Fabrice Santoro and bumpy tennis courts

Today we traveled from the south of Kerala, India, to the center of Kerala near a town called Allepey. The drive should have taken two hours but it actually took three and a half. People in India don’t like to say no. They either shake their head from side to side or they tell you something whether it happens to be true or not. I figured this out because our taxi driver was lost and went from person to person to find the correct directions. I wondered why he kept asking everyone and it turns out he didn’t trust the answers he was getting.

We arrived at the our beachside eco-resort hotel in the late afternoon and walked up to the reception desk. A woman smudged a bindi on our third eye and gave us a coconut to drink with a straw. The staff apologized and said that the orginal room we reserved was not available. “Would it be alright if we upgraded you to a pool villa?”, they asked. “Great,” I thought, “a room next to the pool.” Not quite. The rooom has its own pool. And a banana tree patch in the middle of the bathroom. We smiled sheepishly and said, “Yes, I think this will do.” We are paying about $110 a night each.

Went I went back to the reception area, I was over the moon to see that there were two, yes two, I cannot believe it!, two clay tennis courts. I asked the reception staff if there was anyone I could play tennis with and they said that I should speak to Mark.

Mark met me on the court at 6:30pm. It turns out that he is the tai chi and meditation teacher. When he looked at the court and said, in his Liverpudlian accent, “What are all these lines then?”, I knew we were in trouble. I explained the service line and the doubles line, gave him a tennis lesson – which I am not qualified to do – and we had a good time. The court was as bumpy as the roads here and it was most torn up at the baseline so we stayed in the service area and played “short” tennis.

Playing on a bumpy clay tennis court must be similar to playing Fabrice Santoro. You never know quite where the ball is coming from, what kind of spin it might have or what speed it will arrive at. As much as I hate playing junksters – those annoying tennis players who favor winning over technique and their game looks like it – how much do I appreciate Fabrice Santoro? Let me count the ways.

1. Even though he has a two-handed backhand and a two-handed forehand that is particularly weak when he is stretched wide, and a two-handed volley, he serves and volleys at will and approaches the net off returns more than any other player in the game.

2. He rivals the nastiest junkball pitcher in Major League Baseball. The ball will come at you quickly on one serve and so slowly the next that you swing too early and almost strikeout. Serving at 4-5 today against David Nalbandian in the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, he hit a first serve at 120 mph and the next first serve at 80 mph.

3. His timing is good. In the era of power baseliners, his slice forehand keeps the rhythm baseliners out of rhythm and gives the power hitters nothing to hit.

4. He’s an aggressive player in junkster’s clothing. Most junksters hug the baseline and get everything back. Santoro probes, approaches, hits an ace or two and constantly applies pressure.

5. At the age of 33, he is the oldest player in the draw. This is his 14th year at the Aussie Open and he’s made it to the quarterfinals.

Today, unfortunately, it was not quite enough.

After a number of typical Santoro points, a drop shot followed by a lob that forced Nalbandian to hit the ball between his legs followed by a Santoro volley winner, or a lob followed by two stretch volleys off Nalbandian passing shots, Nalbandian was frustrated. He couldn’t get any rhythm and he couldn’t control the points because Santoro was taking the intiative. It was nothing particularly new, Santoro had beaten him two out of their three meetings.

That worked until the end of the first set but Santoro had a problem. He was winning only 20% of his second serve points so he had to get more first serves in. To do that he had to take something off the first serve and that took away his changeup and allowed Nalbandian to hit passing shots or low returns to the body when Santoro served and volleyed. Now that Nalbandian had more control, he was able to set up the shot wide to Santoro’s forehand which produces a two-handed forehand slice, a very innefective shot.

After Nalbandian got the upper hand, it was all over. Nalbandian hit passing shot after passing shot and Santoro had no answer. He lost the last two sets 6-0, 6-0.

Another all-court player is down and we are left with more of the stolid, baseline hugging players of today. There is some hope. Federer expects to approach the net more when he starts to lose a step – nice of him to plan for the future – and Roberta Vinci has an aggressive all court game without yet having the experience to know how to use it effectively. Otherwise we can expect players like David Nalbandian and Dominik Hrbaty to hit corner to corner for four or five sets.

Enjoy Santoro while you can.