Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and David Nalbandian met in the Masters Series final in Paris. The winner would go to the year end championships in Shanghai. The loser would go home.People looked at Pete Sampras as a brilliant shotmaker and supreme big match player but a somewhat boring personality. I always thought shotmakers were emotional players, players who fed off the moment and only fully blossomed when the stakes were high. And they were, in my mind, the opposite of players such as, say, Sampras’ opponent Ivan Lendl who prepared for the moment as much as he fed off it. Lendl popped off to cardio conditioning classes when year round conditioning was a new idea for professional athletes and changed his home court surface to match the US open surface precisely. Roger Federer threw me off too because he’s another brilliant shotmaker yet you hardly heard a peep out of him during a match, and while people called his domination boring more than they called his personality boring – he’s always been very good about doing media interviews and photo shoots, they did ask for more expressiveness on court. Now that Marcos Baghdatis is on the shelf until he can figure out that being a professional athlete means putting in some time at the gym and doing a few forward bends now and then to avoid injury, we have the best candidate in some time that combines raw, in the moment shotmaking, with an electrical personality: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. And this week at the Masters Series event in Paris, he’s come through in spades. I’m not wild about Jo-Willie’s thumbs pointing at shoulders celebration that says “look at me, look at what I did” in a way that out-egos even the biggest prima donna in US football or world soccer, but I’m an old fuddy duddy about that. Younger fans seem to like such things. But Jo-Willie has it all: big serve, athleticism, speed, and big shots on big points, and this week he put it all together. He started the week ranked number 13 and made his way to the Paris final despite never having reached a quarterfinal at a Masters Series event, and if he could beat his opponent in the final, David Nalbandian, he’d be in the year end championships, something few people expected. If Nalbandian won the match, he’d be the one flying off to Shanghai for the championships and not many people expected that a few weeks ago either. Nalbandian was the guy who looked nervous at the beginning of the match. He hit a double fault to lose his first service game. Jo-Willie was a bit shaky but, unlike his earlier matches this week, he came out and blanketed the net early and held on to the break of serve to win the first set 6-3. Jo-Willie blanketed the net behind seven aces in that first set and that was huge for him because he struggled this week when his first serve hasn’t been there. It’s not a Sampras-like serve but he won’t be able to beat an un-fatigued Novak Djkovic or a never-fatigued Rafael Nadal without it, he’s just not steady enough from the baseline. Lucky for him the year end championships are indoors on a very slick surface and Nadal and Federer are ailing and Djkovic isn’t playing well. He might do very well at the year end championships but that would be misleading because he skipped the slower courts this year – both clay and hard court, so we don’t know how he’ll do through an entire season. Serving at 3-4 in the second set, Jo-Willie hit and error and followed that up with a double fault and found himself down three break points. He hit four aces to pull himself through the game and that’s the marquee of top players like Sampras and Federer: their serve gets them out of trouble. But both of those players had power and consistency and Jo-Willie has only one of those skills at the moment, and it’s not consistency. Which cost Jo-Willie the second set. He went down three set points while serving at 4-5 to stay in the second set after hitting a few balls out of the court. He hit another ball into the net to give Nalbandian the set, 6-4. Jo-Willie is inconsistent because he insists on pounding every ball as hard as he can and when it works it’s beautiful. Nalbandian couldn’t get his first serve in and Jo-Willie pounded away successfully enough to break Nalbandian early in the third set and go up 2-1. If Jo-Willie could hang on to that break just long enough, he’d have an all expenses paid trip to Shanghai. And he did hang on, literally. Serving for the match, he hit a popup volley then served a double fault and found himself down three break points yet again. Nalbandian gave up the first break point when he couldn’t return a second serve, Jo-Willie then got away with another popup volley and followed that up with tremendous second serve to get back to deuce. Another ace and one more punishing forehand and he’d done it, he’d won his first Masters Series shield. There was no “look at me” celebration, though, just tears and a hug for every member of his family. He’d have hugged every spectator if he could have, and I’d have given him a hug because I’ve been waiting, like all of us, for another shotmaking machine who can rise to the occasion. First, though, Jo-Willie will need a broader ground game and that’ll not only get him through the slower court seasons, but a few finesse shots might also take some pressure off his body and let him actually get through an entire season.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga passed some important tests in his second and third round matches in Paris.
