Thursday, August 6, 2015

CITI OPEN: DAY 5 SUMMARY

Who the hell is Louisa Chirico?  Well, for starters she's a woman who's had two victories over top 50 players in the first two rounds of the Citi Open, and finds herself in the quarterfinal of the event.  That wouldn't be so impressive if she herself had a pedigree to speak of - she doesn't.  She's a 19-year old wild card entrant who herself is ranked 128, and has never won a tournament at the WTA tour level.  Her main claim to fame was winning the French Open wild card tournament, and proclaiming that she would have liked to play Serena Williams as a reward - a bit like winning the lottery and then looking forward to paying all the taxes and fees.  But Chirico is fearless and one gets the feeling that competing with the best players in the world brings a kind of satisfaction of vanity that is required for precocious success in tennis.  And her prospects of doing so are greatly assisted by the paucity of tactical acumen required by her style of play - if she were a man you'd say she wins based on balls and braun - a very Spanish style of play.  For a woman, I call it big babe tennis, and Chirico is definitely a big babe.  Whether she can continue today against Sloan Stephens (another big babe) in the same vain, is anybody's guess.  But the way she's playing, and the fact that Sloan Stephens does not have the most cerebral game in the world, I'd say her chances are 50/50.

Lleyton Hewitt said good-bye to the tournament he won in 2004 - honored as a former champion, never called to task for his racial outburst in 2001, and well received by the tennis audience with probably the most black people he'll see in an audience of US tennis fans, Hewitt returned to the Citi Open over and over again.  Accustomed to the hot conditions, he would have taken advantage of the quick surface that does much to facilitate the penetration of his strokes, which have always had the deceptive quality of being deep without giving his opponent much pace to speak of to work with.  This quality in the early stages of his career, before all the issues with his hip restricted his movement, allowed him to consistently pull off a kind of tennis jujitsu, where you use the power of the bigger, stronger player against himself, until he looks like a giant buffoon power lifter, tearing his own arms off as he tries to clean and jerk a new world record.  And if Hewitt weren't such a reprehensible personality when on the court, with the celebrating of his opponents errors, the confrontations with his opponents, the periodic abuse of officials, one might find more beauty in the Gilbertian quality of his tactical acumen.  As it stands, I'm less than enamored of either his coming or going.  Thanks to Feliciano Lopez, he's going.

Speaking of going, Bernard Tomic is going just as he came - shrouded in cynicism.  I watched him practice Tuesday morning, and he looked very loose and relaxed, laughing and joking with James Duckworth who had a match later (that he lost to Kei Nishikori).  I found it refreshing that after all he'd been through at Wimbledon with his Tennis Australia comments,  then in Miami Beach with his Dade County police comments, that he seemed to enjoy himself a thousand miles away from all that misery visited upon him(self).  Perhaps the purity of his time on the court was precisely the tonic needed to resolve some of the tension that must surely have built up over the last couple of difficult months.

Then I watched his match with Steve Johnson.  

Now, to say that a player isn't giving his best effort is a serious accusation, one that I myself was reluctant to sign on to.  After all, to be inside a player's mind and body is impossible, and without such an invasion, knowledge is inevitably subjugated to perception, and perception leaves us only with speculation.  But not all speculation is equally tenuous, and the case of Bernard Tomic against Steve Johnson, is hardly tenuous.  First, I noted that throughout the match, any time Tomic went down by two points on Johnson's serve, he made almost no movements at all towards the return of serve - and on the (frequent) occasion that the serve was hit within his wingspan Tomic's effort to return was as enthusiastic as it was succesful.  I note also that frequently when he had sitters from Johnson's outstretched racquet, he would hardly move his feet at all as he blew through the shot for a winner - in fact at some point he hit an overhead drop shot, such was his level of comfort, not exactly the kind of shot one would expect from an uber competitive player.

