Sometimes watching tennis is a gamble. It’s only two players, and you never know whether both will be playing well, one will be killing the other or whether, as happens all too often, neither is playing well and the match is painful to watch. The reason that I keep coming back for more is that from time to time you watch a truly great match, or a truly unique one. A few favorites from the last year or so:
* Blake and Agassi at the US Open: Agassi dropped the first two sets and then surprised everyone by making a late rally. in the 3rd and 4th sets Agassi was swinging as well as he ever had, and Blake was coming right back at him. Agassi then clawed his way in the fifth set and won the match. This was a match with a lot of stories built into it, with Blake coming back from a neck injury and Agassi still playing at age 35. Agassi went on to play Federer in the finals. Another Blake match that was excellent was his four set upset over Nadal. Blake refused to be thrown by Nadal’s heavy balls and his tendency to get his racket on everything, and just kept dictating play with the forehand.
* Fabrice Santoro vs. Federer: The outcome of this one was never in doubt: Federer won easily in three. What this match did was to show how much potential tennis has as entertainment. It was obvious that the players respected one another, having played doubles together earlier in their careers, and Santoro seemed to be make out of rubber. He hit a winner between his legs running backwards, a winner wrapping his arm around his back, and a winner running backwards hit over the top of his head. Certainly, it was a novelty, but fun to watch.
* Any match where Federer is playing at the top of his game, the way he moves the ball around gets to seem supernatural. And of course, Safin’s defeat of Federer.
For every match like those I mentioned above, though, it seems like there is a match that is just as notably bad; matches where one or both of the players isn’t playing or doesn’t care, or where the emotions of the match take precedence over the play. Just about every match that Serena Williams plays is an example of the latter. I’m sick of seeing her screaming and yelling and moaning and crying. I’m not a big fan of the trend in women’s tennis towards a primal scream every time you hit the ball. (The S. Williams v. Sharapova match was embarassing in that respect) And then there are people like Marat Safin who play amazing, who really should be contending with Federer (See the GQ profile for more on that score), but don’t because of mental blocks. The lack of any Americans that are real contenders for slams has also caused some Americans to stop watching, but I think that’s silly; talent is talent.
The Masters Cup event was kind of a mixed bag. There were pull-outs galore: Roddick, Safin, and Hewitt were already injured, and Agassi and Nadal both pulled out shortly before the tournament. The organizers, who had payed for a beautiful stadium to house the event, were understandably upset.
“We feel like we bought a Mercedes-Benz only to find 60 per cent of the auto parts are no longer the original ones we paid for,” said Wang Liqun, one of the organizers. (From The Star.)
Of the four semi-finalists, only Federer originally qualified for the tournament; Nalbandian, Davydenko, and Gaudio were all alternates.
Nalbandian beat Davydenko 6-0 in the first set, and in the second Davydenko rallied to force a tie-breaker. Federer played exceptionally well, and Gaudio played exceptionally poorly, leading to the first double bagel 6-0, 6-0 defeat at the Masters Cup.
In the final, I had no expectation other than that Federer would waltz to victory, but that wasn’t what was happening. When I turned the TV on they were on serve, and Nalbandian and both players had two breaks. Federer won the first two sets in tie-breaks.
I’d seen this all before: no one beats Federer from two sets up. You might stay with him for a while, but sooner or later he’ll break you. But Nalbandian wasn’t going away.
In the third set, Nalbandian quickly went out to a two break lead, and Federer was barely moving at all. His ankle injury was acting up. Federer called for the trainer.
In the fourth, Nalbandian won 6-1, and Federer seemed more agitated than I’d ever seen him, actually expressing anger toward his opponent.
It was obvious that Federer was injured and wasn’t playing his best, but in the fifth set he proved that he’s got a lot of fight. After losing the first four games and scoring only five points, he broke Nalbandian three times in a row. Nalbandian broke back to force a tie-break. Federer lost it, and Nalbandian, the fourth alternate to enter the tournament, had won the Masters Cup.
I wondered what made Nalbandian immune to the intimidation that usually aids Federer in big matches, and then decided that it must be their previous history. Nalbandian is one of the few players that has a winning record against Federer. Nalbandian beat him five times in a row, before losing four, including a match earlier in the Masters Cup tournament. The bottom line is that Nalbandian was in a better place physically and mentally, and so he won.