Friday, January 20, 2012

Australian Open 2012 - Day 4 Blog

It’s only the second round of the Australian Open, but somehow the halving of the draw seems to feel like a huge difference in terms of what match options I have to start the day. Today is ANZ Day, where ANZ give out more goodies to their customers, and I was kind of pissed off lining up to see that they were handing out free ground passes to any customers, considering that I had bought mine.

The line appeared to be relatively long, but they do quick bag inspections here at the Australian Open. I’m not even sure that they even check them properly, but who cares, I can get into the tennis quickly. Margaret Court Arena was packed today with Aussie tennis players in the line-up. No chance of getting into those matches. For me, it feels absolutely silly to be queuing up to watch players that I’m not really a huge fan of – Nishikori, Monfils? No, thanks. I would have really liked to experience the atmosphere in Margaret Court Arena for following an Australian player for once, but it was not to be.

Instead it was a day out in the smaller courts for the most part, cheering on, or watching more low profile players. I went out to see Philipp Petzschner, who was playing against Milos Raonic, one of those frequently hyped players. Petzschner’s probably the only player on tour to wear the long socks. I think he must have only recently started doing it this year, or either I can’t remember (a bit of Google research indicates he only started doing so in 2012). Both players approached this match in a very aggressive manner, ensuring that above all, they wouldn’t engage in any overly long rallies. I liked that Petzschner came into the net quite frequently, serving and volleying, and finishing many points up there.

Despite all the hype about Raonic, I’ve decided yet again that I’m really not at all interested in him. The way he approaches his game seems very 90s-esque, with the short rallies, big game, big forehand and risk taker attitude, not only for the sake of creating opportunities but to save energy. Perhaps it’s reminiscent of Pete Sampras, not that I have much memory of him. It’s more like what I’ve heard about him, from commentators. Petzschner is playing with a similar attitude of not trying to engage in any rallies, and I don’t like it. I like the generation of Nadal, Djokovic and Murray. Great shotmakers without compromising consistency. It just doesn’t look impressive to me, not being consistent, and playing like this clearly requires a strong reliance on serve to make up for all those cheap errors, so I’ve decided to switch courts to something else. Petzschner might have taken a set, but Raonic was the far more solid player, and also a better server so always looked to have the advantage, I thought.

I couldn’t get into Tipsarevic’s match, so I settled on watching Marcel Granollers playing against Frederico Gil. Not exactly the most appealing match on paper, but somehow the intimate view makes it all look more impressive, the way both players are competing hard, constructing their points and basically striking the ball impressively (within their limitations, that is). The first thing that stands out to anyone watching is the Granollers grunt. He basically grunts loudly on every shot, while not really doing anything special with the ball. It’s very misleading, because it makes it look like he is hitting the ball harder than he really is.

When I first walked into the match, Granollers was a break down, but he was still competing and trying very hard. Grunting loudly tends to give that impression, but also his body language was still very positive. Even when he went down two breaks, he was still quite enthusiastic about trying to get one of those breaks back! He did end up getting one break back, and I did enjoy watching his determination to get to every ball, even if it looks like the point has been practically lost. That’s the thing I have been surprised about these few days, how some players can get to a shot that they’ve only just managed to reach by slicing underneath it just before the end of its bounce, then somehow turn a point from an impossible losing position to end up winning it. It’s amazing. Granollers does that quite a lot, as he likes to get down low and dig balls back. He doesn’t give up on shots. Another example is seeing awesome defensive lobs that completely reset a point – another favourite of mine watching live tennis.

It felt like watching a claycourt match of patient point construction, using the angles frequently to open up the court, and finally coming into the net when there was an opportunity to. It also had that claycourt mentality of trying to outmanoeuvre opponents rather than hitting winners through them. It was enjoyable to watch. But it also meant that both players were somewhat limited in their shotmaking, not as capable of changing directions and going down-the-lines as the better players. Also, not that capable of changing the pace. Whenever they went down-the-line, it was often to move the ball around from side-to-side so it went much higher over the net, and was hit as a safe shot. Gil was clearly the more aggressive player of the two. The big difference in this match was Gil’s forehand which he can hit inside out extremely well, and also he can increase the pace on it.

Sometimes Granollers has the ability of adding an extra dimension to his game, by coming into the net and mixing things up, but it didn’t seem to work well for him here, and he got discouraged sticking to a more predictable game. When Gil leaked some errors in the second set, Granollers took advantage of it but Gil cleaned up his game late in the third set, just in time for the crucial part of the set. There were a lot of people coming and going in this match, just taking a peek than leaving, as if it were of no interest to them. Later on, there became a more vocal group of people supporting Gil. He noticed them, and started directing his fist pumps over there, which was nice, I thought.

Nearing the match’s completion, I headed out of Melbourne Park for a break. I can’t really understand the weather, or how it feels sometimes. When I arrived, I was sure it was a nice, cool day with a breeze, and it still was even walking around the grounds. But whenever I get to those showcourts, to those seats which have heat reflecting on them, then when I sit down and the sun seems to be going straight to my pants and heating them up, somehow it just gets much hotter. I walked along the river, and I was reminded, that the weather is actually perfectly fine outside. But it’s always worse in the stadium courts, on the seats, where the tennis is being played…

After the quick break, I went back into the grounds. I couldn’t get into Gasquet’s match, because it was full. I couldn’t get into Margaret Court Arena. If there are Australians playing, you can be sure that the stadium will end up being full. So I went to Court 6, to watch Dominika Cibulkova against Greta Arn. I wasn’t really interested in that. I was just waiting for Simon’s match against Benneteau to get underway. I wasn’t expecting that much of a wait, but there was so much choking and errors all over the place that they took ages to finish their match. It went to 10-8 in the third set. Finally Arn took it, when Cibulkova was in the lead so many times I think.

It was then time for Gilles Simon and Julien Benneteau to get on court. Two Frenchmen playing against each other. They walked out on court, almost walking right next to each other, whereas usually one is far in front or behind the other player when they get on court for matches. I found this match to be incredibly fascinating, since they probably know each other’s game inside out, so I would have found it hard to believe that the match would simply be a case of “I’m going to play my own game.”

As the match begun, both players were exchanging light rallies with each other, almost as if they were just practicing except hitting with better accuracy. Target practice perhaps. They were both hitting the ball incredibly soft, nowhere near as hard as they’re capable of. It was very strange. I tried to watch for the subtle changes of pace, or figure out what they were trying to achieve with this tactic. Well, for Simon, it probably wasn’t really a tactic, but what about what Benneteau was doing? He had probably played a practice set against him before and noticed that going all out aggressively wasn’t working.

It was funny, because early on, I wasn’t really sure what Benneteau or Simon were trying to do. Lull their opponents into sleep, or hit a crappy short ball to bring them to the net and hit the pass? The more I watched, the more I could see looking back that the first set was kind of a warm-up of things to come.

Benneteau wasn’t having enough success with this very, very careful aggression. Simon served for the first set, but couldn’t convert. That’s when Benneteau started stepping in on the backhand to take it earlier and hitting it down-the-line more often, coming into the net far more often, and I think that was basically the turning point of a match. Coming into the net doesn’t only change that aspect of the game, but it changes the baseline aspect too. Benneteau’s play from the baseline started to become more confident with clear intent, unlike Simon who primarily stuck on the baseline.

