Red, White, and Bruised

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

For tennis fans, Monte Carlo marks the start of two seasons at once: Spring and clay. Visually, the tournament lives up to it responsibilities. With its wide view of the Mediterranean, it looks like a breath of fresh air, a place to savor better weather. For the players, though, the men who have to work while we watch, new beginnings don’t always go so smoothly. While a strong field of players was gathered in the Principality this week, their games were coated with a fair amount of rust. 

Wild swings in quality were the norm. Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka started confidently in their openers, only to unravel in their next matches. Grigor Dimitrov and Marin Cilic held on for two victories, before bottoming out in the quarters. On paper, the schedules on Thursday and Friday looked impressive. In reality, from the DVR-using fan’s point of view, much of the play was highly fast-forwardable.

But good or bad, new beginnings give us new things to discuss and frazzle over. Here’s a look at what Monte Carlo has offered us so far, and at what it might have in store this weekend.

*****

Getting Dirty

Yes, the clay season begins with that first overhead camera shot of the Monte Carlo Country Club, but it didn’t really feel like it had started in earnest until Friday, when Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer got down and dirty for three sets in their quarterfinal. Push, pull, grind, grunt, drop shot, slide: That’s clay.

The Spaniards gave us a lot of of all of those things. Usually, the result between them is a foregone conclusion—Rafa came in with a 22-6 lifetime record against Ferru—but that wasn’t the case in this one. Ferrer beat Nadal here last year, and with a 24-3 record in 2015, he was having the better season. For a short, surprising span of four games, he briefly looked like he had the confidence of a favorite as well.

Down 6-4, 5-3, and seemingly unable to put the ball away on Rafa, Ferrer started putting the ball away on Rafa. His four-game run of attacking tennis won him the second set, but he couldn’t sustain that mix of pace and accuracy for long. A loose game to start the third brought him back to earth right away. 

Which means Ferrer is exactly where he has always been: 24-3 against everyone else; 0-1 against Rafa. At 33, he remains a player who can’t be touted or hyped, but who also can’t be dismissed. I thought the most revealing moment in his loss today came when the chair umpire jumped down onto the court to check a mark, and accidentally brought his microphone within range of Ferrer. You could hear, suddenly, how heavy his breathing was. Four inches shorter and 30 pounds lighter than his friend Rafa, he’ll always be forced to run and play uphill against him.

*****

Fashion Forward

Monte Carlo also marks the start of a new season of tennis fashion, as the men reveal their ensembles for the clay swing. Here’s a quick rundown of the hits and misses.

Thumbs Up

Tomas Berdych and his indescribable (to me, anyway) new H&M adventure. The shirt is dark, it's loose, it has triangular-shaped lines across it, and there may be clouds poking out between them. The only mistake was to pair it with light-blue shorts.

Gael Monfils and his striped green pajama-style combo. I wouldn’t call it intimidating, exactly, but in those long shorts, he somehow looks about 7 feet tall.

Ferrer’s fiery red Lotto shirt and headband. They suited him.

Thumbs Down

Milos Raonic’s powder-blue sock-sneaker-shirt kit from New Balance. The socks look as if they got stuck in the washing machine with the rest of his clothes. More seriously, Raonic had to retire on Friday with a foot injury against Tomas Berdych. That’t not a good way to start the most labor-intensive stretch of the season.

Speaking of pajamas, Stan Wawrinka seemed a little glum about his red-and-silver, diagonal mesh shorts from Yonex. He had a right to be: In his second match, a dismal, early-morning 6-1, 6-2 loss to Dimitrov, they made him look like he had just gotten out of bed. Possibly with a hangover.

*****

Baby Step (Back)

What is that look in Grigor Dimitrov’s eyes this season? You want a player to stay calm, but the Bulgarian seems a little too subdued for his own good—there has been a hint of resignation in his game and his demeanor the last few months. 

