View to a Kill (Or Three)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014 /by

Jealous that you can’t watch tennis at the Monte Carlo Country Club this week? I certainly am. So I do my best to pretend I’m there. With Tennis Channel’s broadcasts on my TV, a stream from another court on my computer, and various photos from the grounds on Adeline Auger’s Twitter feed, among others, I almost feel as if I’m...no, who am I kidding, I don’t almost feel as if I’m there. Not even close. I’m on my couch. When I look out my window, I see a concrete apartment building, not the Mediterranean.

But I do get to watch a lot of matches from here. Wednesday was the first fully loaded schedule of the tournament, with play from early morning to early afternoon here in the States. Now we just need some of it to be competitive; only one of nine seeded players in action, Alexandr Dolgopolov, came away a loser. Here are a few notes from a day when the big names mostly breezed on center court.

*****

Foggy Notions

Did I just say breezed? Fabio Fognini doesn’t do breezy. Where would the fun be in a straightforward win? More important, where would the agony be? 

On paper, I thought that Fognini’s match with Roberto Bautista Agut had the makings of an upset. The Spaniard is having a career year, and you never what’s coming next from the Italian. But despite the 7-6(6), 6-4 score, Fognini was mostly in control of this one. Of course, that’s a relative term with the Fog Man. While winning in straights, he still managed to blast a ball out of the stadium, nearly rip his shirt off after an unforced error, win a point with a cracked frame, squander 5-3 and 6-5 leads in the first set, and slam his racquet to the court often enough that Bautista Agut butted in and complained to the chair umpire about it. Now, it seems, we have a better idea of why Ernests Gulbis can’t stand the guy.

It’s often said that Fognini must drive a coach crazy. It should also be said that he's type of player who can drive an opponent crazy. Most of the time he’s nonchalant, but he can turn it on when he's pressed and counterpunch brilliantly. Bautista Agut struggled when he tried to go on the attack. 

Fognini got angry even when he was winning, but played well even when he was angry, so it all worked out in the end.

Next Up: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, first on center court on Thursday. Jo leads 2-0 in their head to head.

*****

One and Done

Can a match be over after the first point? It looked that way today, when Roger Federer beat Radek Stepanek 6-1, 6-2. The Czech took a set from the Swiss earlier this year, and he began Wednesday’s match with a bold foray to the net. Fortune, it turns out, doesn’t always favor the bold—it mostly favors the good. Federer took Stepanek’s down-the-middle approach and smacked a backhand pass by him. The commentator described it as a “dismissive winner.” A "smack in the face" was just as accurate

Stepanek never recovered. I saw him play one good point each set. At 0-3 in the first, he finished a long rally with a forehand winner and went up 40-0; it seemed he might find a foothold in the match. Then he double-faulted three times and was broken. Early in the second set, Stepanek ambled back for a Federer lob and hit an amazing, roundhouse overhead while facing the back fence. It won him the point; here’s hoping that shot becomes the new tweener.

As for Federer, he found himself in one moment of possible danger, down break point at 3-2 in the second set. This is the stage where matches in which he starts well can get away from him. Today, though, he played two well-measured, attacking points and went on to hold.

Next Up: Lukas Rosol. Federer won their only meeting, 2 and 2, in Dubai earlier this year.

*****

Step 1: Acceptance

If you were watching when Rafael Nadal was down 1-3 and a break point to Teymuraz Gabashvili today, would you have predicted that it would be Gabashvili, not Nadal, who would win just two more games? 

Yeah, you probably would have. And that’s how it went. The 28-year-old Georgian came out firing, and then, as often happens against Rafa, he started misfiring. Nadal began his turnaround with a volley winner to save break point at 1-3, and he played well after that, finishing with 25 winners, seven errors, and a first-serve percentage of 77.

Not everything went smoothly, though. Nadal was called for two time violations, the second of which meant he lost a first serve. When he went on to lose that point, Rafa wagged his finger at umpire Pascal Maria and later said that, while he knows he needs to be quicker, these violations weren’t deserved because they came after long rallies.

Rafa has reacted to time violations this way before. He says he accepts the fact that he needs to be faster, but he has a harder time accepting those occasions when the rule that’s designed to make him faster is actually enforced. I agree with Nadal that umpires should use their discretion. And, because there’s no clock on the court, I also agree that they should give the players a pre-warning. Through the first set, though, Nadal was averaging 27 seconds between points, so he had gone over the 25-second limit more than once or twice. In the other cases, Maria did use his discretion. 

Nadal, who has sped up over the years, says he understands that he’s still too slow. Yet he can’t seem to live with the fact that, any time he goes over the limit, it’s possible that he’s going to get a warning or a violation. One of Nadal’s strengths is his ability to accept that adversity is inevitable on a tennis court. You never see him smash a racquet, and you rarely see him argue a call or throw his hands in the air when he gets a bad bounce, as if to say, “Why me?" or "It’s all so unfair.” If he wants to put the time violations behind him, the first step is for him to stop believing that the ones he gets are unfair.

Next Up: Andreas Seppi. Nadal leads their head-to-head 4-1.

*****

Baby Genius

What good is genius in tennis? By itself, it’s not enough to win a match. Federer tamed his early erratic genius and thrived. Andy Murray has always pretended his doesn’t exist. Dolgopolov lets his fly whenever he can. You can see by their careers which methods lead to the most success.

Grigor Dimitrov also has genius in him. It was there in his three-set comeback win over Albert Ramos today, when he lunged for a backhand volley and somehow reflexed it back crosscourt for a winner. It was there in a quick-flick backhand crosscourt pass. It was there in a running hook forehand pass down the line. 

But it wasn’t why Dimitrov eventually won. He won with better serving, better consistency from the ground, and when he served it out at 5-4 in the third, he won with three ungettable power forehands and an ace.

Next Up: David Ferrer. Grigor has been climbing, Ferrer has been falling just a bit. Here’s hoping they collide in the middle tomorrow.

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