Damn, the guy is a shotmaker. In the third game of the match in the Paris Masters event between Radek Stepanek and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Stepanek hit a lazy forehand to the middle of the ad court and Tsonga ran around his backhand until he was standing smack dab in the middle of the doubles alley and hit an inside out forehand at such an angle that it landed in the corner of the opposite service box.
Stepanek is a funny hybrid player. He does everything well but nothing spectacularly. He serves enough aces to be a consistent serve and volleyer, he can be magical at the net – he’s the best doubles player among the singles player but maybe only because Roger Federer hardly ever plays doubles. And he’s willing to be the villain.
Mind games have gone out of fashion in the current version of the ATP tour except for some systemic tics like Rafael Nadal’s 30 second time outs between each point (you can page through a Nadal match quick and easy by clicking on the skip forward button on your DVR remote which skips ahead exactly 30 seconds) and Novak Djokovic’s incessant ball bouncing, but Stepanek has an entire range of annoyance tactics that rival his bag of strategic skills. Tsonga was serving at 1-2 in the first set when Stepanek spun a beautiful pirouette and hit a backhand volley winner then backpedaled the entire length of the court in appreciation of his marvelousness.
Stepanek is lucky he’s not a baseball player. If he hit a home run and pulled off that same behavior on a baseball field, the next time he came to plate he’d find a baseball lodged in his ear. I suppose Tsonga could direct a serve at Stepanek’s private parts, it has been done before though, I believe, not intentionally. Tsonga had his chance. He can be just as magical at the net but he let Stepanek take control of the net and found himself down set point in the first set after having lost his serve. Stepanek served and volleyed and did a showman’s leap when he hit a short hop volley off Tsonga’s return. If I were Tsonga, I’d have rocketed the ball right at Stepanek’s head being the hothead I am. Tsonga, not as hotheaded but maybe a slight bit annoyed at Stepanek’s show, overhit his approach shot and that was that, Stepanek had the first set 6-3.
Tsonga has never played Stepanek before and it was an important growing up moment for him. You can’t blast a trickster off the court because they’ll avoid getting into a groundstroke battle with you by taking away the net just as Stepanek did in this match. Any top player should be able to overpower Stepanek, but it takes skill and it was interesting to watch Tsonga try to figure it out.
Tsonga beat that other trickster, Fabrice Santoro, on a fast surface in Lyon last week but it took him three sets to do it and by the look of this match today, I’m guessing Stepanek could have beaten him on a slower outdoor court. As for Stepanek, let’s see how Tsonga figured him out.
Serving at 2-3 in the second set, Stepanek took another one of his little showman hops as he hit another cute shot at the net, but this time Tsonga hit a beautiful cross court approach shot for a winner and followed that up with a passing shot down the line to get his first break point. Not only did that get Tsonga’s home crowd going but it got Stepanek in trouble. On break point, Stepanek hit a fault then smashed the ball in anger to the consternation of Tsonga’s people. He followed that up with a double fault to lose his serve. You live by annoyance, you die by annoyance.
But Tsonga still hadn’t figured it out. Serving at 4-2 he saved two break points by outsteadying Stepanek – rule number one against the trickster: keep the ball in play – and taking over the net, but he still ended up giving the break back because he couldn’t handle Stepanek’s elegant junk. It looked like he’d finally figured it out when he gobbled up Stepanek’s slices and misdirections and pulled even by winning the second set 6-4, but he lost his serve again early in the third set because he didn’t get to the net and when he did, he wasn’t putting the ball away. He couldn’t quite decide when to smash the ball or not.