In my opinion, Tomic is the better tennis player than Steve Johnson - he uses the ball to do his bidding, whereas Johnson appears to be fighting it with every stroke. Tomic easily switches from heavy spin to short slice, to deep flat, sometimes even side-spin - Johnson hits with heavy topspin whether or not it's in his interest to do so, and frequently it isn't. Nevertheless, one other important thing Johnson always does is chase the ball - every ball - regardless of whether he had a chance to reach it.  Tomic frequently watched balls go by him from a safe distance - at first it looked like he was hoping the ball would go out, but at some point I started to get the feeling that he wanted the opposite, and commensurately to be put out of his misery.  One particular game in the third set that went to something like 7 deuces, Johnson hit winners up the line of 3 ad court second serve returns in a row.  Tomic watched each of them with a smile.  Later in the game, Johnson figured, if he was making so little effort on the second serve, why not do the same on the first.  As a matter of act, Tomic went wide in the deuce court so frequently, I started to wonder why Johnson wasn't keying on that and blowing a hole through the back fence. He almost did just that for another 2 points in a row.  And Tomic smiled at every one of them, like a kid in his driveway, oddly smiling at perfect strangers as they drive by.

There were moments in the match where Tomic tried to engage Johnson in one or two of his running jokes - at some point Johnson's attempted pass hit the tape and then jumped up into Tomic's chest.  Tomic looked over his shoulder in search of a smile or an apology - Johnson gave him neither.  Before serving the next point he gave a gallic shrug and plaintively asked, "Why mate, why?" as in, "Why did you have to do that to little old me [Mr. Beauregard]".  Johnson stared back blankly - his lack of facial expression a Nishikorian indication of his irritation.  Later in the match, Johnson hit a forehand close to the baseline that was called out, which Tomic disagreed, and softly pleaded with the umpire that he wanted to concede the point.  The umpire shook his head, insisting that the call was right. Tomic then asked to challenge the ball, which the umpire again refused (on what grounds, I don't know, but he refused nonetheless).  Not satisfied, Tomic insisted, loud enough for anyone in the stands or walking behind the court to hear, that Johnson challenge the call.  "Challenge Steve, challenge!" he said, feet spread eagle still unmoved from the end of the point, another gallic shrug, and palms pointed to the sky.  The crowd laughed at his insistence, as did the umpire, but Johnson, who had initially turned his back and ignored him, turned to face him and responded again with another blank stare.  Was he on to Tomic's ruse, or just wary of it?

I found the exchange entirely Freudian - it seemed to me Tomic really did want the call challenged, not because he thought it was out, but because (like so many who incorrectly challenged) hoped it was in - only here I think he wanted the ball to be in so that he could be one step closer to ending the match.  In fact, the very next service game Tomic burned one up the T, Johnson hit a very short reply, Tomic charged the net, feigned a drop shot, then in the style of Federer hit a slice forehand deep - the ultimate tomfoolery that makes an opponent appear to be a puppet made to humiliate himself on the end of a string.  Only Tomic promptly hit the slice forehand 6 feet out and humiliated himself - well he would have been humiliated if one assumes that he gave a shit.

It went on like this mercilessly, and towards the end of the match, in one of the longer deuce games, which conveniently persisted the illusion of effort, one had the feeling that Tomic grew irritated with Johnson that he was so profligate in all the opportunities he was giving him to finish him off.  Tomic didn't appear to have any trouble controlling points when he wanted to, and although Johnson was making all the right moves, like a rhythmless enthusiast, desperately learning the moves to a Michael Jackson video, it was all there but horrific to behold nonetheless.  Johnson is a committed professional, and will almost certainly maximize his results - he's serious and leaves no stone unturned...he just doesn't have a lot of stones.  That match took an hour longer than it should have, although he prevailed in the end.  If Tomic had tried as hard to win that match, as he tried to make it look like he was trying, the match would have been done an hour earlier as well - only the result reversed.

