First Ball In, 5/6: The Fog at War

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This week we’re debuting a new feature, First Ball In, that will run every Monday to Friday, and which I’ll be writing most of the time. During the European clay season, the post will appear each afternoon at 4:00 P.M. Eastern time; when the tours are in the States, it will go up at 10:00 A.M. Eastern. In it, we’ll review the day’s play, preview the next day’s, and comment on any articles or developments that have caught our eye. 


Tuesday Review

For the second time in three days, the big news from Madrid was who was not playing—on Sunday Novak Djokovic pulled out, due to a wrist injury; today it was Roger Federer’s turn to withdraw, so he could, as he put it on his Facebook page, “Be with my wife Mirka during these next few exciting weeks for our family.” 

It didn't take long to learn what was so exciting: Later in the day, Federer tweeted that Mirka had given birth to twin boys, Leo and Lenny. Leave it to the Fed to save the future of doubles single-handedly; Leo and Lenny can play mixed with sisters and fellow twins Myla and Charlene. With all due respect to Leo, though, I can't help but wish that Lenny had been paired with a Squiggy.

Congratulations to the Federers.

The on-court upshot is that Madrid’s loss should be the French Open’s gain. I'd guess that Federer will miss Rome next week, but it seems less likely that he'll also miss a Grand Slam that begins in nearly three weeks. Federer holds the men's Open era record for most consecutive majors played, with 57, but he’s still five behind Ai Sugiyama’s all-time record of 62. (#priorities)

So who did play today? Here are a few notes from matches I caught:

Clay-Off Beards

After Federer’s announcement, the next big piece of tennis news was that Ernests Gulbis and Jerzy Janowicz have both reached their Brooklyn hipster phase at the same time. Each showed up for their first-rounder today sporting a beard—really, it was only a matter of time. Then the Latvian and the Pole proceeded to bash each other all over the clay for three sets. Gulbis, the eventual winner (7-6, 3-6, 6-2), suddenly finds himself with a chance to go deep at a Masters event. He plays Alexandr Dolgopolov next, and is in the quarter formerly known as Djokovic’s.

The Fog at War

But here’s not much that Gulbis can throw at Dolgo, as far as antics go, that the Ukrainian didn’t survive today against Fabio Fognini. It was a banner afternoon for the Italian. He dropped an F-bomb in the direction of chair umpire Mohamed Layhani and told him, “You have to think with your mind sometimes. I know that’s not easy for you."

Later, he grabbed Lahyani by the arm, and, as he was walking off court, told him, “I want to see you now. Come now and don’t be scared.”

In between, Fog also found time to call in security to talk to some kids who were heckling him, argue with the tour trainer about whether he could get treatment on a pre-existing injury, and—do I even need to say this?—smashed a racquet.

Typically, I enjoy a Fognini performance until I don’t; I start with laughs, before eventually move on to eyerolls. Today he was worse. Some of what Fognini did was in jest, and he and Lahyani surely know each other well enough to banter and have an off-court conversation, but if a player can be that disrespectful to a chair umpire and not face any penalty, what will he think he can get away with next?

Sound Over Substance 

Is coaching counterproductive? A lot of WTA coaches, including Darren Cahill and Nigel Sears, think the rule should be abolished. I’d say we should leave it up to the women themselves to decide; at this point, they should know what works and doesn’t work for them. By today's evidence, Maria Sharapova still likes to listen to Sven Groeneveld. 

Down 1-4 in the third set to Christina McHale and seemingly destined for an early flight to Rome, Sharapova called her coach out for a chat. Groeneveld, who is reassuring where Sharapova’s old mentor, Thomas Hogstedt, was gruff, reminded her that she was down just one break, and that she if she played point by point, she shouldn't lose to McHale, no matter what the score was now. Voilà, Maria won five straight games for the match

For a player who's reeling, it may not be what the coach says that helps, as much as it is the simple sound of words that aren’t coming from your own angry head.

Sammy Slams Again

Is Sam Stosur, 2010 French Open finalist, rounding into clay form? In two days, she’s knocked off Dominika Cibulkova and an inspired Garbine Muguruza. Sharapova, a nemesis of hers from way back, is next.


OOP Analysis

See Wednesday’s full schedule here.

Ladies Week

With Federer and Djokovic out, and Sharapova, Li Na, and Serena Williams still in, it's the well-stocked women’s draw that feels like a Masters event this time. Yet on Wednesday the WTA is still relegated to its usual early-morning, warm-up act slot in Madrid. Simona Halep kicks things off on center court against Lara Arruabarrena, followed by Serena vs. Shuai Peng. Could the Chinese double double-hander make herself an irritant to the world No. 1? Peng has lost all four sets she’s played to Serena so far.

Last Big Man Standing

The prime day-session attraction is Rafael Nadal’s debut. He opens against his friend Juan Monaco, but the show may not go on for long. In their last two matches, both of which were on clay, Rafa administered avert-your-eyes beatdowns on Pico. 

Is there now more or less pressure on Rafa to win this title, with Djokovic and Federer absent? I think the fact that Djokovic is still struggling physically, and that he won’t be shadowing Nadal through the week and waiting for him in the final here, will allow Rafa to play with more freedom. For him, a loss in Madrid would be bad, but it wouldn't be as bad as a loss to Djokovic in Madrid.

Popcorn Special: Alexandr Dolgopolov vs. Ernests Gulbis. Two off-beat talents who have blossomed in 2014.

Upset Alert I: Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Agnieszka Radwanska. Kuznetsova, believe it or not, has won their last six meetings, dating back to 2008.

Upset Alert II: Nicolas Almagro vs. Andy Murray. It’s clay, it’s Spain, Nico is coming off a win over Nadal, and Murray is coming off a loss to Fognini. Which means Murray will probably win. But it’s worth a watch.


For Your Reading Pleasure

William Rhoden of the New York Times talks to Richard Williams about his new book, Black and White: The Way I See It, and his reaction to the Donald Sterling affair. 

Williams tells him, with his customary mix of the bombastic and the homespun, “Let me tell you how to handle prejudice in America and every place in the world: Openly talk about it and admit how you feel; you won’t be the only one feeling that way. At least admit it; now we can solve the problem.”

I’ve been reading Black and White this month, and have enjoyed Williams’s tales of growing up in segregated Louisiana. His youth sounds, from my Northern perspective, like it could have taken place a century earlier. 

Tennis-wise, Rhoden is best known for having left the fabled Nadal-Federer 2008 Wimbledon final after the second set to go see the movie Hancock. But I’m still glad to hear him echo words I wrote about Venus and Serena last week:

“What I’ve always respected about Williams and his daughters over the years is their refusal to be defined by anyone except themselves,” Rhoden writes. “They have always preferred to tell the world who they are, never the other way around.”

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