First Ball In, 5/15: Shock and Calm

Thursday, May 15, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

Was Thursday a day of surprise, or a return to order, in Rome? There was so much happening, it ended up being a little bit of both. Early upsets of Stan Wawrinka and Maria Sharapova gave way to more traditional wins by Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer, Serena Williams, and Novak Djokovic. Here’s a look at a few of this full day’s highlights.

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Thursday Review

The first thing I saw from Rome this morning was Tommy Haas’ feet dancing. He shuffled side to side and kicked his heels nearly up to his thighs, before settling down to return serve. Haas is a certified tour elder at 36, who last reached the quarters in Rome on 2002; but he moves as smoothly and easily as ever.

Haas’ 5-7, 6-2, 6-3 upset win over Stan Wawrinka on Thursday was a tribute to that movement. He slid forward to track down a seemingly ungettable drop shot and flick it for a winner. He curled a forehand pass on the run for another winner. And he outdid himself with a sliding no-look backhand drop shot winner, hit on his return of serve. It was all “quite astonishing,” in the words of one commentator. The Italian fans ate all that style up and cheered the German like he was one of their own. Apparently they forgave Tommy for not being able to get his shorts to match the rest of his kit.

What is there to say for, or against, Stan? He said later that he had tweaked his back, but he didn’t help himself with his shot selection, which was all over the place, and led to 40+ unforced errors. As with his early loss last week, it’s tough to put a finger on what goes wrong for Wawrinka when he loses these days, aside from old-fashioned inconsistency. It seems he will always have his lulls, and they will always leave you wondering, “This was the same guy who beat Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer in 2014?”

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Tougher Love

Last week I noted how, in her post-match celebrations, Ana Ivanovic can transition so seamlessly between pumping her fist and blowing the crowd a kiss. Today she upped her game, both during her match and afterward. Ivanovic, who had blown a set-and-break lead over Maria Sharapova two weeks ago in Stuttgart, closed the Russian out today, 6-1, 6-4. Then she turned to the crowd and blew them a kiss—with her fist already clenched. How do you improve on that?

Last week I also cautioned that, before we start making Ivanovic a contender in Paris, it’s always good to wait a day with Ana. As if on cue, she was blown off the court the next afternoon 6-2, 6-2 by Simona Halep. Yet there’s no denying Ivanovic’s success in 2014—she’s now beaten Sharapova and Serena, and is knocking on the Top 10 door. Today she wavered in the second set, double faulting on several crucial points. And she got a major assist from Sharapova, who missed an easy swing volley that would have put her up a break at 3-2 in the second. In general, Maria didn’t have the same energy and fight that we saw from her in Madrid. But this was a major hurdle cleared for Ivanovic; she hadn’t beaten Sharapova in seven years.

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Nadal Note

Another day, another marathon for Rafael Nadal. Last night he wore down Gilles Simon; today it was Mikhail Youzhny’s turn to lose a war of attrition, 6-7 (4), 6-2, 6-1.

It looked for a time as if this one might go the other way. Nadal tightened up while serving for the first set at 5-4, and went down 0-2 in the second. Had the previous night's efforts taken their toll on body and mind? If they did, Nadal endured them. That's what he does.

From Rafa’s end, it seemed to me that he fell far enough behind that his subconscious finally said, "You have nothing to lose or worry about now, so relax and hit out"—Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams have heard these same words many times over the years, and heeded their advice. At the same time, Youzhny must have felt, once he went up a break in the second, that it was his match to lose. Being up a set is one thing, being up a set and a break is something else. From there, if you don't win, you have to admit that at some level you blew it. Which, of course, only makes it more likely that you will blow it.

Reporter’s question afterward: “We’re not used to see you struggling so much.”

Nadal (smiling): “So get used to it.”

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Zonked Out

We are used to seeing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga struggle, especially on clay, but we’re not used to seeing him lose as much as he has this year. Tsonga, who was ranked as high as No. 5 in 2012, is down to No. 13. His 7-6 (5), 6-4 loss to Milos Raonic today dropped his record in 2014 to a pedestrian 15-9. He has one title in the last year and a half.

“Zonker” is how Nick Bollettieri pronounces Tsonga’s name. The word can seem apt at times. Today Jo led Raonic 5-2 in the first-set tiebreaker. From there he hit a backhand return 20 feet long, put an easy forehand into the net to make it 5-5, and double faulted to go down 5-6. 

Jo is 29. Agewise, is he going to be a throwback to the days when players began to seriously fade when they reached the suburbs of 30?

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Fashion Surprise of the Day: What do we think of Aga in floral? I'm tempted to say I like it. Though there seem to be others who disagree...

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OOP Analysis

See Friday’s full Order of Play here.

Foreign Fan Favorites: Grigor Dimitrov vs. Tommy Haas. We know the Romans love their drop shots; they must also like their one-handed backhands, because both of these men have received more than their share of fan love this week. Their reward is a prime afternoon spot on center court. Haas and Dimitrov have played twice and split the two matches.

Let’s Do It Again: Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Jelena Jankovic. They put on an entertaining three-setter in Indian Wells in March. As she has in their last five matches, Aga won. This one could go on awhile.

This Could Also Go On Awhile: Novak Djokovic vs. David Ferrer. Djokovic started slowly but finished strong in his three-set win over Philipp Kohlschreiber; Ferrer made efficient work of Ernests Gulbis. The Serb has beaten the Spaniard five straight times and leads their head-to-head 11-5. But Ferrer is up 3-1 on clay.

Don’t I Know You From Somewhere? Rafael Nadal vs. Andy Murray. It’s hard to fathom, but these two members of the Big 4 haven’t faced each other since 2011, in Tokyo. Murray won that one, but Rafa leads their head to head 13-5 (4-0 on clay). This could—possibly, hopefully—be an evening classic.

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For Further Reading

Need a little more Rafa talk? Chris Clarey wrote an interesting article in the New York Times last week, with thoughts and speculation from Paul Annacone and Emilio Sanchez. Annacone talks about how exhausting Nadal’s always-wary mental approach is over time; Sanchez thinks that Rafa’s game in the last year has become more suited for hard courts, and thus, possibly, less suited for clay. Read it now, because if Nadal wins in Rome, the chatter about his demise will pretty much be moot.

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On This Day....

....27 years ago, Andy Murray was born. He shares the honor with, among others, Brian Eno, Kathleen Sebelius, James Mason, Ray Lewis, and someone named Birdy.

Seven years later, also on May 15, Pete Sampras had his greatest day on clay, sending Boris Becker off 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 in the final of the Italian Open. Becker said afterward that Pete was “playing like the best of the best.” But that was as good as it got for him. Sampras's run on dirt that year would end with a bitter quarterfinal loss to Jim Courier in Paris. (Source: On This Day in Tennis History, By Randy Walker)

Below is a Sampras highlight reel from that match:

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