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.