Dimitrov’s coach, Roger Rasheed, wasn’t in Monte Carlo this week, and as successful as their partnership has been—Dimitrov cracked the Top 10 on his watch—you have to wonder whether it would be beneficial for him to hear a new voice. Rasheed is a motivator and a physical taskmaster, and Dimitrov has gotten in shape and toughened up mentally over the last year (at least until recently). Now that those basics are in place, is it time to think strategically, to find someone who can help him figure out how to mold his many shotmaking gifts into a coherent and effective whole?

The name hadn’t occurred to me until a tennis-playing friend suggested it, but what about Paul Annacone? Dimitrov spends time in Annacone’s neck of the woods, Southern California, and there is, of course, the Federer connection. Dimitrov can play like Rog; maybe Annacone can teach him to, on occasion, win like him, too.

*****

What If—Again

If Dimitrov’s struggles have been something of a mystery, how do we account for the sudden successes of Gael Monfils? This week he has returned, one more time, from the land of the injured to give us another glimpse of what we’ve mostly been missing all these years. 

Monfils’ latest unlikely surge began with a strangely gritty three-set win over Andrey Kuznetsov. If there was ever a match that the Frenchman was primed to lose, it was that one. He had been practicing for less than a week. It was played first thing in the morning. The opening game was a long one that left Monfils gasping for air. And Kuznetsov, after three qualifying matches, was in a groove. But La Monf won anyway.

Next up was the week’s most entertaining contest, his two-tiebreaker, three-ring-circus of a win over Alexandr Dolgopolov. Monfils, in between the usual leaping overheads and brain-cramp decisions, treated us to something new. After hitting a weak, easily killable drop shot, he turned his back to the net and pretended to upbraid himself, before bolting into the court that he had intentionally left open and reflexing the ball back for a winner. Naturally, he tried this move again a few games later and it failed miserably. 

Either way, The Great What If is back, doing what he does best, making us wonder, what if he won Monte Carlo? What if he won the French Open? We’ve been down this road with Monfils too many times to believe he can sustain his run for long; plus, he’s 1-5 against his next opponent, Tomas Berdych. But while La Monf is still a flake, his 2014 success doesn’t appear to be a fluke.

*****

Rafole XLIII

It isn’t as shocking as it may seem to see Nadal and Novak Djokovic facing off in a semifinal. They did it twice in 2013, at the French Open and in Montreal. Both matches were classics, and both were won by Rafa.

Since then, Djokovic is 4-2 against Nadal, and based on the two players’ forms this week, he’s the favorite to win again. So far the Monte Carlo resident has looked very much at home in three drama-free, straight-set wins. Nadal, on the other hand, has dropped sets to Ferrer and John Isner. He was up and down in those matches, but by the end of his quarterfinal with Ferrer on Friday, Rafa appeared to have rounded into recognizably solid clay-court form.

For both players, of course, form will take a back seat in importance to the specific dynamics of this match-up. Despite winning the tournament eight times, Nadal will see himself as the underdog against the world No. 1. He has said all year that he’s thinking long term, and the long-term goal right now is the French Open, not Monte Carlo. But while that may free him up to an extent, it’s rare that Rafa plays with total, free-flowing confidence against Djokovic, even on clay. While the Serb hasn’t conquered the Spaniard at Roland Garros, he has had success against him in two-of-three-set matches on dirt. 

As for Djokovic, he’ll feel some pressure. He’s the undisputed No. 1 at the moment, he hasn’t played Rafa since losing to him at Roland Garros last year, and he wants to set the right tone against him before they return to Paris; these guys, as they both must know, tend to get on rolls against each other. But while I can see him suffering a hiccup or two along the way, I think Djokovic’s overall form and confidence are high enough to withstand them. 

How far along is Rafa in his comeback? Is Djokovic so far ahead of the pack that even Rafa can’t catch him on clay? For both men, this will be an appropriate and telling test of where they stand. 

Not a bad way, in other words, to start a new season.

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