Tsonga is a rhythm player and an emotion player. Those passing shots gave him his rhythm and then, with Stepanek serving to stay in the match at 4-5, he found his emotion. He hit a shot down the line he thought was in because he couldn’t hear the out call over the roar of the crowd and by then it was too late to challenge. That got him mad and now he started going for his shots instead of fooling around and he came up with three great shots in a row to close out the match: a beautiful running passing shot, a high looping topspin lob that landed just inside the line, and a return that curled round the doubles alley and back into the court. He had the break on Stepanek and he had the match, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4.
Tsonga’s third round opponent, Novak Djokovic, is a different matter altogether. He WILL slug it out with you from the baseline and he has a better backhand than Tsonga. But he’s not as cute at the net and that is Tsonga’s advantage. Would Tsonga figure out how to use it?
Pretty much, yeah. Djokovic was serving at 2-2 in the first set when Tsonga hit a drop shot. He followed that up with a push volley that should have been a putaway volley, but he managed to win the point by picking off a lob volley and hitting in right at Djokovic to get a break point. Djokovic hit an error on an easy forehand to lose his serve and then it was time to ask: Can Djokovic get through an entire season and stay in top form? Or, more to the point, will Andy Murray overtake Djokovic before Djokovic can overtake Roger Federer?
Djokovic is in the top four and the other three players are trucking along and he’s not. Rafael Nadal, Federer, and Murray are still alive in Paris and each of them reached the semifinals in Madrid, while Djokovic lost to Tsonga in the Bangkok final then lost early in Madrid. You could say Djokovic did better last fall when he won the title in Vienna and reached the semifinals in Madrid.
Djokovic has three sterling titles this year: the Australian Open, and the Masters Series events in Rome and Indian Wells, but Murray has a slam final, two Masters Series events, and five titles altogether – the same number Djokovic had last year. So it’s not looking good for Djokovic if Murray can stay injury free.
Tsonga held onto his break to take the first set though it wasn’t easy, and he showed his Pete Sampras jump overhead early in the second set. Athleticism is all good and well but consistency is better as Tsonga lost his serve a few points later then completely fell apart in the second set. His thigh was bothering him – he took a medical time out at the end of the second set which he lost 6-1 – but he had only to look across the net to find someone who plays well despite injury, real or imagined.
And you could say Tsonga learned that lesson too. In Djokovic’s first service game in the third set, Tsonga lunged to return a wide serve then ran down a low shot to the other corner and batted the ball past Djokovic at the net for a break point. Then he outdid that on the next point by flicking a deep Djokovic volley crosscourt for the break.
In both of Tsonga’s matches he played a few magical points in very important situations to get the win. Before we get carried away, we should remember that while Djokovic has trouble staying strong the entire year, Tsonga barely plays half the year due to his multiple injuries. But we did see some important progress this past few days and I’m thrilled about that because I’m still looking forward to seeing that magic in many more slams to come.
In no particular order, here is the first installment of notable events from the year 2007.
Bad Tennis Predictions
I went on the Sports Talk Cleveland radio show early in the year and participated in a serpentine draft for their tennis fantasy league. In a serpentine draft, whoever picks first in one round picks last in the next round. After I won the right to take the first pick in the draft and learned that I’d get the last pick in the second round, I blurted out, “Does that mean I have to take Serena?” Silly me. Serena Williams dropped in to the Australian Open and rolled into the final where she gobsmacked Sharapova 6-1, 6-2. Roger Federer won the men’s title but, then, you knew that.
Megamerger Multimedia Disease Attacks Tennis
IMG bought Tennis Week, the venerable tennis publication started by the late, great Gene Scott 32 years ago. Not such a big deal until you realize that IMG also represents Maria Sharapova and Roger Federer (and Nick Bolletieri’s tennis academy). Is this yet another nail in the coffin of independent media? There is hope I suppose. The New York Times owns part of the Boston Red Sox and they still trash the Sox regularly. But it does make you wonder if Tennis Week would get interference from the head IMG guy if they trashed Sharapova for pulling out of Toronto because she stubbed her toe.