Simon started muttering a lot of things to his coach from midway in the second set onwards. I have no idea about what, but I can’t really understand what he would have to complain about. He could either just change what he’s currently doing, or just move on with it. I guess he could have been complaining that he was making too many errors (surely the worst thing for him!), even though he wasn’t making that many. But maybe it was a bit more than usual for his standards. From then onwards, I noticed that he was flattening out his forehand more, which was good.

He played such a good second set tie-break to start with. He put more penetration on his forehand, started hitting deeper and refused to give much opportunity for Benneteau to create anything. But Benneteau created a few chances for himself at the net, and Simon dumped a forehand into the net on a very long rally on set point. There was a choke from both players – a double fault from Benneteau on his first set point, and also a double fault from Simon late in the tie-break. But Benneteau also hit two aces/service winners in that crucial moment, and ended up going up two sets to love. The third set was a massive concentration lapse from him, then it was getting late and I really wanted to leave by then.

It was my first time watching a night match outside of Margaret Court Arena, and it certainly is a much more quiet experience out there. The lighting is poor outside of the court, so it’s dark near the stands and there is a lot of space around you, where you can see that not much is going on. There were birds flying around in the sky, and sometimes they would land on the court in changeovers. Ball kids had to chase them away. I could hear noise from everywhere. The support for Lleyton Hewitt in his match against Andy Roddick on Rod Laver Arena was probably most distracting of all. Then you could hear the noise from Troicki’s five setter, the umpires calling out scores everywhere. You just start to get this sense or feeling that everywhere else is more exciting than here, though I don’t think it necessarily was, it was just the impression.

After the first two sets, many people left their seats. I stayed until the end of the third set. I would be willing to bet that by the time they got to the fifth set, the atmosphere was probably dead and gone completely quiet. At the time I was there, it was sparsely populated, though it felt like everyone that was still left was cheering for Simon. They wouldn’t even clap when Benneteau hit a great approach and volley. I clapped for Benneteau. I don’t know why these sorts of things happen at the Australian Open. I just thought all good shots should be applauded. Granollers didn’t get much in his match either.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Australian Open 2012 - Day 3 Blog

I’m back now from the Australian Open, procrastinating about writing a blog entry because I’m feeling so crazy, and full of a wide range of emotions. I just got back from watching the five set thriller between David Nalbandian and John Isner. Drama overload. I feel like how Nalbandian must have felt when he threw his racquet in disgust after losing the match that got away from him. I could have thrown a racquet myself to relieve some frustration.

I’m going to do things backwards here today. Let’s just get it out of the way, and while the drink I have in my hand is still taking some effect. I thought that Nalbandian’s performance today was one of the most enjoyable I’ve seen live from him, for several reasons, despite the result. He appeared to be highly motivated the whole time, and his brain was switched on, in thinking mode the whole time. He played purposeful tennis. He cared about every point he was playing, but it didn’t seem manufactured like he was trying to put his opponent off, or convince himself that he was doing great, like what the WTA players tend to do. Just a whole lot of little things here and there like assertive hand gestures and/or silent fist pumps. I get a very good view of that, from where I’m sitting in the third row.

There was a special atmosphere to this match. They both seemed very eager to win. I guess it started with Nalbandian’s first loss of serve in the first set, where he hit the ball to the other side of the court in the direction of where Isner was standing. Isner glanced at him, not at all impressed. The battle was on.

Isner didn’t appear to be too confident from the baseline to start with though. He avoided backhands like the plague and managed to turn them into forehands relatively often. He was hesitant to enter any long exchanges and therefore ended up prematurely coming to the net, only to get passed all the time. This was playing right into Nalbandian’s hands, who has awesome passing shots, particularly the forehand angle crosscourt which he used quite frequently and the lob. It didn’t matter if Nalbandian was on the run, stretching and just bunting back a slice. If he got another shot at it afterwards, he’d win the point - somehow.

With live tennis, all court exchanges are particularly fun to watch, and these rallies often contained rapid fire exchanges, running all over the court and nice touch from Nalbandian. I should also mention that in this match, the players managed to make an impressive three under-the-leg shots, and zero failed under-the-leg shots. Nalbandian won a lot of points with dropshots and lobs, and the touch that he possesses is 100 times better than Isner’s, who was an embarrassment everytime he hit a dropshot. Still I had a bad feeling that these dropshots could harm Nalbandian towards the end, just because in my own experience playing tennis, dropshots are absolutely awful if you play them too often, and that’s what ended up happening. (I once made a comeback from 4-0 down to beat someone who hit dropshot after dropshot). There was more to this though, as Isner was cramping in the fifth set.

I really enjoyed the first set, but in the second set, Isner smartened up his game, staying back on the baseline more often, and using his big forehand instead, which would be how I’d recommend him to play if I was coaching him. The outcome of the next few sets was heavily dependent on second serves and how frequently they’d need to rely on them, both from Isner and Nalbandian. I don’t think either of them had much success on second serves, but I don’t really know as I don’t have the access to statistics. Isner didn’t really get much of an upper hand in the rallies but he crushed Nalbandian’s second serve, particularly off the forehand.

Nalbandian’s shot selection and accuracy was a pleasure to watch. It was such a contrast to watching Del Potro earlier in the day, where power is first, and accuracy is second (and not always necessary). I love it when every shot he hits is purposeful and deliberate, and it requires a certain mindset and mental attitude that is not always present that day in his matches. Sometimes he only showcases it on big points in matches, but hardly ever on regular points, but here he did on a more regular basis.

On the big points, he’d step it up even more to a whole new level. I don’t remember which set it was. I think it was the second or third set where Nalbandian had to save break points. On the big point, he made every intention of ensuring that every shot he hit was to a safe spot where Isner couldn’t hurt him, to his backhand. He’d give it extra air over the net, to make sure that he wouldn’t miss it, then once when he had the opening, he’d pull the trigger down-the-line or follow it into the net. I thought that was a very interesting lesson on how to play a big point, how to make a calculated risk. Anyone that tells you that it’s all about being brave on a big point is making it sound all too simple. No matter how well Nalbandian is hitting the ball, it looks completely deliberate and smart, rather than just trying to crush a groundstroke. Again, watching Del Potro play earlier made that a bit more obvious than it would have already been.

Nalbandian winning the third set was also due to a slight lapse in concentration from Isner, in the opening game. He missed quite a lot of first serves, and made some ugly errors. The third set was highly competitive, with many closely contested games despite it eventually going to a tie-break. Isner’s serve was amazing in the tie-break. He got a free point off it every single time. Even Nalbandian stepped up his serve in the tie-break as well, getting more first serves in than usual, but Isner had one opportunity and he took it by going after Nalbandian’s serve to take the fourth set.

Nalbandian bounced back well in the fifth set to play some awesome tennis, the best of the match from him I thought. Knocking groundstrokes into corners and coming into the net to finish it off. Pretty much winning every rally in emphatic fashion. Isner was struggling physically early on, before the adrenaline started kicking in, and Nalbandian should have taken advantage of it. He had played so well, but just couldn’t get that one extra point when he needed it to convert it into a break. Isner continued to pounce on Nalbandian’s second serve. There was one game at 4-3 where Isner had chances to break, due to all those first serves missed, and Nalbandian managed to dig back some very aggressive returns to turn the points into his favour. Some of those break points he saved would have been just as good as the match points he saved against Hewitt last year. That was the point where I thought – it’s the fifth set but Nalbandian is moving better than he ever did to start with. I think because it was an important point, and he didn’t need to conserve energy anymore.

