First Ball In, 6/25: Round Two, Phase Two

Wednesday, June 25, 2014 /by

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND—Wednesday was, literally, a banner day for London’s newspapers and headline writers. First, one of their own, the red-topped Rebekah Brooks, was found not guilty in the country’s three-year-old phone-hacking scandal. She was pictured on every front page in the city, looking suitably pleased with herself as she walked out of the courthouse a free woman.

Second, and obviously more important, England’s much-maligned and soon-to-be-forgotten football team played its final match at this year’s World Cup. There was, as you might expect, plenty of sympathy and understanding from the press. As the Daily Express gently put it:

R.I.P. ENGLAND—NO HEART, NO SKILL, NO SOUL
The future of English football went on display here last night—and found its dismal, meaningless place at the World Cup.

But wasn't there at least a glimmer of hope for England’s future? Not according to the Express:

YOUNG LIONS FAIL TO OFFER EVEN A GLIMMER OF HOPE FOR FUTURE

Fortunately, there was an even greater, more sensational, more frightening object of disgust running wild in Brazil. You know him as Luis Suarez, striker for Uruguay, though he goes by a few other labels in the tabloids—namely, “Animal,” “Biter,” “Dracula,” and the “Gnasher of Natal.” The Daily Mail didn’t even need to show a photo of Suarez next its headline on him:

BAN THIS MONSTER

In general, Suarez didn't inspire the tabs to their usual heights, or depths, of wit. But leave it to the Sun to keep things in perspective and bring a light touch to its coverage:

CHEW DIRTY RAT

How about tennis, you ask? It’s been a quiet Wimbledon for the tabs so far—many of the reporters who would normally be here are in Brazil. The best headline I’ve seen from All England came from the Mirror yesterday:

ANDY MURRAY SAVES RUNAWAY LABRADOODLE FROM TRAFFIC WHILE ON HIS WAY TO PRACTICE FOR WIMBLEDON

The guy really can do it all, can’t he?

******

Vika Reaches Stage II

Yesterday I wrote that Victoria Azarenka had returned to the tour with her competitiveness still set on boil. She may have realized in her mind that she wasn’t going to start winning everything right away, but good luck telling that to her heart. 

After her 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 loss to Bojana Jovanovski today, Vika's emotions rose to the surface in her post-match press conference. 

“Given that it’s only your fourth match back...” her first questioner began.

“Third,” Azarenka quickly corrected.

Azarenka went on to rue her blown chances, most prominently the 16 break points she squandered.

“I’m just really pissed off right now for not taking those opportunities,” she said. Vika wanted to focus on the positive, but she had to get through the negative first; she seemed to know that this was part of the unhappy process of losing.

“I really need to go through that and learn from it and take it from there,” she went on. “I can look at it that I created so many opportunities that I could have taken. That’s a good thing. But also not converting is not satisfying and I need to be better.”

What surprised me was Jovanovski’s level of play. Yes, she dipped in the second set; yes, she nearly blew the third from 4-1 up; and yes, she benefitted from a five-point meltdown by Vika from 40-0 in the final game. But the Serb gave as good as she got in the rallies; the end of the third set turned into a baseline war. And she even came up with what sounded like a novel, and perhaps intimidating, new shriek. When Bojo hit the ball, I could have sworn she was yelling, “Gotcha!”

“She played well,” Azarenka said. “I don’t want to take any credit away from her. I always look at what I did. I felt today it was a lot up to me from not converting. Not converting 16 break points, that’s just ridiculous to me.”

Vika admitted she was being hard on herself, but that she had to be if she wanted to “move forward.” She said she needs practice, but that “match endurance is important to stay more consistent.”

“It’s going to come with matches, but physically I feel fine.”

Azarenka, in the space of a week, has moved past the “it’s great just to be out here again” phase, and straight into the “I didn’t come back to lose in the second round of a Grand Slam to Bojana Jovanovski” phase. That seems right, and maybe even healthy. Vika has expectations again. I’m thinking she’ll be ready to meet them by the time she gets to the next Grand Slam, in New York.