The Interview That Wasn’t
The P.R. firm for a wine that Jim Courier endorses offered me an interview with Courier. It started off as a telephone interview, then it was demoted to an email interview, and then it turned into nothing because Courier never answered my email. And that was after I spoke to my friend Bob Blumer, star of the Food Network show Glutton for Punishment, so I could get up to speed on old world wine versus new world wine. That was also after I picked Courier to be Richard Gasquet’s new coach because I thought Gasquet needed one. Gasquet didn’t need a new coach. He made it to the year end championships just fine thank you.
Pregnancy, Cocaine, and the Comeback Mommy of the Year
Anastasia Myskina and Kim Clijsters are both pregnant. That’s a better way to leave the tour than testing positive for cocaine. I’m sure Martina Hingis might have been happier if her engagement to Radek Stepanek had ended in marriage and she was taking a pregnancy test instead of a hair test to prove that she never touched the white stuff. Lindsay Davenport gave birth in June and returned to the tour three months later. So much for retirement. She went 13-1 in her comeback and plans to play in three slams in 2008.
The Media Wars
At the same time that Sports Illustrated laid off 298 employees, it paid $20 million for fannation.com, sports information and fan blogger site. The timing of these transactions made it look like S.I. was exchanging paid writers for unpaid fan bloggers, but the reality is a bit more complex. S.I. was trying to beef up its online presence and narrow the gap between si.com and the hugely popular espn.com. S.I. even poached ESPN radio personality Dan Patrick, but that must have pissed off ESPN because they turned around and stole S.I.’s back page columnist, Rick Reilly, with an unbelievable $3 million per year offer. Hey guys, I’m available and I’d take a lot less than $3 mil.
Back to Back to Back to Back
By the time I reached Indian Wells on Sunday afternoon in early March, Guillermo Canas had already beaten Federer for his biggest win since coming off a 15 month suspension for using a banned substance. He beat Federer again two weeks later in Miami and if that wasn’t bad enough, David Nalbandian raised himself from the dead, or at least from his lethargy, and beat Federer in consecutive meetings at the last two Masters Series events of the year, Madrid and Paris. And Nalbandian had never won a Masters Series event before! Not only that, but because I didn’t pick Nalbandian for my fantasy team in Paris, I dropped out of the top 100 in the ATP Fantasy Tennis Season for the first time all year and lost my subleague title. Serves me right for not believing in the guy.
To be continued…
Please go over to the poll on the right side of the page and vote for the player who is in most need of a new coach. I skipped Female Centerfold of the Year because Ana Ivanovic was the only player nominated.
Good morning everyone. Welcome to the Paris Masters final on this beautiful Sunday morning (or afternoon as it may be). This tournament usually features the second tier of players but now that the ATP is “encouraging” the top players to turn up by promising $1.5 million dollars if they win the most Masters Series points AND play both Madrid and Paris, we have a fantastic title game: David Nalbandian and Rafael Nadal.
Nalbandian has improbably risen from the ashes by winning in Madrid – and beating Rafa along the way and Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic – after reaching only one quarterfinal this year.
What are the issues here? Can Nadal and his knees hold up for an entire tournament? Can Nalbandian hit the ball hard and fast enough to take time away from Nadal and WHO is that woman in the spacy silver outfit who looks like she was imported from Las Vegas?
Nina: First off, a quick poll. Who’ll win this match: Nalbandian or Rafa? I’ll fall behind my co-writer Pat Davis (who is here today) in the ATP fantasy tennis game if Nalbandian wins so, of course, I’m all in for Rafa.
Pat: Good morning everyone, are we living yet? God, the things I do for Nalbandian! I did not see that girl in the silver outfit, Nina, but she probably WAS imported from Vegas. The French would love to think they can compete on the Las Vegas front, no?
Nina: Didn’t Paris start it all with the Folies Bergere? Whoa, I knew Andy Roddick was thinking of opting out of Shanghai but it never occurred to me that Nalbandian could end up in Shanghai if Roddick did opt out. Bad news for Federer and his number one ranking.