The fifth set started to really stress me out, because despite Nalbandian playing at such a high level early on, all it meant was that the set was building up to be a potential lost opportunity. Not converting on Isner’s physical problems at the start of the fifth set. After the first few games, the adrenaline started kicking in and Isner started moving better, and more importantly serving better. Then he got cramps after Nalbandian’s bathroom break (which I briefly wondered whether it was strategic or not). More evidence there that Nalbandian should be winning, but he wasn’t. Some people in the crowd were cheering for Marcos Baghdatis, during the break, who was meant to be playing afterwards. The longer the match went on, the noisier the crowd got, with shouting out comments and getting involved (the match was already a full house to start with).

After the cramping, Nalbandian started to win most baseline rallies, but as the point got more important, the more effort Isner summoned from within himself to manage to serve an ace. That’s the dangerous thing about cramping opponents. They can appear to be so wounded, but whenever it gets more important, they put in more effort, they get themselves through the pain barrier and run anyway. Isner served the aces when he needed to, and he ran enough when he needed to. He anticipated Nalbandian’s dropshots to break serve to win the match, and he ran far more than he did on a less important point. Those dropshots and lobs might have won Nalbandian the first set, but it was his undoing in the final set.

Nalbandian played all the big points well, but there was one which he choked away at 8-8 on break point. If there was one point I’d look back on, it’d be that one where he set up the point completely in his control, probably thought he would win it about 5 shots in before he even hit the final backhand. He had a crosscourt backhand to get Isner out of position and hit it long by several metres. He eventually got to break point after that, and that was where the drama began of the umpire overruling the service fault and then Nalbandian taking too long, and eventually not being able to challenge it. Regardless of whether that was a poor decision or not, perhaps Nalbandian had it coming to him, with the way he has been treating challenges over the years. Throughout the match, I saw him putting up his finger several times and glancing around, only for it not to end up being a challenge. It’s very confusing. I don’t think it was even necessarily a factor in his loss of serve in the next game. He didn’t play it that horribly – just not strategically well, with those dropshots.

So that was the end of the match, and there was no way I was staying to watch Marcos Baghdatis without taking a single break or getting out of my seat. Going to the Australian Open by yourself sucks, in that you can’t leave at all for certain matches, otherwise you’ll lose your seat. I already stayed there without leaving for 5 hours or so, so it was definitely time to go home.

Before that, I watched some of Francesca Schiavone’s match against Romini Oprandi, the battle of the Italians. It was nice to see women’s players hitting with topspin, rather than everything so flat and one-dimensional. It is easier to generate angles when hitting with topspin. This could have been better than it was, but Schiavone was shanking her backhand all over the place. She does have a massive windup on the shot, and it looked like it was causing her problems. She hit three shanks to lose the match in the second set.

The first proper match of the day I watched was between Juan Martin Del Potro and Blaz Kavcic. This is the second time now that I’ve watched Del Potro where he’s started off the match by shanking forehands. It seems like it takes him a while to properly warm up on the shot, before finding some form, because of his huge preparation. Del Potro is such a heavyweight. His groundstrokes are so impressive. He thumps every shot, but is it really as impressive as it looks? It’s true that the average groundstroke of Del Potro is better than the average groundstroke of Kavcic, but Del Potro really wasn’t making the best of his ground game here. Instead, he relied on his raw, natural ability to hit the ball hard, and that because his average shot was better than Kavcic’s, he was more likely to win a baseline rally.

The match in the first set had a familiar feeling to it, the same feeling that I get watching Del Potro on TV, thinking, ‘wow, that was a great shot’, only for the rally to extend so many more shots with more of the same thing. So why is it that Del Potro hits all these great shots, but his opponents get them back, and he has to keep repeating the same thing over and over? It’s a nice display of patience, but he’s not following it up well. Surely he could make use of the net at some stage. I don’t think he made it there at all during the match. Kavcic would have done better if he didn’t double fault so much.

Also, Del Potro’s accuracy seemed to get worse as the match went on. It could be because he made a few too many errors to start with, and became discouraged that his accuracy was very poor in the second set. Kavcic had an early break on Del Potro, but leaked too many errors towards the end of the set. He picked up his game in the second set. I really liked Kavcic’s attitude. He appeared to be completely determined to chase after every shot, and to hang with Del Potro (whereas Nalbandian and Isner were being much more selective about which shots to chase after). In the second set, Kavcic started grunting louder which got many people imitating him and finding it all amusing. It really wasn’t a good match from Del Potro at all. I left after Del Potro took a two sets to love lead, as I really needed to get a break from the heat at some point during the day.

Australian Open 2012 - Day 2 Blog

I walk to Melbourne Park these days rather than taking the ridiculously crowded tram, and walk through the ANZ queue, where if they happen to be your bank of choice, then you can get in far quicker than anyone else. If you’re an ANZ customer, you could also get a free ride on those pedestrian bikes, or whatever you call them, but I haven’t managed to ask for one yet.

After an incredibly quick journey into the Melbourne Park grounds, I've decided to watch Richard Gasquet play against Andreas Seppi. I hadn’t seen Gasquet for ages, so I don’t really know what has been going on with him lately. I wasn’t really sure what to expect except that at least maybe the tennis would look pretty, even if not all that great.

I started watching with Seppi up a break at 2-1, which is where it all started to go downhill for him from that point on. Seppi is supposed to be a consistent player, but he missed far too many shots overhitting while not really having a proper plan on how to win points.

Watching Seppi play, it probably takes a huge mental and physical effort to keep up that tennis that he plays, not possessing any reliable shot to win points quickly. Pretty much the only weapon Seppi has is that angled off-forehand that he likes to use to open up the court, but that requires many repeated forehands to get the right result. He’s surely got to enter matches thinking, ‘I’ve got to be patient. I’ve got to be prepared to stay on court all day rallying.’ Just that idea would probably be enough to depress me, and to completely self-destruct in the match.

Okay, so Seppi did self-destruct a bit to start with. It was as if he was caught in two minds as to what he should do, so he’d miss these shots trying to do something with the ball but without really going for it. Throughout the match, I hardly saw Seppi inject any change of pace. If he can’t do it, then that’s a huge disadvantage, because so many other players can hit the ball harder than he does. Gasquet kind of went along with him, and they both exchanged medium paced rallies, while also displaying extremely poor accuracy. I do like consistency, but I wasn't impressed with Gasquet hitting the majority of his shots several metres or more away from the lines (my knowledge of metres from my viewing distance is too terrible to make a good estimate). He has this weapon that he's famous for: the backhand, but what good was it when he rarely had the guts to go for it down-the-line? I am guessing that this shot started to pop up more in the fourth set though, when I disappeared.

So Gasquet won the first set through being more consistent, and through a very brief moment of nice transition play after going a break up. They both struggled with their serves, and I’m pretty sure Gasquet’s serving was much worse than I could remember in past matches watching him live. He used to be able to get more cheap points on his first serve. Maybe that will pick up again sometime.

