First Ball In, 6/26: Flash Boy

Thursday, June 26, 2014 /by

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND—The pressure was on the tabloids here Thursday. The name of Andy Murray’s opponent the previous day, Blaz Rola, was what we call low-hanging fruit in the headline-writing trade. The question was, could anyone come up with an original pun based on it?

The Daily Mail played it safe:

MURRAY THE STEAM-ROLA! CHAMPION CRUSHES BRAVE BLAZ TO REACH THIRD ROUND IN STYLE
The defending champion was utterly ruthless in trouncing the 23-year-old Slovenian in just 84 minutes to reach the third round

Things picked up a bit over at the Sun:

MOTOR ROLA: MUZZA COMES OUT ALL GUNS BLAZ-ING
Murray the Merciless put the world No. 92 to the sword

But I’m going to give the award to the Express:

MURRAY IS JUST ROLA COASTING! IN-FORM ANDY QUICK ON THE DRAW

******

Guilty pleasures come in many varieties in the London papers. Caustic tabloid headlines are one; on the opposite end of the spectrum are the lyrical, sometimes fantastical musings of Simon Barnes, the longtime Times of London columnist who is, sadly, leaving the paper soon. Who else would begin an article about Maria Sharapova with references to Social Realist painting and My Fair Lady? Who else would compare Li Na’s game to “Karma Chameleon”—I can only guess he’s referring to the refrain: “It comes and goes.” But who else could get those things to make sense?

On Thursday Barnes covered Li’s second-round match, a feat which he makes sound like the Seven Labors of Hercules, British edition:

“I went out to the leafy suburbs of No. 2 court," Barnes wrote, "long before lunch to watch her take on Yvonne Meusburger."

My God, man: Before lunch!?

Yet Barnes goes on to remind us of how pioneering Li has been as an athlete, and a personality, on the world stage. 

“She’s one of us, you see. No matter where you come from.” 

Simple, but true, and often overlooked by those of who write about her from within the bubble of tennis.

Barnes did the same the previous day for Sharapova. While asserting his rightful annoyance with the “Sharapova industry,” he also circled back to the important point when it comes to Maria: “She loves the battle for its own sake, rather than the marketing opportunities it brings.”

*****

A Showman—and a Winner, Too?

“So proud of yourself, the way you hung in and fought it out.”

Did Nick Kyrgios really refer to himself in the second person at his press conference today? I didn’t hear him say it, but that’s what’s on the transcript. It wouldn’t surprise me. I could even imagine the ultra-confident 19-year-old from Canberra, Australia, using the Royal We. As in, "We threw down some bombs today."

This is a big part of what makes Kyrgios such a promising prospect, and a big part of how he came back from two sets down, saved nine match points, and beat Richard Gasquet 10-8 in the fifth set. Yes, the kid is an athlete. Yes, he has a gun for a serve and a rocket for a forehand. But Kyrgios also seems to have that innate sense of belief in his ability that all great players share, and that the less-than-great don't share. He’s cocky and cussed enough not to give in, even when there would have been no shame in giving in.

“Two sets to love down,” Kyrgios said, “at that stage it seemed like a massive hill to climb. I stuck in there. I just fought and gave myself the opportunity to win the match.”

As the first set began and Gasquet jumped out to an early lead, I thought that Kyrgios may have been hanging out with Gael Monfils a little too much—the Aussie was a top basketball prospect, and the two spent time shooting hoops during a Davis Dup tie last year (see a clip of their one-on-one here). Kyrgios plays with the same above-the-rim sensibility that Monfils does on a tennis court, though he’ll never be as fast. He also a Monfilsian habit of chattering away between points, engaging with the crowd, and generally appearing to welcome any and all distractions. Kyrgios even stands up during changeovers at times.

“Sometimes I do that,” he said today. “Sometimes I sit down. It’s nothing out of the ordinary for me. I’ll do stuff like that all the time.”

Who does that remind you of?

It happened that Kyrgios and Monfils played their matches at the same time on Thursday. Both went down two sets, but then both climbed back in and got to a fifth. Monfils, as usual, came all the way back only to lose—the man's credo could be, “I came, I saw, I was entertainingly inexplicable for five sets, I lost.” It looked like Kyrgios was about to follow his spiritual mentor out the door when he double faulted at match point. But the call was overruled after a Hawk-Eye challenge, and the two players marched on. In the end, it was the rookie Aussie, not the veteran Gasquet, who made the most of his chances. Kyrgios finished with 86 winners against 44 unforced errors, and 21 aces. Even better, he was four of six on break points, while Gasquet was two of 16.

This kind of clutch play, obviously, is not the Monfilsian way. Many of us have wondered what tennis would have been like if Monfils had been a great champion, instead of a great showman. Kyrgios certainly has a showman’s gene; even deep into the fifth set, he took a moment to mock the British crowd for making an “Awwwww” sound after he missed a serve (they loved it). He may or may not become a great champion—is he quick enough?—but judging by what happened today, by the way he mixed flash with grit, Kyrgios could become a Gael Monfils who wins. Now that would be fun to watch.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet. As Kyrgios reminded us afterward, he’s still just a kid from Canberra.

His first words when he came off the court?

"I'm stoked."

***** 

Quote of the Day

“The atmosphere displeases me greatly.”—first-round loser Benoit Paire, on what he thinks of Wimbledon.

Or, as the Telegraph put it:

I HATE WIMBLEDON, SAYS RACQUET SMASHER

******

OOP Analysis

See Friday's Order of Play here.

Venus Williams vs. Petra Kvitova

To a degree, these two are mirror images. One lefty, one righty, both Wimbledon champs, both tall and rangy, they each like to take a crack at the ball, and they each can be exceptionally hit and miss. Kvitova is the bigger hitter, and the more inconsistent one. Venus is the better mover, though the 33-year-old’s advantage in that department isn’t what it once was. They've played two times in the last year, and both times Kvitova has won in a third-set tiebreaker. Winner: Kvitova

Grigor Dimitrov vs. Alexandr Dolgopolov

Flashboys II. These guys have every shot, and in the case of Dolgopolov, a few he invented himself. They've split their two meetings, which were both on hard courts. Dolgopolov fired 42 aces in four sets in his last round, but Dimitrov, who won at Queen’s Club, has been on the longer roll. He also seems like he would be less satisfied than his opponent with a third-round finish at Wimbledon this year. Winner: Dimitrov

Andy Murray vs. Roberto Bautista Agut

The London papers have focused on the fact that Bautista Agut say he’s “not scared” of Murray, but it’s hard to imagine why he would be. The Spaniard has had a career year, shown he can play with top players, and should have nothing to lose against Murray on grass. But that doesn’t mean he’s going to win. Winner: Murray

Novak Djokovic vs. Gilles Simon

Djokovic is 6-1 against Simon, and hasn’t lost to him since 2008. The Frenchman is no grass master; he made the Eastbourne final last year, but hasn’t done much at Wimbledon. Yet I said much the same thing before Djokovic's last match, with Radek Stepanek, and that one got pretty hairy. Winner: Djokovic

Caroline Wozniacki vs. Ana Konjuh

The Croation is ranked just 189, but she’s also just 16 years old, and she can hit the ball. Wozniacki has begun to build a little momentum on grass; she can't have any holes in her wallboard for this one. The two have never played. Winner: Wozniacki

Vicky Duval vs. Belinda Bencic

While this could be a preview of a Wimbledon final in, say, 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 earlier this year in a third-set tiebreaker. Winner: Bencic

Kyrgios photos by Anita Aguilar; others by AP.

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