Quadruple Dutch

Friday, February 14, 2014 /by
AP Photos, Wikimedia Commons
AP Photos, Wikimedia Commons

The Netherlands was a cradle of capitalism, so maybe it makes sense that the center court in Rotterdam, with its slick black seats and soberly-dressed spectators, looks like a super-sized corporate conference room. Scanning the crowd, you may wonder if blazers are mandatory. 

But while the place is a little stiff, it doesn’t come across as cold. Naturally, a bank, ABN AMRO, lends its name to the event. It also goes a step further by buying most of the signage space in the arena and saving it from the hodgepodge of corporate logos that graffiti up other tennis stadiums. The court itself was slowed down in the wake of the 2011 final, in which Robin Soderling beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a three-set match that lasted all of one hour and 23 minutes. Big guys with big serves still tend to thrive in the controlled indoor conditions here, but rallies exist, and can be entertaining.

Today the four quarterfinals went off at this ATP 500 event; here’s a look at three of them, and a look back at a new face—and an exciting new game—that we saw along the way.

*****

Tomas Berdych d. Jerzy Janowicz, 6-7 (9) 6-2, 6-4

The early risers who dotted the stands for the first quarterfinal must have had the sleep jolted out of them, as the 6’5” Berydch and the 6’8” Janowicz fired flat howitzers at each other for three sets and two and a half hours. Berdych, the higher seed and more experienced player, prevailed; in doing so, he reminded us again just what a tragically good tennis player he is. He suffered his usual onset of nerves at the end of the first, when he squandered five set points. Berdych said he “didn’t feel comfortable on the court” early, because Janowicz took “some of the control of the game from me.” Therein lies a problem of Berdych’s; if he can’t dictate, he struggles.

But the cleaner game won out in the end. It takes a match like this to remember that against all but the very best opponents, Berdych is good enough, powerful enough, complete enough as a ball-striker that his mental fragility doesn’t doom him. It helps when the opponent is Janowicz, who can lose control of the game as fast as he takes it. Today Jerzy’s serve abandoned him, and he refused to abandon the drop shot.

*****

Ernests Gulbis d. Juan Martin del Potro, 6-3, 6-4

“Very intelligent from Gulbis. That’s been a feature of his tennis all week. Keeping his composure in the tight moments.”

“Smart play by Gulbis, that’s so smart.”

Did I hear the commentators correctly? That was Ernests Gulbis they were talking about, right? Latvian guy, smoker and drinker, known to destroy a racquet or three? It must have been him, because Ernests recorded one of the best wins of his career today, over defending champion and world No. 4 Juan Martin del Potro. 

The big Argentine is still suffering from pain in his left wrist, but I wouldn’t have predicted an upset, especially after the first point. When that rally was over, Gulbis immediately began to complain to the chair umpire about the lingering pre-match noise in the crowd. As a veteran Ernests watcher, I took this as a sign of bad things to come.

What I should have noticed was the way both Gulbis and del Potro played the first few points. Gulbis bent conscientiously low to hit a backhand winner down the line, a shot he would use effectively all day. At the same time, del Potro began by slicing his backhand and not running at full speed for a Gulbis drop shot.

Del Potro didn’t have his best, but Gulbis still did well to close him out—he was 1-4 in their career head-to-head before today. Ernests really did play smart tennis. He used his drop shot when he had the advantage in a rally, rather than throwing it in at random. He defended well. And he held off a break point while serving for the match. Gulbis even won a point after hitting a tweener.

“It’s been a complete performance by the Latvian.” 

Yes, you heard that right.

*****

Marin Cilic d. Andy Murray 6-3, 6-4

We've read a lot about the legendary Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, and Michael Chang rejoining the men’s tour as coaches. But what if Goran Ivanisevic, the goofball to end all tennis goofballs, ends up as the most effective mentor among them?

Goran is working with his fellow Croatian native and Monte Carlo resident, Marin Cilic, and the pair seem to be building steam. After an early exit to Gilles Simon at the Australian Open, Cilic won the title in Zagreb last week and recorded his second win in 11 tries against Andy Murray today to reach the semis in Rotterdam.

Cilic, who was sidelined by a doping suspension last year, has added some muscle, and at the moment his game looks to have solidified as well. He’ll never be an interesting shotmaker, but he kept the ball consistently deep and held his nerve after breaking Murray at 2-2 in the second set. In the next game, Cilic went down 0-40, but negotiated his way to a hold.

As for Murray, he was in a self-berating mood for much of the week in Rotterdam, and never found a groove. Normally an excellent indoor player, he was able to defend on this surface, but never able to gain control of rallies. Once it became clear that Cilic was hitting with steady depth and attacking with margin, there wasn’t much Murray could do. His attempts to counter-attack with his forehand led to errors, and he spent most of the match in full scramble. Two years ago, Cilic led Murray by a set and 5-1 at the U.S. Open before losing in four. Last year he led by a set in the Queen’s final and ended up losing in three. This time, when Murray threatened to turn it around again, Cilic had the answers.

*****

Thursday: Andy Murray d. Dominic Thiem, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3

What were we saying about the resurgence of the one-handed backhand here last week? There’s another one on the way, courtesy of 20-year-old Dominic Thiem of Austria. Thiem, who took a set from Tsonga last fall in Vienna, did the same against Murray in Rotterdam yesterday. He did it in exciting style as well, by going big with all of his shots. The fact that he could send so many of them past the speedy Murray on a fairly slow court is even more impressive. 

Thiem’s father is a coach at the Vienna academy of Gunter Bresnik, the man who changed him from a two-hander to a one-hander, and a defender to an attacker. If we’re looking for a Baby Stan to go with Baby Fed, Thiem may fit the bill. But his serve, forehand, and movement are equally impressive. 

Already in 2014, we’ve seen Nick Kyrgios, Thanasi Kokkinakis, and Borna Coric, all promising teenagers with a ways to go. Thiem, while he was only ranked No. 113 coming to Rotterdam, is a little older and a little farther up the hill at this stage. His playing mentor? That would be Ernests Gulbis, another trainee at Bresnik’s. After today, anyway, I'm not going to say that's a bad thing.

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