Seppi cleaned up his game in the second set, while Gasquet continued to play tentatively. Gasquet appeared to have continual problems trying to bring out that confident side of him. I only saw glimpses of it in the first two sets. I kept hoping that it would start to come out eventually, but it was such a slow and gradual process that it was frustrating and painful to watch. When Gasquet increases the pace of his shots and hits through the ball, like he does occasionally in this match, it is so much easier for him to finish off points, and gives him many more options. To finish off points at the net, open up the court, etc.

He didn’t really appear to be enjoying himself I thought. He does generally wince quite a lot anyway, or perhaps it’d be more accurate to call it a twitch. But it did give the overall impression that he was basically battling it out for the win, and the only reaction that he would get once completed would be a sense of relief that it was all over. I didn’t stay for the end of the match, since it was quite a frustrating match, so I can only imagine what happened in the end.

I meant to watch Youzhny’s match, but I thought it was on the wrong end of the grounds near Hisense Arena, so while I was already there, I decided to watch Janko Tipsarevic play against Dmitry Tursunov. There were heaps of people wearing shirts supporting Serbia, Serbian flags, there was a tiny group of Serbian supporters there, yet not really a whole lot of cheering. I wasn’t even sure whether Tipsarevic was pleased with his small band of supporters, since I think they were the main reason why Carlos Ramos kept reminding the crowd to only make noise after the point had been completed.

By the way, it wasn’t very nice of them to put Tipsarevic, a new top 10 player into a tiny little court like that, though admittedly there were even a few spare seats. I sat on this very nice seat which was directly in line with where the players are generally standing / moving when on the baseline. Whenever Tipsarevic was on that side, I had a great view of his wild, athletic movements. He throws himself into every shot, whether defensively or offensively, bending down low to hit low backhands, getting up high to hit high backhands. The majority of players would probably only have one backhand that they’d try to replicate all the time, while Tipsarevic improvises, slides and stretches to the ball. It’s awesome to watch, and also looks like an injury waiting to happen, because the movements aren’t predictable or following some sort of textbook action. There was one entertaining point where Tipsarevic was defending every shot of Tursunov’s as if his life depended on it, where I thought, wouldn’t this just be perfect if the match continued like that? (even though Tipsarevic is also excellent at being aggressive)

Unlike the previous match, both players maintained an aggressive mindset here. What changed from time to time here was their mindset on errors. Sometimes they were very generous with their errors, then when the important points came, they’d try to focus a little harder to make sure they wouldn’t lose the point with a stupid error. The second set tie-break was the epic point of the match. Tursunov must have had around three set points to take a two sets to love lead, and if he had played one of those points equally as well as how he played to save set points or keep the tie-break going, then he would have won the set.

During the all-important second set, there were three cute little kids leaning over the net during the tie-break, saying things and putting up their banners. They pointed at the balls when Tursunov went to get one, but Tursunov kept his
concentration and didn’t look at them once. Tipsarevic was possibly struggling with the heat, pouring water over his head on many changeovers, and his movement generally became less explosive after the second set. He took an injury timeout at the start of the third set for a foot problem. His foot was already taped up.

Tursunov basically looks like a very well-trained tennis player. There is not much creativity or natural flair in his game. It just looks like he has spent a lot of hours bashing tennis balls to the point where he can make ball-bashing look like regular rallying. It’s impressive in a way, especially since Tursunov doesn’t just get his power off being big and tall. His forehand is the major weapon particularly hitting it inside out. Tursunov played a good match here. He just didn’t play the big points well enough. He could have so easily gone up two sets to love.

It had been a long day of tennis, so I kind of went on a mental walkabout for a while. I was standing and watching Radek Stepanek’s match against Nicolas Mahut, and Stepanek just fell over on his hand while getting wrong-footed. It looked painful at first, he called the trainer, but I don’t know whether it was one of those things that get painful then you can recover from afterwards. He seemed to be lacking the usual feel on his shots though. Mahut continued to put the pressure on Stepanek. I didn’t expect much from Mahut given his current form, but he played his usual game of being aggressive and serving-and-volleying. I think the plan worked well. Stepanek wasn’t allowed to dictate or control what he wants to do in the match. Therefore he looked pretty average, though he did make far more errors than usual. Maybe some were forced, some were not. I can’t say I was really paying full attention though. Everyone has lapses of concentration, not just the players…

But of course concentration returns for the more eagerly awaited match-ups, such as the night session on Margaret Court Arena between Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Denis Istomin. Watching Istomin play in Brisbane was the first time I was able to gain appreciation of him as a dangerous floater, and the main reason for this is just because he hits the ball incredibly hard and appears to have no noticeable weaknesses. He has a big serve, an excellent backhand which he isn’t afraid of taking up the line, and the forehand is also capable of doing damage. The night match confirmed that Istomin indeed does have a lot of weapons, and he even possesses a nice all-court game which wasn’t apparent until late in the second set.

Prior to the start of the match, there was a buzz and air of excitement surrounding Margaret Court Arena, the kind of atmosphere I had not yet seen before this year. When people come to see Tsonga, they expect to be entertained. Whereas for other players, they simply come to watch the match, and nothing more. The stadium was packed from the start of play. I managed to grab myself a front row spot, after someone left at the completion of the Kuznetsova match. When Tsonga started the match with a jump smash, the crowd erupted in a way not yet seen before. Tsonga is clearly perfect for the Margaret Court Arena night match slot.

After a while, the crowd settled into the match, realizing that this might not be as much of the Tsonga show as they thought it would be. Tsonga can be unique and exciting, but he primarily approached this match by staying on the baseline, trying to establish control with his serve and forehand. I’ve certainly seen him play better before. From this view, I can see that Tsonga has a good kick second serve, which moves around unpredictably after its bounce and can be difficult to return, at least more so than many other players.

The match was a showcase of impressive power and consistency, both players getting into extended rallies while playing aggressively. I kept hoping that Tsonga would step it up another level, bringing out the killer forehand and moving in forwards, but it didn’t really happen until Istomin did exactly what I thought Tsonga would do late in the second set. I really like all-court tennis, so I started to enjoy the match a lot more. I like great shots to be taken advantage of, and constructed to completion, rather than getting ruined and lost in the middle of a long rally. Apart from that, it also looks clever, like a series of intentional shots strung together to get the right result.

Once Istomin started playing better, Tsonga also rose to the challenge, suddenly needing to make more urgent shot selections, or needing to hit passing shots. One advantage that Tsonga has over Istomin is that he can generate much better angles on the forehand, and he was able to use this to open up the court. In the last few games of the fourth set, there were some awesome exchanges containing dropshots, lobs, angled running shots, and there was one dive volley in there. This was exactly what the crowd had come to see.

Istomin must have won himself some fans too, even though some of them probably came to cheer for him originally just to balance out the huge amount of Tsonga fans out there. Serving to stay in the match, there were so many people cheering for Denis. There were also a huge amount of people cheering whenever Tsonga took his shirt off.

