I have a small monitor on my desk and I sometimes tune it to a tennis match without the audio while I answer my email, do my bills and whatever else it is I do when I’m not writing this thing. Yesterday I watched Guillermo Coria go down 1-6, 1-5 in his second round match with Paul-Henri Mathieu then turned the monitor off. I figured it was all over. That was a big mistake.
Yes, it’s time for the clay court season. Not the U.S. Clay Court Championships in Houston where a bunch of Americans turn out and ease their way into the clay. This is the start of the French Open run with the Masters Series event in Monte Carlo and all of the big clay courters are here. My fantasy team is full of Spanish and South American players though I can’t say I have this fantasy thing down yet. Most of my players met each other in the second round and knocked each other out. Duh.
Nadal and Federer are through to the third round. They both started slowly and are gathering steam. Robin Soderling beat Potito (insert obvious nickname here) Starace in front of the few fans left after a rain delay. Starace is Italian and most of those fans were too. In addition to cheering for Starace, which you’d expect, they enjoyed applauding Soderling’s errors. Sometimes I’m embarrassed that my parents are Italian.
Coria is in a tough place. He’s in a psychological battle with his serve.
Coria came up with a masterful dropper in the first game of the match and brought his arm up in a pose that was halfway between a fist pump and a biceps flex. He needs to get pumped up. He’s been struggling lately. He’s had injuries that have bothered him to the point where he doesn’t trust his serve any more. It’s not likely that he’ll get to the final of this tournament for a fourth straight year. Mathieu has been inconsistent. He made it to the semifinals of the Masters Series Montreal last year but he lost in the first round of five tournaments this year.
Coria broke Mathieu in that first game then promptly served a double fault on his very first serve. Not a good start. Mathieu immediately got the break back.
In the fourth game, Coria swung at a Mathieu lob and completely missed then ran back and still managed to get the ball over the net. On the next shot, he tracked down a Mathieu drop shot and hit a winner. He’s a quick bugger. He had two double faults, though, and even when he did get the first serve in, Mathieu was down his throat waiting for that softie serve. It’s never just the first serve either. Coria won only one point on his eleven second serves and Mathieu took the first set, 6-1.
It’s sad to see Coria the feisty warrior reduced to using the drop shot as his main weapon. Coria is in a tough place. He’s in a psychological battle with his serve. In the first game of the second set he started with a double fault and ended up hitting five more in the same game for a total of six – isn’t that a record?
When I lived in Boston, I used to hang out at the Bull and Finch bar – exterior shots for the TV show Cheers were shot there – with my friend Gary who was a crack darts players. At some point he developed a hitch in his delivery and couldn’t release the dart without jerking his arm. It didn’t help that he was in the early stages of alcoholism but once that kind of thing starts, it’s very hard to reverse. Chuck Knoblauch, a Gold Glove, second baseman, lost the ability to make accurate throws to first base. The problem never went away and he was moved to left field.
Coria might want to call up Alex Rodriguez’s sports performance consultant, Jim Fannin, or one of the two psychologists A-Rod employed at the same time. It couldn’t hurt.
The third set resulted in a strange case of roll switching. Mathieu started channeling Coria.
In the third game of the second set, Coria hits two more double faults and it got so bad that the crowd started to encourage him. Mathieu got ahead 5-1 which is where I initially turned the match off.
Coria won his serve easily to get to 2-5 then Mathieu served for the match. Coria decided to go down swinging. He hit a deep return down the line then came to the net and won the point with an overhead to get break point. Mathieu then hit the ball long and Coria was at 3-5. Did I say that Mathieu was inconsistent?
Coria, of course, started the next match with another double fault. Mathieu got two match points in the game but couldn’t put it away as Coria was hitting those deep looping groundies and starting to look like his old self. Coria was now at 4-5. Could it be?
Mathieu continued to play aggressively but he must have been thinking, “I can’t lose to a guy who hit six double faults in one game, can I?”because he started hitting his approach shots just over the line. Still, he managed to break Coria and get to 6-5 and his third opportunity to serve for the match, but those doubting thoughts just kept coming. Mathieu hit the ball long and his serve short and Coria had made it all the way back from 1-5 to 6-6 and a tiebreaker. It wasn’t looking good for the Frenchman.
Mathieu got to 5-4 in the tiebreaker on another Coria double fault, I’ve lost track of how many there were by now, and Coria hit a return error to give Mathieu his third and fourth match points. Mathieu threw away the first and had bad luck as Coria hit a net chord on the second. Two straight Mathieu backhands into the net and Coria, improbably, had evened the match at one set all.
The third set resulted in a strange case of roll switching. Mathieu started channeling Coria. He hit a so-so drop shot on break point in the fourth game that gave Coria a 3-2 lead then faked another drop shot while losing his serve to go down 2-5. He also gave up on the approach shot. Playing the baseline against Coria is not a good idea.
In the next game, Mathieu hit another drop shot – wasn’t he listening to me? – before he finally remembered who he was and started slamming the ball. He fought off seven Coria match points in the last three games. But it was too late. He’d hiccuped just enough for Coria to believe that he could win the match. Which he did, 1-6, 7-6(6), 6-4.
It’s probably a worse loss for Mathieu than it is a great win for Coria. Coria’s serving problems aren’t likely to go away after one good come-from-behind victory and his psyche is probably stronger than Mathieu’s.
Mathieu does have two ATP titles but they were both four years ago. He must wonder what he needs to do to get himself on track. Maybe he’s the one who needs a psychologist.