Nina: Routine holds of serve so far. Rafa seems to be dialed in on his forehand and Nalbadian is serving well. Two things that both players had trouble with in their matches yesterday.
Curious to me that Nalbandian appears to be attacking Rafa’s backhand. Most players attack his forehand because it takes him so long to wind up that extreme topspin forehand stroke.
Pat: Apparently Nalbandian is the first alternate??? So if Roddick decides to pull out of Shanghai, David is in, I presume. That would be something, because if anyone deserves to be in that field, it’s him. Nalbandian earlier had an easy ball at the net and I thought for sure he would go inside out up the line with his forehand, but instead he knocked it to Nadal’s backhand and he was there and ended up winning the point. He is serving well, I like his chances so far.
Nina: Nalbandian is the first alternate if he wins today. How can someone deserve to be in Shanghai if they had only one quarterfinal going into the last three weeks of the year? To me that is not a good thing.
Pat: Nalbandian has beaten much of the field already for Shanghai, he is hot right now and playing good tennis so I’d like to see more of him. I think he could emerge there as the best player of them all, and that would be utterly fantastic. Frankly Roddick may have earned a place based on earlier play in the year, but lately he has come a cropper and I don’t expect him to have much of a good time in Shanghai. But Nalbandian will have to win today apparently.
Nalbandian 5-4 (broke Nadal’s serve)
Nina: Oooh, Rafa was luck Nalby put the ball into the net at 30-30. Nalby is able to get Rafa on the run pretty regularly now and that’ll be the main determinant in this match. Rafa was losing badly to Baghdatis yesterday until he started playing more aggressively but it’s not clear that Nalby will let him play more aggressively. Especially if Rafa hits second serves. And that’s precisely what happened, Nalby winner off a second serve and he gets the first break in the match.
Nina: Wow, Nalbandian got a second serve gift and he certainly made the most of that return! Lovely backhand up the line, he and Murray did lots of that this week off the service return. Now, can David close the deal?
Nina: He did indeed close the deal and that sharp angled slice volley duel at the net was fantastic. Nalby is doing exactly what he should be doing: attacking second serves and hitting hard flat shots to the corners. I cannot believe that this guy – who is terrible in important matches and is known to have problems closing out sets – doesn’t seem to be having problems with either of those issues. Whats the explanation for that? Can’t just be a new coach, can it?
Nina: Roddick only played in one fall tournament. His game is well-tailored to playing on indoor hard courts and it seems that he is “saving” himself for Davis Cup. Have you ever heard of anyone skipping the year end championship to play Davis Cup by the way?
Nablandian 1-0 (broke Nadal’s serve)
Nina: Whoa, I looked away for a moment and it was 0-30 on Nadal’s serve. I thought Rafa might have been alright with the slower court but apparently not. Of course, Nalby is playing perfectly. How many unforced errors does he have? Can’t be many.
Nina: By the way, readers, feel free to leave comments and we’ll put you right into the discussion.
Nalbandian 3-0 (broke Nadal’s serve)
Pat: So Nadal was up 40-0 serving, and Nalbandian fought his way back to break! That’s the knife in the heart, that one, 3-0 now. Nalbandian is just feasting on those second serve returns. I notice he is playing nearly on the baseline, Nadal is getting backed behind it.
Pat: I read that Roddick was “saving” himself for Davis Cup, I guess Pat McEnroe should be thrilled, no? If that is what he really wants, then I say he should stub his toe in Shanghai and let Nalbandian into the field. Let him have Davis Cup and Nalbandian can go to Shanghai. Fair enough?
Nina: Two breaks in a row for Nalbandian. He’s just dominating. He’s doing what everyone else does to Nadal indoors but he’s just doing that much better. I did say at the beginning of the day that I wasn’t sure Rafa can last through to the end of hard court tournaments. His body seems to break down. Particularly as Rafa has an excellent record in finals historically but is now having trouble in the later stages of hard court tournaments.