I’d say Istomin’s peak form was somewhere during the end of the second set to early in the third set, then the errors started creeping up and his choices to approach the net became more suspect. There were a few moments of self-destruction towards the end. Tsonga served a double fault and made a horrible error to lose serve when serving for the match, then Istomin gave away about three points on his serve to lose the match. Still, people stood up clapping when the match was done, in appreciation of what they had seen that night. It was a good, challenging first round match. Istomin put in a great performance for the most part. Tsonga needed to raise his level, and he did.

By the way, I don’t have any photos because I forgot to bring my USB cable that connects my camera to my laptop. It will have to come later, I suppose.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Australian Open 2012 - Day 1 Blog

I swear I’m going to make better match selections. When I look back on what matches I chose to watch today, I’ll probably never understand myself. But they were spontaneous decisions based on a number of factors, such as timing and which matches were in their best stage to start following. For example, I avoided matches where match had gone underway and the first set was very one-sided. I’ll come up with a different formula, based more on what players I want to watch, and forget about the rest.

It was a relatively underwhelming day in Melbourne Park. I guess this is the result of watching one-sided tennis, patchy play and not a whole lot of top players. I started off with Lukasz Kubot and Nicolas Almagro, from early in the third set. Well, I was originally going to watch Mardy Fish, but walked in and saw that Daniela Hantuchova was playing. She just shouted ‘Come on’ about six times in two games, which I thought was horrible, then I headed off.

Kubot is probably one of the most aggressive players you’ll see on the tour. He’s tall and strong, and takes advantage of it as much as possible by leaning in, and putting all of his body weight into his shots, which also allows for easy transitions into the net within a few steps. His volleys are excellent. Because of his massive reach, he can finish a lot of points up there that many other people wouldn’t be able to.

The key difference was Almagro’s serve, because he was winning a lot of cheap points on his first serve, whereas Kubot’s was much more unreliable. It’s a very simple, fluid service action. It’s amazing how much he gets off it.

Due to Kubot’s aggressive play, he frequently dominated what would happen in this match either winning or losing points. He was going for broke almost all the time when returning serve. In the end, Kubot had something like 55 errors while Almagro had 11. It’s very rare that an unforced error count is that lopsided while the match is still relatively close. It was fitting that Kubot’s errors would cost him the match. One thing I’ve noticed is that Almagro tends to shout ‘Vamos’ quite passionately. It makes me feel his emotion… for a brief while.

Not really sure what to do next, I ended up going to see Stanislas Wawrinka play against Benoit Paire, or in other words to watch Benoit Paire self-destruct and make huge amounts of errors. Maybe he was injured though, as he did take an injury time-out in the second set. When I first started watching, I thought it was funny seeing Paire trying to slide around the court, probably completely ruining his shoes in the process. I don’t know how much he does that normally. I don’t know whether I stopped paying attention, or that he didn’t do it anymore afterwards. It obviously became less appealing once he was losing by huge amounts.

The other thing about Paire was that he was running around his forehand to hit backhands frequently. There was one shot which was clearly on the forehand side where he elected to hit a backhand! His backhand’s not even that great, just reliable. The way he was hitting the ball and his movement was very, very upright like he didn’t want to bend down at all. Maybe it was related to his injury.

The court was surprisingly quite full for this match. People were probably just waiting for Baghdatis. Wawrinka was hitting the ball quite hard and striking the ball well, but the whole time I was watching this match, I was thinking of leaving, and so I did after watching a set and a half. Sometimes I want to watch just enough so I can blog about it – what an idiot.

I went on to watch Bernard Tomic’s comeback against Fernando Verdasco on the big screen, which was awesome. All those down-the-line winners in the fourth set and clever slice backhands. In the fifth set, Verdasco started to open up the court better moving the ball around from side-to-side and not getting caught up with Tomic’s slice backhand all the time. But I really loved that match point where Tomic slowly rallied with Verdasco then hit that slice backhand down-the-line only to open up the obvious forehand winner down-the-line. It totally captured how Tomic had made his comeback in the match, by creating those little openings for those down-the-line shots then nailing them.

I just went randomly walking after that, caught a very short player in the corner of my eye, then realized that it was Olivier Rochus. Took a look closer then noticed two short players! The other one was Bjorn Phau. I stood there for a while evaluating whether I should watch the match. These guys have very aesthetically pleasing one-handed backhands, so that was a positive point. They also have great point construction and movement, though Rochus would definitely be better at point construction. His accuracy is great to watch. Rochus was grunting very loudly as if to make a strong point that he was trying very hard here.

This match really could have been a very entertaining match, had the match been like the first few games that I watched. But the rest were awful, just because Phau was awful. He was making a large amount of inexplicable errors of trying to hit the ball hard down the middle then missing. He shouldn’t be trying to play aggressively when he isn’t even doing anything with the ball. Maybe he had an injury, because I did see him bend over one point feeling out his leg muscles. I kept watching for longer than I should have, wishing that it would get better.

But after Rochus went up a break in the third set, I had a look at the fifth set of Donald Young’s match against Peter Gojowczyk. Switching over from Rochus’ match to this, it all seemed so unprofessional technically and mentally, but then again they were in the fifth set and probably spent. I think all that happened was that Young was serving terribly, so Gojowczyk took advantage of it by going up a service break and making a few backhand down-the-line winners. But being up a break was too much for him and he surrendered it straight away with some terrible errors, then Young picked up his serving and won comfortably after that, while Gojowczyk self-destructed. I would have never guessed that Gojowczyk was German, couldn’t really understand why he was getting an ‘Auf gehts’ in there by a supporter.

After a long day of having to deal with the annoying hot weather, it was good to finally get to the night session where David Nalbandian played against Jarkko Nieminen. Based on the quality of players, this match really should have been better than the other ones, and so it was at least in terms of consistency. I really enjoyed watching the players battle it out, as it seemed like there was no easy or reliable way to win points here.

I enjoyed watching Nalbandian’s awesome angles, dangerous enough to guarantee winning the point and being able to open up the court on the next shot, whereas many other players could hit a backhand crosscourt yet not really get anywhere near a point-ending shot. It just goes to show how a little difference makes a big difference, though that is also because Nalbandian is quite good at following up his most effective shots into the net.

Apart from that, it also surprised me how sometimes Nalbandian could come up with these spectacular shots from a losing position in a point, which would allow him to turn a rally that he looked almost certain to lose back into his favour. He can create those same trademark angles even from the defensive. Nalbandian was down break points on his serve at 3-3, then he saved them with some good play, then somehow that elevated level continued on to Nieminen’s service game where he broke serve and served it out.

Nieminen had some injury issues in the second set. It probably affected his serve more than the rest of his game. The rallies were still competitive, though Nalbandian’s consistency had gone down in the second set, which was probably what contributed to the close scoreline. It was such a shame that it ended in a retirement since I didn’t want the match to end. It was a good matchup which allowed me to see plenty of rallies, since neither of them had dominant serves.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Wednesday second round action in Brisbane

It’s clear that the Brisbane International has grown in popularity over the years. It’s great for the tournament, and nice to see such huge support and interest for tennis here in Brisbane, but as a spectator, it can be such a pain. I hadn’t really found myself thinking about the good old days in the past, but today I found myself flashing back into time an awful lot, thinking of how back then, I could have sat anywhere I wanted to on an outside court, as long as there was still play going on in Pat Rafter Arena. Whenever you sit on small outside courts, there are always plenty of crappy seats, particularly anything that is blocked by an umpire's seat. Whenever I pick seats, it is always my main criteria - just anywhere without the umpire's seat in the way, please.

