Thursday was a theatrical one at Crandon Park on Key Biscayne. Here are a few notes from an eventful afternoon and evening.
“I thought I’d have some breakthrough tournaments, but then maybe some early exits.”
That was Roger Federer talking last week, after he’d lost a close Indian Wells final to Novak Djokovic. Federer sounded surprised that he had followed up his win in February over Djokovic in Dubai with a run to the final at a Masters event. So while Federer’s quarterfinal loss to Kei Nishikori last night in Miami can’t be called anything as dire as an “early exit,” it does serve as a useful corrective. Federer is playing well, but as he seems to realize, weekly dominance isn’t in the cards for him anymore. His goal this year was just to win tournaments again, but that’s not so easy either. As well as he’s played, he only has one title in 2014.
It’s tough to win tournaments in part because of younger players like the 24-year-old Nishikori, who this week has followed the leads of Grigor Dimitrov and Ernests Gulbis, each of whom has won a title in 2014, and put together a breakout run in Miami. Nishikori beat Dimitrov, in fact, in two tight sets earlier this week, before knocking off David Ferrer and Federer in three sets on consecutive days.
I thought Wednesday night’s match was more about Nishikori finding his game than it was Federer losing his. It seemed to me that Federer, up a set, was ambushed by Nishikori’s steadily rising aggression and accuracy through the last two. Federer could control the rallies, and then he couldn’t, and when he couldn't, his confidence went. His first-serve percentage was a too-low 53; his backhand, which had been so good when he was cruising against Richard Gasquet, wasn’t as good under pressure from Nishikori; and he mainly tried to slug it out with Kei from the baseline, even after Nishikori got hot. Federer came to net just 16 times.
Still, Nishikori won this one in the end. His last few games reminded me of the way John Isner was playing when he beat Federer in Davis Cup two years ago. By the close, both guys were feeling it, and there was no stopping them. It was as if Nishikori and Isner suddenly realized, “I’m going to win this,” and the result was a giddy explosion—it would have been hard for them to miss. Isner and Nishikori each finished their upsets on their return games, with shots that Federer could have done nothing about, at any age.
Shhh, Don’t Look Now...Genius at Work
I’ve written in the past about how ESPN gathers in the rights for tennis broadcasts in the U.S., and then hides the game from its team-sport-loving audience. What I usually mean by that is the network shows tennis, but doesn’t cover it or promote it. Last night ESPN outdid itself: Rather than show Federer-Nishikori, which turned out to be the match of the tournament so far, on one of its many TV channels, it buried Knish-Maestro online on ESPN3.
I understand that tennis was never going to be on ESPN’s main channel, which last night aired a highly-anticipated NBA game between the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers that the network had hyped as if it were the spring version of the Super Bowl. I can even understand, from a short-term perspective, that tennis wouldn’t be on its second channel, ESPN2, which was broadcasting a game from the NIT college-basketball tournament between SMU and LSU. It’s probably impossible for anyone outside the U.S. to believe that a college game, from a year-end tournament that no one cares about (the NIT is where the teams that didn’t make the NCAAs end up), could generate higher ratings than a really good match involving Roger Federer, but I’m guessing it would have.
Yet ESPN, of all places, should know that if you don’t show it, and you don’t hype it, no one will come. This year, for the first time, the network has the rights to the finals in Miami. Next year, for the first time, it will have the rights to the finals of the U.S. Open. Presumably, ESPN wants people to watch those matches, or at least have an idea of what they might be seeing. You wouldn’t have known it last night. The network had the best free promotional material that anyone could have for tennis—a dramatic upset of Roger Federer, being played in prime time on the East Coast—yet it couldn’t find a place for the match on TV at all.
“It may be my mistake...”
Is it hard to believe that Novak Djokovic, former world No. 1, wouldn’t know that you’re not allowed to reach over the net to hit a volley? Yes, and, unfortunately, no.
Last year, in an article entitled “Many rules of tennis a mystery to the game’s stars” by Doug Robson in USA Today, Djokovic was one of those many players who confessed to ignorance of some of the sport’s rules.
“Jeez,” Djokovic said after getting several answers wrong, “I’m misinformed.”
Still, most of the rules discussed in that piece were strictly for the pros: “How many medical timeouts are you allowed per match?” “How many bathroom breaks per match are you permitted?” Not reaching over the net is a fundamental law that everyone understands, right?
It would be nice to think so, but my time spent as one of the editors of a Rules of the Game column for Tennis Magazine tells me otherwise. The most frequent question we received, by far, was whether or not, when a ball bounces on one side of the court and spins back over to the other, you’re allowed to reach over the net and hit it. The fact that you can reach over the net in this situation, and that you can follow-through over the net in any situation, muddies the legal waters. I played the game for years without ever being clear on exactly when your racquet is allowed to break the plane of the net. Of course, Djokovic is no recreational hack like me; he should have known this rule.
Ironically, the situation is a lot like the one at issue in Djokovic’s first Netgate, when he touched the tape after seemingly winning a point against Rafael Nadal at the French Open last year. Most people believe you simply can’t touch the net on any shot, and that’s it; if you do, you lose the point. But you can touch it if the ball has already bounced twice or gone out of play, just like your racquet is allowed to cross the net on a follow-through.
In Paris, Djokovic also appeared to be unclear on the rules. He argued, briefly, that since the ball was already outside the lines of play when he hit the net, he should win the point anyway. That may, of course, have been a desperation, grasping-at-straws argument made in the heat of the moment.
Yesterday, Djokovic admitted to Murray that he had reached over the net, but he hadn’t touched it (if Djokovic had done nothing at all, he would have won the point). I don’t think Djokovic was lying when he said he wasn’t sure of the rule. Ultimately, the fault here lies with the chair umpire, Damian Steiner of Argentina, who should have gathered both players, discussed what happened, and either awarded the point to Murray or explained the rule to Djokovic and asked him if he would concede it.
What the incident should do is make tennis consider replays for these types of occasions—for close not-up calls, for “did the ball touch his racquet” calls, for “did she touch the net?” calls. As it stands now, the person with the worst view of all, because he has no access to the replay that millions are watching on TV, is the man who has to make the call.