The Forces of February

Monday, February 10, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

Those of you who get the Tennis Channel will likely have noticed the new weekend format that the network has rolled out this year, called Center Court. The name may not be fresh, but the concept is. Instead of showing a match from each event in its entirety and then moving on to another, the show rotates from tournament to tournament as play is happening live. This weekend, shifting between the men’s tournaments in Montpellier and Zagreb, and Fed Cup ties in Cleveland and Bratislava, Center Court was reminiscent of the best court-hopping coverage from a Grand Slam. Spanning continents and genders, the show gives us a glimpse of tennis’s reach and diversity. With this format, the sport feels a little less scattered, a little easier to grasp.

It also happened that this weekend was a good one, schedule-wise, for Center Court’s purposes. Three events—Zagreb, Montpellier, and the Slovakia-Germany Fed Cup tie—were in neighboring time zones in Europe, and they were followed by an American-friendly set of matches in Ohio. For today, I'll take the ATP; Pete Bodo has Fed Cup. Here are four ways of understanding what went on in Montpellier and Zagreb.

*****

1. As a sign that we may have to ask, for the 1001st time: Is Gael Monfils for real?

What’s La Monf up to, anyway? He’s 12-2 in 2014, and those two losses came to Rafael Nadal. Monfils is at No. 23 in the rankings, up from No. 119 in May 2013. And he won his fifth career title—in 21 finals—this weekend in Montpellier with a straight-set victory over his higher-ranked countryman, Richard Gasquet. 

More than that, Monfils spent the final on top of the baseline, attacking and keeping points short. He took advantage of Gasquet’s deep positioning with clever off-pace serves wide into the deuce court. He hit 34 winners against 22 errors, and never faced a break point. He briefly lost his concentration at the start of the second set, but got it back right away and never went walkabout. He played, from what I could see, to win, rather than to entertain. Last year Monfils was one of the first players to be called for time violations when the ATP began its crackdown on slow play. This year, according to him, he’s benefitted from the enforcement. Monfils no longer wastes time between points, and at the moment he isn’t wasting energy during them. It was Gasquet, that obesseive grip re-wrapper, who drew the code violations for tardiness on Sunday.

Of course, Gael is still Gael, and he did his share of smiling and laughing and posing along the way. In his semifinal win over Jarkko Nieminen, he also pulled off the circus shot of the season so far, a passing shot hit left-handed, cross-court, as he was falling down. So we shouldn’t worry that he’s going to get too serious out there.

Monfils has been a Top 10 player, and he could be again, but there’s no reason to throw him in with the “Can he win a Slam?” brigade. At the start of the week, the injury-prone Frenchman thought he might have to pull out with a back injury; health will never stop being a concern with him. At this point, now that he’s 27, it’s just good to see him going deep at any events. By winning, and playing more matches, Monfils can entertain more people than he ever could by playing the clown.

*****

2. As more evidence that the home cooking in Zagreb is good

Marin Cilic has won 10 titles in his career; four of them have come in Zagreb, in his home country of Croatia. That's where he beat Tommy Haas in straight sets on Sunday. This was Cilic’s first title since he won on the same court in 2013. More significantly, it’s his first title since returning early from a doping suspension last summer.

Since then, it’s been easy to see how happy Cilic is to be back on the court, and easy to hear it in his words.

“It feels great again to win here at home,” Cilic said on Sunday. “The week was really good. It’s going to help my confidence and my game, especially in the indoor season. I felt the best this week.”

You have to be happy for Cilic. If anything, the evidence that came out in his doping tribunals made him a more sympathetic and interesting figure than he had been before. Despite his mistakes, he came across as conscientious, professional, and troubled by family issues that he couldn’t separate from his game. Like Monfils, he heads for Rotterdam this week.

*****

3. As the season’s third glimpse into the ATP’s future

We’ve seen the Aussie Special Ks, Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis. This week we saw their junior rival, Croatia's Little C, Borna Coric, play a match in Zagreb. The 17-year-old won the U.S. Open boys’ title last fall. 

Coric, who is currently ranked No. 305, lost his opener to German veteran Michael Berrer in three close sets. In the process, he showed off a long but effective forehand, a scrambling athleticism, and persistence in the face of defeat. Coric looked exhausted by the middle of the third, but he hung on to the bitter end before losing.

Yet the exhaustion was still telling; that was also a big part of what doomed Kyrgios against Benoit Paire in their five-setter in Melbourne, and God knows what Kokkinakis would have looked like if he had managed to go five with Nadal there. Once upon a time, 17-year-old boys won Grand Slams—Boris Becker at Wimbledon, and Mats Wilander and Michael Chang at the French Open. It just doesn’t seem physically possible now. Men’s tennis is not a game for boys anymore.

*****

4. As proof that no matter how old he is, a part of Tommy Haas is still a (sometimes unhappy) kid at heart

There are various pleasures in watching the aging German play. The versatile backhand, the all-court skills, and the seemingly bottomless appetite for tennis are high on the list. Two months shy of 36, Haas was the top seed and a finalist in Zagreb last week.

But it’s also fun to watch Tommy Get Ticked. He’s always been wired pretty tightly out there, and the anger boils perilously close to the surface. In the old days, before fatherhood and the lowered expectations of age, he would routinely explode in a torrent of German fury at his coach, Red Ayme.

Those tirades have been tempered, but the fire still burns, and veteran fans of Tommy's can usually tell when it’s going flare up. It might start with a quick bellow and a head-jerk after a miss. Then there's a swipe of the court with his racquet. After that, he might engage in some possibly-pointless jawing with the chair umpire. Haas gave us a nice sampling of his frustration in his loss to Cilic on Sunday. After one call that went against him, Tommy dropped his racquet and stared into the crowd to protest the incompetence of a line judge (there was no Hawk-Eye in Zagreb, which is not a positive for Haas). Late in the match, when the verdict against him was almost in, Haas seemed to recognize that one of his shots had been long, but he still looked annoyed that chair umpire Mohamed El Jennati didn’t overrule it in his favor. 

But I had never seen Haas do what he did near the end of the first set. After another lost point, he leaned his head down and, seemingly for lack of anything better to do, bit his biceps through his shirt sleeve. Never change, Tommy.

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