First Ball In, 6/12: Pain in the Grass

Thursday, June 12, 2014 /by
AP
AP

Thursday Review

Grass is the only surface that lives during play, but it was a burial ground for streaks and milestones today.

Wild card Dustin Brown dismissed Rafael Nadal in Halle, 6-4, 6-1, denying the nine-time French Open champion his 700th career victory. Wily Radek Stepanek saved eight set points to stun Andy Murray at Queen's Club, 7-6 (10), 6-2, snapping the defending champion's 19-match grass-court winning streak and revoking his bid for his 450th career victory.

Successive stumbles from the reigning and former Wimbledon champion within minutes remind just how fast things happen on grass.

One minute, Murray is up 6-2 in the first-set tiebreaker with a bag full of set points. Moments later, Stepanek is blocking a forehand volley winner to snatch the 77-minute opening set. The 35-year-old Czech broke to open the second set, won 90 percent (32 of 34) of first-serve points, and never looked back in scoring his first Top 10 win in nearly two years.

"Even if it's close, it's still far away," Stepanek said of his mind-set down set points. "It's never over until the umpire says 'First set, Murray.' Fighting in the tiebreaker was definitely a key to the game. When you play the best ones in the world, you have to come up with your best."

Murray's challenge was the second serve; Nadal's problem was second chances—he never got any.

"I can't really talk about how I played because I just didn't play at all," Nadal said after Brown gave him the boot in 59 minutes.

One minute, Nadal was locked in a 4-4 duel. Moments later,  Brown was blowing him off the court.

The 85th-ranked Brown was in such command of the second set, he denied the world No. 1 entry into rallies. The German wild card served 72 percent, hitting five of his 11 aces and winning 16 of 18 points played on his serve in a second set. Whipping winners from all areas, even flicking a couple of soaring lobs, Brown never blinked in wrapping up his second Top 10-win of the season that he called "the best game of my life."

When the 6'5", loose-limbed Brown launches up into serve with his thatch of dreads bouncing off his back, it's a clash of smoothly-choreographed motion and a slam-dance of moving parts. His multi-colored necklaces, dangling shoe laces of different colors, and matching skulls he wears on his black wrist-bands and yellow shirt (the logo of his clothing company, Hydrogen), all seem to be flying off to different destinations while his eyes and arm converge at contact point.

Brown closed by kissing the court.

***

Mix Master

Roger Federer's inner dialogue was sending mixed messages during the opening set of his 6-7 (8), 6-4, 6-2 win over 47th-ranked Portuguese Joao Sousa in Halle today. Reviewing all return options, Federer failed to convert on all five of his break-point chances in the opening set and said initial indecision cost him.

"Shall I try to come over? Shall I chip? Shall I play aggressive? Shall I play short? Shall I play long? I had a lot of things in mind and I decided to return aggressive in the beginning and many times I didn’t quite make many returns," Federer said afterward. "And when I did have the opportunity I was in two minds. So, that is not something that is going to work very well. But at least I was mixing the return and that was the only positive to take out of the first set. I wasn’t just trying to make the returns and just not making them, at least I was trying to go for it which is a good thing."

Federer converted three of 12 break points in the match and will face Yen-Hsun Lu in the quarterfinals, continuing his quest for a record-extending seventh Halle title.

Varying his aggression, angles and return positioning at the right times is vital to Federer's success at Wimbledon, where the return has let him down in recent losses. Federer made good on just one of eight break points in his second-round Wimbledon loss to 116th-ranked Sergiy Stakhovsky last year. In the 2011 Wimbledon quarterfinals, Federer broke Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Frenchman's opening service game, then never got a sniff at another break point in losing a two-set lead for the first time in his Grand Slam career.

***

Lining Up

When Casey Dellacqua dropped the first set to Aussie Fed Cup teammate Samantha Stosur today in Birmingham, she called for coach Shannon Nettle, who told her, "when you hit your backhand crosscourt, step into it and let it go."

Dellacqua did a pretty good job letting her forehand fly as well. Knowing Stosur tends to shade toward her backhand side to hit her favored forehand, the left-handed Dellacqua began ripping her forehand down the line, rallying for a 2-6, 6-2, 6-2 win to advance to her first quarterfinal since Indian Wells.

Ranked No. 209 after the 2013 U.S. Open, Dellacqua has risen to No. 43—her highest ranking since the 2008 U.S. Open and four spots from her career-high rank of No. 39.

Watch Dellacqua work the forehand down the line starting at 2:50 into the video here:

OOP Analysis

See Friday’s Order of Play at Queen’s Club here, at Halle here, and at Birmingham here.

Birmingham

(1) Ana Ivanovic vs. (6) Klara Koukalova: The first strike is key as both are flat hitters who relish pace and can force opponents to hit off the back foot. The 32-year-old Koukalova beat Ivanovic in their most recent meeting in Doha last February, and has a grass-court singles and doubles title to her credit, but could be drained from successive three-setters. Former Wimbledon semifinalist Ivanovic has dropped just seven games in two matches; her 34 wins ties Carla Suarez Navarro for most victories in 2014.

(16) Casey Dellacqua vs. Kimiko Date-Krumm: Moving quickly and changing pace cleverly, the 43-year-old Date Krumm crushed defending champion Daniela Hantuchova, 6-4, 6-0, to reach her first Premier-level quarterfinal since 1996 when she lost to Martina Hingis in the quarterfinals of the season-ending Championships at Madison Square Garden. Dellacqua defeated Samantha Stosur, 2-6, 6-2, 6-2, to remain unbeaten against her fellow Aussie. These two know each other's games — the pair partnered to win Pattaya City doubles title last year — and both have been successful on grass: Date-Krumm is a 1996 Wimbledon semifinalist and Dellacqua reached the 2013 Wimbledon doubles final.

Halle

(WC) Dustin Brown vs. Philipp Kohlschreiber: A rematch of their 2012 Halle quarterfinal, which Kohlschreiber won, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (4), could play out as a similar tie break test if Brown serves with the authority he did today stunning world No. 1 Nadal. Kohlschreiber is comfortable with conditions in Halle: He won the 2011 title and is contesting his ninth quarterfinal in 10 Halle appearances.

(4) Kei Nishikori vs. Steve Johnson: Breaks have gone Johnson's way so far: He was supposed to play former champion Tommy Haas in round one, but Haas withdrew with a shoulder injury, Johnson beat lucky loser Albano Olivetti then took a walkover into the quarterfinals. Nishikori is skilled taking the ball on the rise and will go after the American's backhand. The winner could face Federer in the semifinals.

London

(2) Tomas Berdych vs. (10) Feliciano Lopez: They've split eight career matches in a 10-year rivalry leading into their first grass-court meeting. The left-handed Lopez's serve remains lethal on grass—he did not face a break point in 7-6, 6-7, 7-6 win over Kenny De Schepper today after denying Lleyton Hewitt any break point chances in his prior match—but Berdych has broken down Lopez's backhand in his past wins.

(4) Grigor Dimitrov vs. (8) Alexandr Dolgopolov: Shot-makers who cover the court quickly and attack with their forehands face off for the third time. They've split two prior meetings and neither man has dropped a set this week. Dimitrov is a 2008 Wimbledon junior champion and 2012 Queen's Club semifinalist whose all-court game should be suited for grass, though he's never survived the second round at Wimbledon.

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