Tonight we are in Montreal at Uniprix Stadium for the first round of the Rogers Masters Cup. It’s a weekday evening, the place is rocking and there are 11, 000 people packed in here. Good stuff for tennis in North America.
This is the fourth men’s tournament in the US Open Series leading, naturally, to the US Open. The clay court players have finally arrived. Rafael Nadal will take on his fellow Majorcan Carlos Moya later in this round. French Open finalist Mariano Puerta is here along with Guillermo Coria and Gaston Gaudio. Roger Federer is still resting a foot injury.
We are going to watch Andy Roddick play Paul-Henri Mathieu of France. Roddick has been in the finals of this event for the last two years and won it in 2003 – when Brad Gilbert was still his coach. The courtside announcer tonight, Brad Gilbert, who should still be his coach, points out that the court is very fast. Strangely, given the supersonic speed of Roddick’s serve, Gilbert says that Roddick is not that comfortable on very fast courts because it’s harder for him to get to ground strokes.
I was never one of those people who thought that Tiger Woods should return to Butch Harmon. He left him for a good reason. If he didn’t smooth out his golf swing, he was concerned that he would re-injure his knee. Woods thinks big, he wants to break Nicklaus’ record of eighteen grand slams, and he can’t do that if he isn’t set up to play for the next twenty years.
Roddick seems to have two goals. One is to win a lot of majors. The other is to increase the popularity of tennis in the United States. Getting to the number one ranking and staying there is a good way to increase the popularity of tennis. Trying to be the number one ranked player and the P.R. department for U.S. tennis, that’s too much. Evidently Gilbert and Roddick’s father Jerry clashed over Roddick’s schedule. Gilbert felt that Roddick’s outside commitments interfered with his goal of getting to number one. I’d have to go with Gilbert on this one.
Roddick and Mathieu have never played before though they do have history. Mathieu was the number one ranked junior when both players were sixteen years old. Mathieu is ranked number 67 after missing much of last year with an injured wrist. I’m beginning think that wrist surgery is the provenance of two-handed backhanders. Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi and Kim Clijsters all had wrist surgery. Do players with one-handed backhands ever need wrist surgery? If you can send me an example, I’ll give you a free subscription to the American Journal of Sports Medicine.
Gilbert felt that Roddick’s outside commitments interfered with his goal of getting to number one. I’d have to go with Gilbert on this one.
Roddick and Mathieu trade breaks in the first two games and stay on serve until Roddick serves at 5-6. There are two surprising things about this. The first is that Mathieu has fifteen winners to Roddick’s five. The second is that Mathieu has five aces to Roddicks’s two. Roddick may be tired from his title run at last week’s tournament in Washington, his conditioning has been suspect at times. And what about those outside commitments? But Mathieu is also helping himself by looking like Andre Agassi on service return, he’s getting them all back.
Roddick plays points loosely and loses the game and first set 5-7. Not only that, but in his first service game in the second set, he does it again. He doubles faults on break point to go down 0-2. Amazingly, Mathieu wins the next game with four straight aces! Who is this guy?
Normally the pressure of Roddick’s serve would push a much lower ranked player into errors. They know they have to win their service game because Roddick certainly won’t lose his. But that pressure is gone tonight and Mathieu keeps serving up aces and winners. Roddick gets two break points to get back on serve but he hits an error on the first one and Mathieu hits a 126mph service winner on the second. That’s the last chance Roddick gets.
Mathieu punctuates his dominance this evening with a top ten highlight in the sixth game. After Roddick returns and approaches, Mathieu hits a forehand down the line that Roddick barely gets over the net. Mathieu rushes in to get the short shot and hits it past Roddick’s backhand but Roddick manages to lunge at the ball and put up a lob volley. Mathieu turns his back and runs as fast as he can to the baseline, spins around and hits an inside out forehand that races past Roddick at the net.
This is one of the reasons that Mathieu has been inconsistent on the tour. He just went for a winner when he was in a totally defensive position. He’s up a set and a break, he doesn’t need to do that. Mathieu holds onto the break and wins the match, 7-5, 6-3.
Mathieu has just hit fourteen aces with 56% of his first serves in and won 82% of the points on his first serve. Is this an aberration or is this the start of Mathieu’s climb up the rankings? I looked at the statistics for the matches he won at Indian Wells and Miami, both hard court Masters events, earlier this year. He averaged six aces, 47% first serve percentage and won 74% of the points on his first serve. Mathieu is still alive after the third round at Montreal. Even if you take away the match with Roddick, he is averaging nine aces, 51% first serves in and 81% first service points won.
Mathieu has a new coach, Thierry Tulasne, as of three weeks ago. Monsieur Mathieu has not granted me an interview so I don’t know exactly what he’s done but it looks like his coach has encouraged him to take something off his first serve and move it around more.
By the way, at Indian Wells he was knocked out by Lleyton Hewitt, at Miami he lost to Agassi, at Monte Carlo it was Guillermo Coria, and in Estoril Moya beat him. No shame in that. Mathieu doesn’t look like a top ten player yet but this win doesn’t look like an aberration either.