and here are my reviews.
Venus Rises Yet Again
In January, after watching Venus lose her first-round match at the Australian Open, I wrote a post comparing her to Lleyton Hewitt. The two of them, it seemed to me at the time, would never be anything like what they once were—i.e., No. 1—but that didn’t mean either of them was going to throw in the towel. Each loves the game enough to keep playing it, whether or not a major title is in sight.
But as much as I admired that love and grit, I didn’t think it would lead to many more titles for Williams or Hewitt. I listened to Venus say that she just needed to play more often, and keep working, and find her rhythm, and stay healthy, and the victories would come. But I’m not sure I totally believed her—it sounded like what she had to say. Now it seems that she may have been right all along. Last week Williams took a wild card into the tournament in Dubai and left with her first title since the fall of 2012 (Venus, of course, knew exactly how many months it had been). More than that, she did it without dropping a set against five players who were ranked higher than her.
“Everything is falling together pretty much,” Williams said of her week. That’s probably something of an understatement, as Venus looked like she hadn’t just brought her best, but had returned to an earlier version of herself. The wild forehands, erratic play, and physical difficulties that have plagued her since she announced that she has Sjogren’s Syndrome three years ago were out; the old confidence and consistency were back in.
Williams says she’s enjoying every match and savoring every moment on court, but she also added that she’s “learned from my losses, some of which have been close.” One of those close losses came to Petra Kvitova in a third-set tiebreaker two weeks ago in Doha. Has Venus been channeling Stan Wawrinka? It seems that he’s not the only one who can “fail better.” Good for Venus, who is back in the Top 30, for showing us—and in particular, her younger U.S. colleagues—that the game can still be loved, and learned from, after 20 years on tour.
Ernests Goes to the Top 20
Here are two statistics that surprised me when I learned them this morning:
(1) Ernests Gulbis is at a career-high No. 18 in the rankings. If you have a second, go to his ATP page and look at his name and No. 18 next to each other. It takes a little while to feel right, doesn’t it?
(2) Gulbis, after his win on Sunday in Marseille, is 5-0 in finals for his career. Granted, those titles—Marseille, St. Petersburg, Los Angeles, and Delray twice—were all at 250-level events. But it shows he can win on Sundays.
His win this weekend also show that he can beat players ranked above him, on their home turf. Gulbis defeated the top two seeds, Richard Gasquet and Tsonga, both of France, in the semis and final. And he did it in convincing straight-set fashion both times. He was too strong for Gasquet, whom he pounded into submission. That wasn’t surprising; Gulbis can pound with anyone. What was surprising was the more versatile way that he beat Tsonga. Ernests won with improved defense, as he did last week in Rotterdam, and crisper returns. Gulbis says he has given up, or at least cut down on, smoking and drinking and eating whatever he wants, and it seems like his quickness and reflexes have improved.
Gulbis still became agitated, and needed a little luck, in the clutch. In the first-set tiebreaker, he was up 6-2 before squandering three set points for 6-5. But he survived when his next backhand found the back of the baseline for a somewhat fortunate winner. Similarly, Gulbis grew edgy when he was went up a break in the second set. He rushed, he missed first serves, he came to the net on weird shots. But he still managed to throw down a couple of 125 M.P.H. second-serve winners, and find the outside of the line with a few ground strokes that looked shaky when they left his racquet. It put me in mind of the famous line from Spinal Tap, “It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.” The tennis version might go: “It’s such a fine line between stupid and confident.”
Gulbis has plenty of the latter going at the moment.
“My long-term goal in tennis,” he claimed after the match, “isn’t to be Top 20. It’s to be No. 1. Anything less than that wouldn’t make me fully satisfied.”
I like his chutzpah, but it isn’t new. What I liked better was the sanity of the words that came a little later:
“I don’t feel I’m in the same league as the [Top 4] yet," Gulbis said. "I need to prove it.”
The final in Rio between Rafael Nadal and Alexandr Dolgopolov was, as I'd expected, an entertaining one. Nadal’s heavy strokes vs. Dolgo’s lightning ones can make for electrifying rallies that take both players all over the court—they each have touch as well. And Dolgopolov, who cracked 34 winners against 27 errors, threw everything he had at Rafa. But Nadal was, naturally, the better competitor, and too good in the end. With 43 clay titles, he’s now just three behind Guillermo Vilas’ men’s record of 46.
Yet while the win will go down in the record books as another brick in Rafa’s towering clay-court wall, it very nearly didn’t happen. Nadal had to save two match points in the semifinals against his countryman Pablo Andujar. Rafa, still recovering form the back problem that hindered him in Melbourne, left balls short and didn’t move especially well. In other words, it was a typical off day for him, and Andujar could have made him pay for it.
But he didn’t. In one sense, this shows that it isn’t true that Nadal is unbeatable on clay, whatever his record on the surface may be. He has off-days, on dirt or any other type of court, just like everyone else. In another sense, though, this makes his clay-court record that much more impressive. He's the King of Clay, but he isn't Superman.