To accurately reflect the special circumstances under which I watched these matches, I decided to take accurate photos, rather than ideal photos. I could have of course zoomed in very closely, moved the camera up to avoid heads, waited for the players to be in the right position of the court to get the best shot. But photos are supposed to capture experiences, aren’t they, so I went for the more realistic choice.

Transport is always more relaxing when there’s nothing exciting on the schedule to start the day with, so I timed my arrival pretty well to get there close to the start of play. In the line-up, they were handing out free newspapers to everyone, which is a good deal. Almost everyone took one, but scanning around stadiums and seating areas all day, I hardly noticed anyone reading one. I guess it was all eyes on the tennis today.

I had some unfinished business to do from Monday. I went over to Tennis Central, as they call it, the entertainment area down the stairs. Before walking down the stairs, I stopped for a moment to take a look at what it looks like from higher up. It’s just funny how these things can appear to be more appealing to the eye the further away it is. As I walked down the stairs, the footing appears to be unstable and it’s clear that everything has been temporarily set up here. Nothing wrong with that, as it makes complete sense, but I was highly amused by the design of the pathways which lead to nowhere, so you have to walk through the artificial grass to get through to the dining area.

After taking a bit of time to figure out where to walk, I headed back to Pat Rafter Arena to watch Gilles Simon play against James Duckworth. I wasn’t too enthusiastic about that. End with Gilles Simon on Monday, start with him on Wednesday. If I didn’t know him any better, I could have thought that Simon looked like he just got out of bed. I was sitting in the back row, so there are some things I can’t see. But even from this far away, it’s easy to see Simon casually strolling around in between points. I wonder what it would be like trying to cheer him on, as a coach or fan. I wouldn’t bother to, because he doesn’t really look like he’d be bothered to step it up another level, unless if he was clearly losing.

From this view, I couldn’t really see what Duckworth looks like, so I’ve kind of made up a picture in my mind based on what I can see. I don’t have the ability to make up new faces, so I’ve decided that he looks like Sam Querrey without the cap from far away, and maybe made him look a bit more attractive or regular looking. From the start of the match, he looked very keen on putting in a good performance here. I liked the scorching forehand return winner in the first game. He broke serve in the first game, but it went downhill from there. He was the more aggressive player, and more adventurous in terms of shot selection, but the errors cost him the set, and perhaps he wasn’t really capable enough to try pulling off playing at this level, not that I would know.

As the match wore on, I started to lose interest. Simon was up an early break in the second set, though I did notice by the time I left that he was leaking more errors than usual. For such a one-sided match, it would have been nice if Simon could have shown more of his abilities, but he was as predictable as ever. Not taking a commanding position in the match, letting his opponent have a chance.

Sitting in the back row has a larger amount of distractions than anywhere else where the stadium is closed off from the outside. From here, I can smell food from the outside, which is a problem near lunch time. I can hear the sound of the Nova radio announcers who read out the schedule of play every 15 minutes or so. I can hear the sound of coffee being made. I decided I didn’t care anymore about the outcome, and the smell was luring me away, so I left for an early lunch break. The crowd erupted soon afterwards as Duckworth broke back.

It was not a great day for me. I spent much of the day being tired and distracted, and hardly ever getting a good seat. With Tommy Haas’ withdrawal, the court scheduling had been changed to move some Court 1 matches to Court 2. One of them being Radek Stepanek’s match against Jarkko Nieminen (see the photo for an idea of the crappy view I had to watch this match on). This match looked potentially interesting on paper, but the match-up wasn’t as interesting as I thought it might be. Stepanek didn’t mix it up all that much in the first set, resembling too much of a normal player for my liking. I tried to look closer, but as far as I could see, there wasn’t anything particularly clever in his play, a bit disappointing for such a deliberate player (he usually does everything for a reason). Nieminen hits the ball harder from the back of the court than from what I would have thought watching on television. He swings right through his backhand and gets a huge amount of racquet head speed on it.

Nieminen doesn’t look particularly expressive on his face, but he was frequently hitting balls into places in between points, throwing his racquet around, nothing too extreme for the most part. It’s very strange, because it feels like it’s coming from nowhere. About to lose the second set, he smashed a ball into the back fence without looking where he was going and nearly took out a ballkid. It doesn’t seem right that he gets a code violation for that, while Petzschner gets the same code violation for hitting a ball into the roof/court cover.

The second set, Stepanek was playing more intelligently, following up certain shots into the net. They weren’t noticeable net approaches. They didn’t come from completely opening up the court, so it must have taken a good eye and quick reactions to be able to pull off that kind of play. Nieminen was making a ton of errors, and watching live, it looks more appropriate that he would because he doesn’t hit the ball as safely as a lot of other players. It’s not as controlled and restrained.

Having watched that match with the umpire chair in the way for the most part, I was happy to be able to move on to watching Philipp Petzschner’s match against Santiago Giraldo. Surely with Jelena Jankovic playing at the same time, this would allow some additional comfort and breathing room in the stands. I arrived early with some women’s doubles still going on, and there’s this person sitting next to me taking an awful lot of photos of Carla Suarez Navarro sitting down cheering them on. I don’t know, it just looks a little stalkerish, though had I spotted someone I liked, I might have done the same thing.

I was a bit excited about watching Petzschner play. It’s always interesting to watch unique players live, or to have something in particular you can concentrate on, or notice. Giraldo on the other hand, is not one of those kinds of players. I watched him a few years ago, and I still can’t really recognise what he looks like, or the technique on any of his shots. But I did notice that he seems to have improved since then, and his forehand appears to be more of a weapon than it used to be.

Petzschner was fun to watch in the beginning. But you can tell he has a limited skillset. His game clearly revolves around his serve and forehand. His serve is huge. You can tell just from the sound that comes off his racquet, when he serves. His backhand slice floats across the court more so than the majority of players. Whether this is a positive thing or not, I don’t really know, but it looks artistic. Whenever he hits a forehand, he steps right into it, almost as if he was hitting an approach shot all the time. He doesn’t appear to have anywhere near the same level of consistency as most other players, as in, he doesn’t even attempt to have it. He prefers to play recklessly. Players hit to his backhand frequently. He slices it patiently crosscourt almost every time, and it’s like whenever he gets a forehand, he’s been waiting so long to get one, that he needs to rip it even if there isn’t any space in the court to justify doing it.

The matchup here wasn’t a good one. Clearly Petzschner’s slice backhand wasn’t being hit well enough, because Giraldo had plenty of time to run around and hit a forehand on the majority of them, while hardly making any errors. A player’s strength versus a player’s weakness. It’s clear to see who would win this battle.

After an underwhelming day of tennis, I decided to watch one more match, a rematch of last year’s match between Alexandr Dolgopolov and Igor Andreev, in very different weather conditions. Considering that I found it very hard to stay awake the previous match, it was probably helpful that I had a very strange older couple sitting next to me, who were commenting on everything. The lady was cheering for Dolgopolov so that she could watch more of the match, though it took her quite a while to figure out how to pronounce it, and what his first name was. Her husband cheered for Andreev, as a response to every time she yelled out, ‘come on Alex!’ Once they got into the third set, they switched roles, since the wife wanted the match to continue while the husband wanted it to finish. The husband kept saying, ‘More power, Igor!’ in this weird voice.

