When Vliegen concentrated on aggressive tennis instead of trying to hit drop shots, he controlled the match, so you have to give the edge to Vliegen’s game rather than Blake’s malaise.


I couldn’t get out of bed this morning because I’ve been ill and by the time I looked at the matches in the second round in Madrid, I thought maybe the illness had gone to my brain. The scores looked upside down. Andy Murray over Ivan Ljubicic? Kristof Vliegen over James Blake? Robbie Ginepri over Mario Ancic? Was I dreaming? Rafael Nadal beat Mardy Fish easily so it looked like everything was alright but then I saw that Joachim Johansson beat Nikolay Davydenko. Wha’ happened?

When I pick the draws for each week’s tournaments, I usually look at the head-to-head record for each match but apparently I skipped the head-to-head record for Vliegen and Blake. Turns out that Vliegen beat Blake in the first round at Memphis this year. Vliegen looks like a young kid who hasn’t quite grown into his body. He’s all arms and legs and those legs look even longer underneath his unfashionably short pants. But he’s a well-rounded player – he’s reached semifinals on four different surfaces this year – and he beat Dmitry Tursunov in the first round easily, 6-3, 6-1.

Vliegen broke Blake in the first game of the match and that was enough to win the first set. Blake looked befuddled, he had trouble with Vliegen’s serve and couldn’t find any rhythm on his ground strokes. Was it Vliegen’s game or has Blake been running around the world a bit too much lately trying to win a spot in the final eight at the year-end tournament in Shanghai?

Vliegen fooled around in the second set. He hit a backhand slice four straight times during his second service game and hit other balls out allowing Blake to break him and take the second set.

Blake broke Vliegen twice in the third set as Vliegen kept hitting drop shots into the net. After the third or fourth drop shot you’d think he would have realized they weren’t working. Not only that but why was he trying drop shots against one of the fastest guys on the tour? Vliegen may not have been smart but he was lucky. Blake missed enough serves to give one of the breaks back and Vliegen earned the second break by hitting a bunch of winners as Blake served for the match at 6-5. In the tiebreaker, Vliegen continued to hit winners won the match, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(5).

Blake took a week and a half off after the U.S. Open and another week off after Bangkok. When Vliegen concentrated on aggressive tennis instead of trying to hit drop shots, he controlled the match, so you have to give the edge to Vliegen’s game rather than Blake’s malaise.

To put it another way, a 150 mph serve by Andy Roddick drops down to about 55 mph by the time it reaches his opponent on this court.

Ljubicic should have reached the final here for the second year in a row because he thrives on faster indoor courts and, besides, I picked him to get to the final. But the court here is not that fast which brings up the question, how do you measure court speed? The Tennis Channel measured one of Vliegen’s serve at 187 kmh (116 mph) as the ball left his racket. By the time the ball hit the Madrid court, the speed had slowed down to 140 kmh (89 mph). As the ball bounced up off the court, the speed was 103 kmh (64 mph) and, finally, it dipped to 70 kmh (43 mph) as it reached his opponent.

To put it another way, a 150 mph serve by Andy Roddick drops down to about 55 mph by the time it reaches his opponent on this court. 55mph may be a lot slower than 150 mph but it’s still highway speed. A clay court slows the ball down around 6% more so Roddick’s serve would reach his opponent at about 45 mph at Roland Garros. That’s ten miles per hour slower and a big reason Roddick has never made it past the third round at the French Open.

Ljubicic’s opponent, Murray, is often described as having a non-descript game. People say things such as, “He doesn’t do anything special, he just wins.” He does do something special. After Roger Federer and Nikolay Davydenko, he’s the best returner on the tour. Ljubicic knew he had to serve well and it pressured him into serving seven double faults.

Murray’s other big asset is court strategy. Unlike Vliegen, Murray uses the drop shot effectively. And Ljubicic’s serve may be fast but his feet certainly are not.

Murray used a drop shot and his ground strokes to break Ljubicic at 4-4 in the first set then served out for a one set lead.

But Murray can also be lazy. He hit an unsuccessful drop shot to give Ljubicic a break point in the first service game in the second set then, a few points later, hit another drop shot easily within Ljubicic’s reach and lost his serve. Murray could be using the drop shot to bring his opponent to the net and he could be using it when he sees that his opponent is far behind the baseline, but most of the time he’s using it to finish the point as early as possible. Another good reason for his coach Brad Gilbert to focus on improving Murray’s conditioning in the very near future.

After the match Murray said: “Against some guys it is really difficult to work at the tactics. But against Ljubicic, it’s not that difficult. You just try and hold on to your own serve and try and get his serve back and see what happens.” What happened is that Ljubicic had 44 unforced errors, 21 from his backhand and that’s usually his better side.

Players are complaining that the ball is sailing in the high altitude in Madrid and that might have something to do with the upsets early in the tournament. It takes a few matches to adjust to different conditions and this time of the year conditions change quickly. A player could go from Tokyo to Moscow to Madrid on consecutive weeks. Tokyo is warm, Moscow is cold, and Madrid has thin air.

Anyone who thinks this is a cushy job should try it some time.

See also:
2006 Madrid First Round: Don’t Jump
2006 ATP Fantasy Tennis: Madrid Masters

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