Nalbandian 5-0 (broke Nadal)
Nina: Okay, now this is ridiculous. Nalby is looking like Rafa. He retrieved an impossible shot and hit a winner off it.
Pat: Hhmmm, do you smell bagels baking somewhere? I smell bagels in the works. Utterly awesome play from Nalbandian. Roger is watching somewhere and thinking, “I don’t feel so bad now.” The serving (or lack thereof in Nadal’s case) has been the story of the match. And some absolutely wild and crazy angled shots.
Nalbandian wins the match, 6-4, 6-0
Nina: A bagel in the second set. Are you kidding me? I have to go back to my point, Rafa cannot seem to play out in hard court events. What say you Pat? Nalbandian played exceptionally well but Rafa couldn’t get his first serve in and he couldn’t get his forehand deep. Nalby, my god, here’s a guy who’d never had a Masters Series win (except for his Masters Cup win over Federer in 2005) and only had five career titles and now he has two Masters Titles in three weeks? This is absolutely awful of me to say and you can all pile on me but I have to say that I didn’t think to myself – performance enhancing drugs. Awful I know but I’ll forget about that for now and enjoy this fantastic dance performance by these very cool women and men. Why don’t they do that for every title ceremony?
Pat: Nina, we kid you not! I looked at Nadal carefully to see if he showed any signs of knee/leg problems but he seems to be moving ok. Nalbandian just rose mightily to the occasion today. It is somewhat puzzling to me that Nadal does not play better on the hard stuff, although I still find these courts not really very “hard” in the sense of that word. He plays so well on grass that I guess I expect that to translate to other fast surfaces but it doesn’t.
Pat: Do you think this loss was as thorough as Nadal’s to Nalbandian last month?
Nina: Well, if you look at Nadal’s record on hard court this year, he had trouble in Montreal and Cincinnati and left after the fourth round at the U.S. Open clearly having trouble getting around. Quarterfinals at Madrid – I don’t know if that was a worse match than this, the second set today was a dominating turn by Nalby. I’m not sure how well Rafa will be able to do on hard court the rest of his career.
Pat: Performance-enhancing drugs?? Nina, shame on you! (lol) I think we can probably safely say, without fear of contradiction, that Nalby is probably being tested RIGHT NOW as he walks off the court. Still the question would come up, given his amazing run.
Pat: So I take it you really like his chances already at the Australian Open in January? I do too. And somehow I think David will find a way into that draw in Shanghai. I am praying to my tennis gods!
Pat: Nadal’s stats were something like only 18% of points won on second serves? Positively anemic by anyone’s standards and certainly by his. And only 5 winners I think. I’ll go back and compare today’s stats with three weeks ago but this may be the worst of the two drubbings Nalbandian served up.
Nina: The announcers suggested that Nikolay Davydenko might drop out with his elbow problems but I have a hard time seeing Davydenko drop out of anything. I also cannot see the ATP letting Roddick “drop out” of Shanghai. Anyway, whatever happens, it’s been a fascinating tennis season so far and now we have what everyone has been clamoring for since Federer took over the game: a tossup in Shanghai and a real possibility that the Australian Open will be competitive for a change.
Thanks Pat, see you at the Shanghai final (what ungodly hour will that be?).
Join us for the Paris Masters final! We’ll be blogging live this Sunday, November 4th, 7:30am Los Angeles/10:30am New York/3:30pm London (remember to set your clock back one hour Saturday night if you live in the U.S.).
You can beat Rafael Nadal on fast courts but it’s not easy as Marcos Baghdatis found out in Paris today.
Rafael Nadal beat Marcos Baghdatis today in the semifinals at the Paris Masters, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3. (David Nalbandian continued his improbable indoor court success by beating Richard Gasquet, 6-2, 6-4, in the other semifinal).
In preparation for tomorrow morning’s live blogging broadcast of the Paris final – a format that is usually a chain of thoughts rather than a cohesive narrative – I’m going to lay out a chain of thoughts on today’s match between Rafa and Baggy.