I also had to look through a fence for most of the match, since it was completely packed. It was nice to see two interesting players play against each other, something to admire from both sides. I started watching from late in the first set, and Andreev was definitely playing better than what I had seen from him in the past live. Clearly, winning in the qualies has given him some confidence in the main draw.

Andreev’s forehand is so much fun to watch live. It might appear to be one-dimensional on TV, but it just never stops getting exciting live. It draws gasps from the crowd, it looks and sounds like it’s dangerous enough to take anyone out, but it’s probably easier to defend against it than you would think. Or at least Dolgopolov’s backhand held up pretty well against it. Towards the end of the first set, Andreev was on this roll where he would hit all these forehands which were still in mid-air for the most part, until dropping right on the baseline at the last minute making it very difficult to return.

I was reminded again of how Dolgopolov is exciting to watch live as well, with his very energetic game and how he likes to mix it up constantly. Though in this match, it was Andreev doing most of the dictating. He should have won the match on his first match point, but he misfired a forehand long, while the rest of the tie-break seemed to be filled with tense moments containing long rallies, big forehands and excellent defending from Dolgopolov. Once Andreev had lost his opportunity, his game went downhill in the third set, playing nowhere near as consistently as he did when I first started watching. Occasionally he was still a threat to break back, but he couldn’t convert, so Dolgopolov went on to win the match.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Another Year at the Brisbane International - Monday's Play

It’s New Year’s Day holiday here in Brisbane, and I’m pretty sure the crowd attendance figures I saw today were the biggest I’ve personally seen since the tournament began in Brisbane. They had a Kids Day initiative going on today, where kids 16 and under can get into the grounds for free, play mini-tennis on Centre Court in between matches, have access to more tennis games and entertainment than the standard amount and also get a free information pack, which presumably includes information on how to join a tennis club. I think it’s a nice initiative.

It’s always a familiar feeling coming back to the Brisbane International every year. In the past every time I’ve come back, it has looked exactly the same, so it was a pleasant surprise to see that this year they’ve made a few upgrades. In particular, the much-needed shade covers above the temporary stands on the two showcourts have been added, which will surely increase the popularity of the tournament. Also, they have doubled the amount of seats on Showcourt Two making it the second biggest court outside of Pat Rafter Arena. They’ve also expanded the entertainment area, which I didn’t really get the chance to check out because I didn’t notice it until after I left.

Attending the Brisbane International is still a must-see event for me years later, despite my regular Australian Open attendances each year. It’s a chance to see what Brisbane, the community is like, what our interest in tennis is like, etc. Also, since I happen to know many people who play tennis, I usually wonder how many people I will see that I know. Today’s count: 3. Though considering there were huge crowds, there were probably heaps of people that I just didn’t see.

Anyone that has been following the blog over the years will tend to know that if Florian Mayer plays in an event that I am going to, I am probably going to blog on it. I have had some very fond memories following Mayer over the years in Australia. I guess this match against Denis Istomin, probably wouldn’t rank up there with one of them. Though I didn’t really think it was one of his horror matches either. Maybe the first three or four games were horrible, but I’d put that down to rust.

First of all, I’ll backtrack to where I was standing. I woke up this morning with a really cool idea. I thought, I’m going to try something new and different. I’m going to stand and lean over the fence to watch Mayer today. I started to get really excited about it, as this kind of closeness is impossible to experience at the Australian Open so it was something that needed to be done today. I’ve got memories doing the same thing, watching Alexandr Dolgopolov and his dropshots from last year, while leaning over a fence. Once I’ve got an idea in my head, it’s pretty hard to get rid of it, because I might think that I’m chickening out if I don’t do it.

So I looked behind on the grassed area and everyone that is on it is sitting down, trying to watch tennis by peering through the fence. Those that don't want to peer through the fence, are of course on the other side. There are still some spare seats over there, if they'd prefer to have a better view. There’s no sign that says, no standing up here on this side of the fence, so I figured I should be right. However, further analysis of the situation and seeing that no one else has stood up against the fence the entire day shows to me, that maybe I was being rude, inconsiderate, etc. I do remember that this was normal behaviour when watching Gael Monfils two years ago though.

It would have been a perfect opportunity to personally cheer on Mayer, however I became too much of a nervous wreck being the centre of attention as it was, to the point where it was a bit hard to concentrate and appreciate the match. I was the only one standing one side leaning against the fence. I will not do it again.

As for the match, the first five games or so were dominated by serve, with both players not really finding their rhythm on both sides. Though I’m keeping myself busy looking at the little details, like Istomin’s smooth service motion, how low over the net and slow in pace Mayer’s slice backhand is, how amazingly hard Istomin hits his double-handed backhand. I think Istomin hits his backhand harder than his forehand.

The crowd are slow to react to clapping on some points, and whenever a winner comes out of nowhere, the crowd don’t notice it quickly enough to clap it compared to a rally where a player has opened up one side of the court and hit a winner the next shot. Based on that theory, you can tell that a lot of Mayer’s crosscourt forehand winners come out of nowhere, because hardly anyone would ever clap them.

As the scoreline suggested, the match was completely even the whole first set until the tie-break. Mayer was flashy at times, but not as consistent as he can be on his better days, and perhaps his movement was not at his best either. His forehand was much improved after a poor start, but his backhand was inconsistent. He missed two crosscourt backhands wide to lose the tie-break from 4-5 (on serve). Istomin was up 5-0 in that tie-break at some point, but lost some concentration after the huge lead.

Istomin was composed and reasonably consistent throughout the match considering how flat and hard he hits it, and he took his game to another level in the tie-break. The best point was definitely the third point in the tie-break, when Istomin nailed two double-handed backhand crosscourt shots that looked like winners, and would have been winners if Mayer had been moving like he did in the rest of the set. I just remember thinking at the time, how funny it is that they stepped it up for the tie-break.

From early on in the second set, Mayer started muttering a few comments to his coach or whoever it was, which was probably the only thing that made me suspect that maybe an injury concern was there. Not to mention that after that, in the next few points, he didn’t make much of an effort to move as if to prove a point. It’s always hard to tell the difference between negativity and injury. But one thing was sure. Based on that body language, he seemed like the clear underdog. Yes, that is what you can do when watching live tennis. Make a prediction on a match purely based on how a player is walking, or how many hand signals they’re making. So Mayer retired soon afterwards at 6-7(5) 3-2. Perhaps the fact that he didn’t call the trainer indicates that he already knows a bit about his injury.

After taking a short break, I headed into Pat Rafter Arena to watch Serena Williams play against Chanelle Scheepers. The last time I saw Serena play, I wasn’t exactly paying attention, so this time I felt I was better able to appreciate the experience. I really like watching how explosively Serena moves onto her forehand on the run. I think how she moves onto the ball is surely what separates her from many women’s players, which allows her to be such a good shotmaker even from a more defensive position. Also, all of her shots look so technically sound that it’s very aesthetically pleasing. Perhaps the technical aspect is another reason why she has been able to play so well in the past, coming back from injury.

