The attention of the tennis world will certainly be on Dubai this week. With so many top 10 players in this tournament, Andy Murray (ranked 11th) couldn’t get so much as a seed, and as such had to win his first match against none other than world champion Roger Federer. But I have to say I watched a wonderful little event in Acapulco, Mexico on ESPN Deportes this week and discovered a player who has really impressed me with his game.
You may have heard of Nicolas Almagro, one of many Spanish players playing second fiddle to Rafael Nadal, but if you haven’t seen him play (and it's likely that you haven't), and you get a chance, particularly during the clay-court season, I would recommend you tune in.
Almagro is a swashbuckler – no doubt about it. That racquet looks more like a sword in his hand, and even on clay he’s not afraid to unload off of both sides – and boy can he ever unload. Add to this a curiosity amongst Spanish players – a killer serve – and suddenly you’ve got a player who, if he can perform consistently, clearly has the game to do well on larger stages.
In his titanic semi-final encounter with Chu-Cho Acasuso of Argentina, Almagro so entertained the Mexican crowd that they honored him with one of the rarest displays of collective public affection in sports. As he stood in the center of the court, sending kisses to his contingent of supporters, Almagro was showered with seat cushions thrown onto the court. It's an interesting cross between honoring an undersized winner in sumo wrestling, and exalting a matador in bullfighting. I suppose there's a little bit of both in Almagro.
I’m sure his opponents are not impressed with some of his histrionics – two years ago, in a match he won against Marat Safin in Valencia, although Safin had spent many of his formative years in that very region of Spain, it was the man from Murcia who garnered the crowd’s affection with a dazzling display of shot-making, defense, and pure guile. In response, Safin walked off the court and actively refused to shake hands with the victor who had spent more than a generous amount of time after match point gesticulating while laying supine on the rust colored surface.
One of the most appealing aspects of his game is his backhand. For an average sized player technique is his savior, and the consistency and power he generates off his single-handed reverse is impressive. Typically he runs around it to finish off points, and his forehand is definitely his better side - but if it's a weakness, we should all be so lucky to have one like his. There will be more than one opponent who will wonder just how he managed to smoke so many shots up the line, while also finding magically acute angles on his cross court offerings on the same side.
Ultimately, in the final against Nalbandian, the telling factor was his serve. It got him out of trouble on more than one occasion, and in the first set put so much pressure on Nalbandian to produce on the second serve return, that the Armenian-Argentine often over-hit and gifted Almagro points that he really needed to win. Compact and cultured by overwhelming spin, Almagro shows us that there is no substitute for form and follow through on all strokes including the serve. At the end of the day, most of the motion prior to the point of contact is ironically a waste, whereas the strike zone and the follow through seem to fuel his mammoth stroke production.
We’re still about 3 months away from the French Open, and Almagro has disappointed at Roland Garros in the past. After playing well in the 2006 European clay court season, he lost in the first round in Paris. There’s a distinct possibility, as is always the case in tennis, that his performance in Mexico, on top of his win in Brazil two weeks earlier, will put pressure on him that his emotive and loose limbed game cannot bear. For players who rely more on touch, feel and technique than brute force, the mental approach to the game is paramount to their success in a way that makes high expectations their kryptonite.
However there is a possibility that at age 22 – around about the age that both Federer and Sampras emerged from two years of faltering under the weight of expectation – this could be his time. In the blogosphere you often hear complaints that tennis has become too predictable and boring. I have never been one to hold it against a player because he is dominant – it’s not his responsibility to make it easier for his opponents to beat him – but I have always found it curious of Federer’s detractors (who are almost as often Nadal’s fanatics) that the dominance they deride when displayed by Federer on most surfaces is somehow more appreciated when displayed by Nadal on clay. You would think that if boredom with the game is the source of their crusade against Federer they’d be equally antagonistic towards Nadal (and his opponents, for that matter) on clay. Typically they are not.
Here, we just may have someone with the game and the attitude to do in Paris what Djokovic did in Melbourne – show the tennis world (especially Federer's detractors) that the beauty of tennis is that on any given day, anyone can beat anyone. In doing so, Djokovic should have reminded them of just how good Federer has been over the last 3-4 years, in avoiding defeat so often. If Almagro can do the unthinkable and win on clay in Paris, perhaps they'll appreciate Nadal’s dominance on that surface, as lustily as they laud the end of Federer’s dominance on every other.