SAP Open: The Quarterfinals

This week I’m attending the ATP event in San Jose, California, and thank God the end is in sight. Never having covered a live tennis event before, I am learning a few things. Like how to stretch yourself over a week-long event and knowing how much tennis you should be watching and how much you should be writing. It’s very easy to get swept up doing the former and neglecting the latter. Covering a two-week slam event must be a real bastard. If I ever reach that point, I will go into training for it first. Whatever training one needs. Stamina for sure.

But now we’re down to business again. This afternoon two of the quarterfinals concluded, and the results left the crowd groaning. Clearly they were for Mardy Fish, one of three Americans left so far, besides Roddick and Spadea, who play each other tonight. Fish got bombed, literally, by big-serving Ivo Karlovic of Croatia.

What can we say about Dr. Evil as he is affectionately referred to on occasion? He certainly looks like he’s 6’10” tall but his serve was surprisingly varied. Not quite the steady blasts of hugeness I was expecting. I kept turning to the radar gun to see the speed and was surprised to find he often serves closer to 130 than 140 mph. For some reason the ball flies off his racquet as if it were steadily over 140. The sound is different as it comes off his racquet. Kind of a rumble. From the jungle. Ooohhh. Scary noises! Fish consistently threw in serves close to 140, in fact he kept serve consistently with Karlovic, but his sounds lighter. Maybe we can say he’s a tenor while Ivo is a baritone. Fish was serving sharp cracks; Karlovic’s serve sounds like heavy artillery. Blake talked in his presser last night about how impossible the serve was to read because it is coming at you from a higher up angle than the other guys on tour. It gave Blake fits and today it was Fish’s turn.

Watching this match was like watching a lot of NBA games. You can hit the snooze alarm and go back to sleep until the last five minutes – or the tiebreak as we call it in tennis – because nothing of import really happens until then, sorry to say. This is the lot of the huge servers. Not many people think they have much of a game beyond their serve.

But Karlovic does. We saw a few actual rallies. I was betting we would not see too many rallies where the ball crossed the net more than three times. We got a few more than that. Dr. Evil held his own off the ground better than Marat Safin did in the following match. He can move pretty decently for a tall tall guy, and he has nice low volleys that skim the net with a firm pace. You don’t want to see this guy get into a groove on his serve, which happened here in the semi-finals, his first signs of real life on the tour after a while off due to a knee injury. His serve is getting more honed in the further he goes.

Fish had his chances. His serve held out well, that wasn’t the problem. A few key points did him in. At 5-4 in the first set he had several chances. Karlovic threw in his first double fault of the match for 0-15, then Fish dumped a good return at Ivo’s feet that he netted. But on the next point Karlovic came to net and Fish decided he wanted to try a lob. Poor shot selection there. I thought for sure he would go up the line to Karlovic’s backhand. Not many lobs get over guys this tall, and Karlovic put it away easily. Then a moment later Fish got a rare gift: a second serve out to his forehand, but he netted it. Karlovic held on to his serve, and into the tiebreak they went. Here Fish’s backhand let him down, he knocked one long and another into the net. His serve was fine, it was the ground game that let him down. Ivo grabbed the tiebreak 7-2.

In the second set a few moments early on caused Fish to give up the break. “It’s not over yet,” yelled a woman in the stands. Oh yes it is, said I to myself. Ivo kept motoring along with those powerful serves and nobody was going to make a dent in them on this day. 7-6(2), 6-4 was the final score.

Ivo Karlovic’s opponent in tomorrow’s semi-final will be a good-serving guy as opposed to a huge-serving guy, Benjamin Becker. Becker handled Marat Safin pretty handily. The crowd wanted Safin for sure, this was his first trip to the bay area and people hoped the experience was such that further trips might be forthcoming. We hope so but not a good day for the big Russian, who looks surprisingly less hunky in person than he does on TV. Nice legs, dude. Oh Pat, they ALL have nice legs, just stop, will you woman?

In the middle part of the first set you could feel Becker was going to have his way with the big Russian. Both men served well, but as far as his ground game went, it was Safin the Here One Minute Gone The Next guy who materialized. Karlovic played better from the baseline than Safin, who had too many errors to have a chance at the win. You could sense Safin was not fully focused somehow into the match, and that if Becker could hold his own halfway the match would be his.

Both men held serve until 5-4 in the first set. Serving to even the match, Safin knocked a backhand long for 15-40 on his serve setting up set points for Becker. The Russian erased one but then netted another shot and Becker had the break and the set, 6-4.

Becker had moments where he could have gone off the track, like in the first game of the second set when he threw in two double faults in a row. I like his calm, capable approach toward the game. He is learning very quickly how to step it up at the big points, decide on the right shot, and then carry it through. He was not rattled at all like he was in the previous match with countryman Bjorn Phau. His serve was seriously in danger of breaking down, and so was his normally very steady and positive attitude on the court.

Here he did everything he needed to do to hold serve, and Safin could not pick up his ground game. Becker broke him for a 3-1 lead and that was all he needed. Pretty neat win in one hour and one minute, 6-4, 6-4. It may look like a surprising win on paper, even if Becker was seeded here and Safin was not. But if you were there you could see Safin was just not quite there. Becker was going to have his day.

Because it’s the quarters now, they held post match interviews during the day events. Becker spoke very positively about his college experience at Baylor which he credits, in particular, for accentuating the importance to his career of proper intense weight training regimes. It also provided him with a very good education, and that, smiles Becker, was really what he went there for. In Europe you go to school to study, period. If you want sports you go another route. So Becker felt the American college experience would be much more appropriate for him as a person and a player.

It’s been a pleasure following his growth as a new player coming onto the scene. He comes over as a reasonable human being.

For a tennis player.

Go Beni!