*****

(Photo by Anita Aguilar)

Sergiy Stakhs the Deck

The explosion had to come, but when it did, it was surprisingly mild:

“Hit one normal shot!” Ernests Gulbis screamed at himself in the third set of his dismal defeat to Sergiy Stakhovsky. He was down two sets and completely out of his rhythm. But there was a good reason for it: Stakhovsky had never let him into it in the first place.

Yesterday, Roger Federer said that serve-and-volley tennis was still “worth it” on grass. He should know: Stakhovsky beat him by doing it here, in this round, on this day, one year ago. If he can stomach it, Federer should watch a tape of the Ukrainian’s performance against Gulbis today—it was a traditional grass-court clinic, one we see maybe once or twice a season these days. 

If Stakhovsky, world No. 90, can do it, certainly Federer can as well, right? Not necessarily. As Federer said yesterday, rushing the net here is a little like getting married—you have to keep at it for better or for worse, through the easy high volleys and the impossible low ones. You have to live and die by it, and that’s what Stakhovsky does. Today he lived, and in his contrast with Gulbis, he showed how thoroughly alien the old serve-and-volley game is from today’s baseline game.

Stakhovsky’s swings were clipped and his shots were light; Gulbis’s swings were long, and his shots heavy. Stakhovsky’s game was connected—serve led to volley, return led to approach shot, well-placed first volley led to putaway second volley, chip led to charge. Gulbis’s shots existed individually; each was meant to do major damage on its own.

On most days and most surfaces, the Gulbis style reigns supreme. There’s too much power in today’s players and racquets for  a light-hitting net-rusher to cope. Today, for a couple of hours, the roles were reversed and the sport went back in time. Stakhovsky, looking not unlike David Brenner with his 70s-style hair and headband, played crisp, skidding, sharply-angled shots that made Gulbis’s style, the baseline style, seem ponderous and one-dimensional. Stako, by contrast, had rhythm.

“The guy has a good game plan,” Gulbis said later. “He comes in; he chips the ball; he takes out the pace.”

Learning to do those things well can still be worth it.

*****

OOP Analysis

See Thursday’s Order of Play here.

Rafael Nadal vs. Lukas Rosol

The world has been waiting for this Centre Court rematch of Rosol’s earth-shattering upset from two years ago. He and Nadal have played once since, earlier this year in Doha, and Rafa won in a briefly tricky two sets. But Rosol will always have the right ingredients to beat him: He’s tall, he has a two-handed backhand, he serves big, he hammers the ball from the baseline, and he has a useful sense of disrespect. Still, the way Rafa won his last match, by refusing to lose in the first round at Wimbledon again, makes me think he’ll refuse to lose to Lukas Rosol again. Winner: Nadal

Serena Williams vs. Chanelle Scheepers

I thought Serena looked especially sharp in her first-rounder, beginning in the warm-up. She's beaten Scheepers in straight sets in their two meetings. Winner: S. Williams

Roger Federer vs. Gilles Muller

Has destiny begun to pull for Federer? Muller, who hasn’t taken a set from him in their three matches, knocked off Julian Benneteau, who was two points from beating Federer in the second round here in 2012. The Luxembourger (Luxembourgian?) can play on quick courts, and his lefty serve may trouble Federer, but the best I can see for him is a pair of tiebreakers in a straight-set loss. Winner: Federer

Belinda Bencic vs. Vicky Duval

While this could be a preview of the Wimbledon final, circa 2019, it should be a good match tomorrow as well. The 18-year-old, 114th-ranked Duval beat the 17-year-old, 71st-ranked Bencic in a third-set tiebreaker earlier this year on hard courts. Winner: Bencic

Jerzy Janowicz vs. Lleyton Hewitt

Old Reliable vs. Young Volatile. We know what we’ll get from Hewitt, the champion here in 2002. We have no idea what we’ll get from Janowicz, a semifinalist last year. Judging by his comments after his last match, in which he said he was lucky to win, Jerzy doesn’t either. One thing we do know is that Rusty likes bringing tall men down to earth. The two have never played. Winner: Hewitt

Richard Gasquet vs. Nick Kyrgios

Shotmaker vs. athlete could make for entertainment. The Aussie teen will like his chances, as always, but Gasquet is a former semifinalist here. Winner: Gasquet

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