I tend to pay more attention to matches early on than afterwards, and one of the highlights for me was seeing one of Serena’s scorching running forehand winners, then seeing the stare down of intimidation afterwards. It was just such a cool reaction. It didn’t seem as manufactured as it does on TV. It looked like a natural reaction, a very confident one. However, Serena went on to lose that service game, and took on a more relaxed mindset afterwards allowing herself more shots to play to control points, and she also started to serve better.

Despite Scheepers giving a good effort, there was always the sense that Serena had the upper hand with her greater weight of shot. Serena didn’t need to make it flashy straight away. Every shot she hit put her another foot in front of Scheepers until Williams could win the point. It felt inevitable, but Scheepers did well to prolong it in the second set. Unlike Serena’s serve, Scheeper’s serve looks like a wobbly mess, with how stiff she keeps her right arm when launching into the motion. There is no explosiveness in the action. It is like it is in slow motion, unlike Bernard Tomic’s super fast abbreviated motion (yet both arm motions in a way are similar). I think it is abbreviated, but maybe not entirely. The decisive break of serve in the second set came after Serena stepped in early on a second serve return to rip for a winner, then faced with a similar situation, Scheepers double-faulted with the threat in sight. Serena won 6-2 6-3.

Now onto the best match of the day which was between Bernard Tomic and Julien Benneteau. This was Tomic’s first appearance in Brisbane without a wildcard, and it is nice to see some improvements in his game from past years, such as the improved faster pace forehand which was probably the standout shot from the first set. Tomic does have the ability to sometimes rip winners on some shots, and even after he does it, I still don’t really know if the timing was clever. To me, it just seems more like completely random. But the forehand definitely does look like a much more potent weapon when he injects some extra pace into it.

Tomic raced off to a 5-0 lead but it didn’t seem entirely indicative of the match to me, because Benneteau was close to breaking back on one of those games earlier on. Despite the massive gap in the score, I decided that I really like watching Benneteau play, because of the way he moves onto the ball and also with his point construction. He makes so many little split steps when he moves that it’s great to watch, but it also looks incredibly tiring. I had a brief look at Tomic’s footwork, and he probably makes half or one third the amount of steps in comparison. Some might call this lazy footwork, or simply being more efficient.

Benneteau controls points once he hits an aggressive shot, and he tries to keep it there, with accurate ball-striking and good point construction. This also means that if he hasn’t started the first few shots aggressively that he’s likely to have to play more defensively after that, because he doesn’t have the same ability as many other players to hit impressive defensive shots. At least not to the same level. In the first set, Benneteau butchered a few key rallies that he had created in his favour, and his serve was also not up to scratch, not that I really noticed (heard the interview afterwards).

The second and third sets anyway were enjoyable to watch, filled with long and highly competitive rallies where both players appeared to be having difficulty with finishing off rallies. I’d say the rallies were filled with accurate, controlled ball-striking, so it wasn’t like the match was filled with passive rallies. In the end, the deciding factor was with Benneteau’s legs, and I guess it was understandable given all the running he did in the match and with it being the first match of the year.

Tomic could have made it easier for himself by converting one of his earlier match points, but in the end, Tomic finally pulled through on his sixth, helped by Benneteau double faulting on the match point. The result was 6-2 4-6 7-5. The crowd here in Brisbane have been extremely quiet, seemingly paying some sort of respect to the players by not talking during the matches, or very quietly if so. Only in the final stages, they started to show some support to Tomic. I guess you could say everyone was saving their breaths for when they really needed it.

So that was three matches done for the day, yet it still felt early. I left Pat Rafter Arena, and was able to see again that it was indeed a very, very crowded day at the tennis centre. I stood there waiting for the end of the Haas/Stepanek doubles match, catching people leaving at the end of the match to grab myself a seat for the match between Gilles Simon and Ryan Sweeting.

I had never seen Ryan Sweeting play before, or read anything about his game previously, so it was funny to see Andy Roddick’s service motion without expecting it. I wonder if he tried any other service motions before deciding to settle on this one. Anyway, his serve is good, but not great. The first serve seems incredibly flat, and with little margin for error unlike Roddick’s service which kicks up quite a lot. I was not at all impressed with Sweeting who seems to be a very loose cannon. He bases his game around a huge forehand, but misfires a lot with it. He also hits a slice backhand quite frequently, but its purpose is more just to extend the point to allow him to hit a forehand.

This was the perfect matchup for Simon. No expert strategy required, or any need to go out of his comfort zone. He could just use the pace he was getting from Sweeting, to keep returning the ball cleanly with interest, and also to hit great passing shots on the run if required. After the first three games or so, the way this match was going was almost inevitable. Sweeting was mainly only winning the short points, and not having much success on return though he did come close in that final game failing to convert two break points. This was a nice way to wrap up the day, I thought, as watching Gilles Simon can be a relaxing experience, how he so easily seems to have perfect timing on his shots particularly off the backhand.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Looking Back at Monte Carlo

Usually the clay season is alive and kicking by the time Monte Carlo starts, but this year has been a little different. It wasn’t a mandatory event last year, but it still attracted good fields. The main difference was the absence of the unbeatable Novak Djokovic (check out this sketch), who has been taking a break/cautious injury pause in an attempt to peak for Belgrade. A huge tournament for the family.

The craziest match of all in Monte Carlo a couple of weeks ago was that match between Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal, which I did have the pleasure of watching. There was about a half hour delay (or so it felt like) with Andy Murray warming up on another court when he was scheduled to play. The Tennis Betting sites must have given Murray no chance of winning, yet for a moment it looked possible, just because everything in the match seemed to defy belief. He could barely serve in practice, then he took anti-inflammatory medication. I was sure it was going to be a retirement. In hindsight, I did wonder if the delay was at least partially strategic, buying himself some more time so that the medication would kick in.

The match started, then I watched his serve. It looked fine to me. His body language was subdued, and he walked around the court like he didn’t really care. Though he must have cared to end up playing the match. I guess that was the amazing thing about the match to me. The attitude with which he played the match, contrasted with the outstanding tennis that he played. He didn’t match Nadal’s intensity or mental questions. He kept the points short (or at least tried to) and his movement was great, even though there was barely any energy about him. He is normally like that to some extent, but it was a level lower than usual. The surprising thing was that it didn’t affect his play.

After the subdued body language, and the lack of expectations, the longer the match went on, the more Murray was emotionally invested in it. His forehand looked better than usual. I really liked his sneaks into the net. He should do them more often. I think he should be able to spot openings like that more often, but it never enters his mind, that he should adopt that play at all.

I kept expecting Nadal to adopt more of a killer extinct but he couldn't string enough points together to take a good lead for himself. So far there has been something unremarkable about Nadal’s play this clay season. I think it is carried on from his hardcourt play, where he does give away more errors than he used to, but also playing a more aggressive style. He’s not as much of a relentless player in general, but I don’t know if that makes him any worse, since he has made other improvements. I expect that with more time to make adjustments to the clay again this season that he will start to find his best form.

After two sets of tennis with long and drawn out games, Murray finally ended up being too tired to put up a good fight in the third set, and Nadal steamrolled to a third set victory. This match was under so many special circumstances, that it didn’t really mean a thing in the grand scheme of things, but it was a highlight from what has been an underwhelming clay season so far.