How to Beat Rafa on Fast Courts
Mikhail Youzhny and Tomas Berdych can tell you exactly how to beat Rafa on a fast court: attack his forehand. People attack Rafa’s forehand because he has such a long wind up that it’s hard for him to prepare properly. On a clay court he patrols miles behind the baseline which gives him time to rev up his windmill topspin forehand. On fast courts, players like Youzhny and Berdych hit hard flat shots so the ball gets there too fast for Rafa to stay behind the baseline.
Having said that, it’s not easy to beat Rafa on a fast court.
Paris is Slow
If you look at the court speed rankings on tennisform.com, you’ll see that Paris is the fourth fastest court on tour, ten places in front of Madrid, averaged over the past ten years.
If you look at the court speed ranking for Paris on tennisinsight.com’s Tournaments page, you’ll see that Paris has slowed down over the past few years to the point where it is now slower than the court in Madrid.
Clearly the ATP has slowed the court down. I don’t know if the balls are different (the measurements above are based on the number of games played per set, not a physical measurement of the court) or they have physically slowed down the court. No doubt both. In either case, that makes it harder to beat Rafa.
Don’t underestimate the importance of speed. Rafa is 14-6 on indoor hard court for his career but only 8-8 on carpet which is usually faster. Baghdatis is the opposite: 6-6 on indoor hard court and 16-4 on carpet.
Rafa Never Wears Out
Even if you’re much better conditioned than Baggy, and most players are, you’ll get tired because Rafa runs everything down and he’s a master baseline player so he’ll run you all over the court.
This is a problem because you have to attack Rafa else he’ll control the point. That means you’ll make lots of errors going for big shots and the more tired you get, the more errors you’ll make.
Baggy got tired. He needed to win this match in two sets. At the end of the first set and beginning of the second, Baggy won eight out of nine games. He was sucking air by the fifth game in the second set and Rafe won six of the next seven games.
Baggy got a second wind at the end of the third set and the last game of the match was magnificent. Baggy had to have the break of serve to stay in the match and he was slamming the ball while Rafa was retrieving everything in sight. Baggy hit a beautiful touch volley but Rafa followed that up with a passing shot thread through the smallest of windows.
Rafa has more than a touch of something known as an obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). He has to be the last one on the court for the coin toss, he has to place his water and sports drink bottles in exactly the same place. There’s also the wedgie diving, the sock pull, and the frequent towel dry off. At one point he was sitting in his chair and inspecting his towel to make sure he didn’t lay it across his knees in the wrong configuration. Later in the game I saw him do it again.
It’s obsessive but it’s a deep part of his game and it helps him weather adversity such as Baggy’s win streak without losing psychological momentum. Lanny Bassham is a well-known expert on the mental aspects of sports. He’s an Olympic gold medalist in rifle shooting and he helps professional golfers, among other athletes. He strongly suggests that you bathe yourself in rituals like Rafa’s because it’s important to occupy the mind.
Have you ever sat down and meditated on a candle or followed your breath? Your mind will take off in a million different directions by the time you bring it back to the candle or your breath. An unoccupied mind in the middle of a tennis match will go down the road of doom given the opportunity. Your opponent wins three or four games in a row? Your mind thinks you’re the worst tennis player even to walk the earth.
I suppose there are people whose mind always moves towards the positive but I have yet to meet them. For the rest of us, if we can keep our mind occupied with ritual and rehearsal – visualizing your serve or your next return for instance – we can keep our mind from harping on our insecurities and move forward in the match.
If Baggy hadn’t gone awol for a month earlier this year – he lost in the first round in Dubai and two consecutive Masters Series events, Indian Wells and Miami – it would have been an excellent year for him. He might well have been on his way to Shanghai instead of Gasquet.
He’s been ranked as high as number eight but he’s seems unable to stay there. I won’t promise that he’ll get to Shanghai next year but I do think he’ll end up in the top ten.
Check out our myspace page and add us to your friends network!