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.
In 2004, when Tim Henman made his unlikely way to the semifinals of the French Open, a few of us in the press room jokingly asked, “Why?” Even if he won the title in France, it wouldn’t really take the pressure off with the public in Britain. And wouldn’t his deep on clay hurt his preparation on grass?
I think about Henman’s run in Paris, which ended with a four-set loss to Guillermo Coria, each year when I see his fellow Brit Andy Murray try to negotiate the clay season. Murray has also been to the semis in Paris, and he's a better dirtballer than Henman was. Yet no matter diligently Murray approaches the clay season, it feels at some level as if he’s putting in time until the Wimbledon hype can begin in earnest. It hardly seems like an accident that the one year he skipped the French Open, 2013, was the same year he won Wimbledon.
This year Murray, coach-less, momentum-less, and still troubled by his surgically repaired back, seems less likely to do much damage on dirt than ever. Today he trudged through a drably routine 6-3, 6-2 loss to 46th-ranked Santiago Giraldo. The most resistance Murray could offer was a sarcastic smile.
It’s been well documented that Murray played extensively on clay in Spain as a junior, and developed his patient, counterpunching style there. Yet the experience seems to have helped him more on other surfaces than it has on dirt itself.
Ana’s Tough Love
If Ana Ivanovic has taught us one thing, it’s how to fist-pump and blow the crowd a kiss in one seamless motion. She went back and forth between the two moves about a dozen times after her easy win today over a (probably exhausted) Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
A week after nearly winning the title in Stuttgart, Ivanovic is into the quarters in Madrid, and her ranking is perilously close to the Top 10 for the first time in five years. Can we start to take her seriously again as a consistent winner and threat? With Ana, it’s always best to take a breath and wait another day. But I will say that, despite the fact that she choked in the Stuttgart final to Sharapova, Ivanovic never looked spooked or despondent. That’s progress.
If Rafael Nadal goes on to win Madrid and the French Open, I’m going to say it all began with two passing shots—one a forehand, the other a backhand—that he hit to break Jarkko Nieminen at 1-1 in the first set on Thursday. The previous day, Nadal had dared to signal some optimism about his game—he was at a “good level,” he allowed—and those two passes, one of which was hit on the dead run and applauded by Nieminen, were smacked with conviction. They were like the tennis version of a throat clearing. Still, Nadal wasn’t at his best all the way through the match, and a determined Nieminen made the second set a test. We’ll see if Rafa is as free and confident on Friday against Tomas Berdych.
The match also included the understated British comment of the day, which was said by an announcer just after Nieminen celebrated a rare winning shot by throwing his arms in the air in jubilation:
“The reaction was a good one, though perhaps not one that would ultimately suggest he’s going to be the winner.”
Maria’s Coaching Conundrum
Two days ago, I noted how Maria Sharapova seemed to feed off the encouragement of her coach, Sven Groeneveld, when she came back from the dead to beat Christina McHale. Today Groeneveld was back on court at the start of the second set with a few suggestions for how to play Sam Stosur. His main point wasn’t a complicated one: Hit to her backhand.
Serving for the match at 5-3 in the second set, Sharapova had a shaky moment and the score went to 30-30. What did she do about it? She went straight at Stosur’s backhand, and the Aussie hit the ball long. A minute later, Sharapova won the match.
It’s quite possible that Sharapova hit to Stosur’s backhand without thinking about any advice she received from anyone. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that she did remember what her coach said. The question for people who dislike on-court coaching becomes: Did Maria remember what Groeneveld told her during the match, or was she thinking back to a tactical conversation they may have had before the match?
By which I mean: Does it make tennis any less “individual” if a coach’s crucial advice is given on the court, or in the locker room beforehand? I can’t say it would have bothered me either way; like all tennis players, Sharapova made the decision and executed the shot herself, individually.
Final, Ironclad Proof That Stan Wawrinka is a Top Player
The man who beat him this week, Dominic Thiem, had to withdrawal today due to illness. The curse of the big names lives on.
See the full Friday Order of Play here.
Madrid hasn’t had it easy this year, but some of the week’s strongest forces are set to collide in the quarters.
Popcorn for Breakfast
Serena Williams vs. Petra Kvitova: Serena is 5-0 in the head to head, but they’ve had some slugfests.
Li Na vs. Maria Sharapova: Sharapova leads 9-5 in this rivalry between French Open champions, but Li is ranked No. 2 and is a different player than she was even two years ago.
Yet these two matches are apparently not enticing enough for Madrid’s schedulers to break their pattern and start the women later than 11:00 in the morning. Americans, set your alarms: Serena and Petra start at 5:00 A.M. on the east coast.
Figures of Curiosity
Caroline Garcia: The Frenchwoman upset Sara Errani today; she’ll play Aga Radwanska on Friday.
Ernests Gulbis: When Ernie cruises past Dolgo and Cilic in straight sets, without much incident, I don’t begin to get hopeful—I begin to get suspicious. When's it all going to come undone? Tomorrow he’ll get a test, from either John Isner or David Ferrer.
Man of Mystery
Earlier in the week, my fellow tennis writer Howard Bryant of ESPN asked, in a tweet, whether it was weird that he couldn’t make up his mind about what he thought of Roberto Bautista Agut. I would say it's weird at all, because I’ve wondered the same thing myself. I guess we need to decide sooner or later, because he’s becoming something of a fixture in later rounds. Tomorrow RBA plays Santiago Giraldo for a spot in the semis.
For Your Reading Pleasure
Or perhaps not, if you’re on the Fed side of the Fedal divide. This week Andre Agassi suggested to a Singapore paper that, in his eyes, Nadal’s career has been the more impressive one.
“Federer separated himself from the field for four years,” Agassi said. “He separated himself from Roddick and Hewitt. Nadal had to deal with Federer, Djokovic, Murray in the golden age of tennis...It’s just remarkable to me what he has done, and he has done it during Federer’s prime.”
It surprises me that Agassi would vote for Nadal over Federer in a GOAT poll, but maybe it shouldn't. Andre has spent years claiming that Federer would have beaten pretty much everyone in history 2 and 2; I guess it makes sense that he would be amazed by someone who could amass such a good record against Fed.
Thank You Note
To everyone who wished me a Happy Birthday here yesterday. Like I said, I made my first trip to Manhattan’s “temple of classic French cuisine,” La Grenouille. From the gleaming room to the ornate flowers to the subtle service to the fine food to the restaurant’s jaunty logo, everything was top-notch. (So, of course, was the price). As recommended, I had the dover sole and the chocolate soufflé for dessert. This is the latter. My only regret is that I was too full to finish it.