Speaking of a match that took longer than it should have, Grigor Dimitrov won his 2nd round encounter with Guido Pella 6-4, 6-1 7-6, 6-4.  He should have won the match in less than an hour, but his old junior nemesis from Argentina held firm in the first and broke him precisely when the Bulgarian should have mercilessly closed out the first set. In fact, down a break at 5-4, Guido Pella proceeded to break, hold and break again, and had the set in his hands.  But the South American lefty's convoluted and thoroughly concocted forehand broke down at the absolute worst times, and he wound up losing tamely in a tie-break.  The second was a repeat of the first, with Dimitrov up 5-1, with two breaks.  Then Pella held, broke and held, to bring himself within one break of equalling his feat in the first.  In his interview after the match, Dimitrov intimated he was experimenting with going for his shots, almost as if he wanted to test the limit of how precise he could be if it was necessary.  Well, it wasn't necessary, and he found out what the other side of the limit was last night, almost to his own detriment.  Fortunately for him, he's come a long way since the juniors, and he was able to reel it in when he needed to.  We'll see if he was experimenting or merely missing the mark, because I have a feeling that Johnson will not give him the gifts that Guido Pella did.  Although on the basis of his performance against Bernard Tomic, I may live to regret that assertion.  I was impressed (as I have been since I first saw him play in 2011) with his game, but unimpressed with this result for Dimitrov.  I have a feeling Johnson will also be underwhelmed, in which case Dimitrov better figure out the right side of that limit, right quick.

Speaking of right quick, boy was that a quick and terrible journey for Andy Murray, who was eliminated from both the doubles and singles in the first round from the home tournament of his clothing sponsor, Under Armour.  A bit like Lewis Hamilton going out of the race on the first lap of the German Grand Prix...if there were a German Grand Prix this year (but I digress).  I have to say, Murray made an effort of it - he just came up against that terrible condition that all the top players fear.  A guy who has a lot of tools in his kit, but is consistently inconsistent, just happens to put together the entirety of his arsenal...just for you.  Gabashvili was hitting first serves consistently at or just below the 130 mark, which is unusual for him.  Combined with a mammoth forehand, and a backhand that easily switched from cross-court to up the line, he presented the kind of problems that are normally reserved for only the best opponents Murray will face.  

After going down an early break in the first, Murray found his way back to 4-4, then proceed to get broken for the set after some profligate serving and unforced errors trying to do the exact opposite of what got him back in the set.  Namely, rather than daring the Georgian to see who would outlast whom in the cross court rallies, he attempted twice to change direction on the backhand up the line, which he's normally good at, but not off of the depth of Gabashvili's offerings last night.  In the second, Murray settled down and did what he does best, hit harder and deeper to the same spots until he elicits a soft reply.  In the ultimate game, Gabashvili was still the aggressor, and looked like he was getting exactly what he wanted down set point with long points shortened by his power up the line, eliciting a high defensive lob.  Now I happened to watch Gabashvili practice overheads for about 15 minutes in his pre-match hit with Vasek Pospisil.  So he would have been beside himself when he dumped his overhead 3 feet wide of the ad court sideline - he was, because before the score was called he had slammed his racquet in to the ground in disgust.

The third set was tense and the quality of tennis high.  Although Gabashvili was resolute despite a calf-injury that appeared to be tempered by adrenaline, Murray was in control and served for it at 5-4.  But after a couple of uncharacteristic (even for this match) unforced errors, Murray sent a backhand long and they traded holds until the tie-break.  Murray went up 4-3, but wouldn't win another point after that.  He again reminded anyone who would listen that it was his first hard court tournament since March, but that doesn't explain the loss, which was the result of Gabashvili playing exceptionally well for an exceptionally long time. Murray, who was his usual steady self, never really raised the level of his game, and it cost him the match.  Here in DC, where only his reputation is at stake (and an extra 500 points is nothing to shake a stick at) it will be seen as an anomaly, but I found his entire stay here in DC to be subdued, from his interviews to his training sessions to his matches.  In my mind I always found an excuse, it was hot in the presser, it was hot on court, it was a doubles match, and finally he hadn't played on hard courts since March...

Time will tell, but I have a feeling that Murray is displeased with something in his camp that hasn't come out yet.  Frequently in the match, he looked over at his camp, and his answer to my question about using hawkeye data in practice in Miami this year, leads me to believe that something is amiss, of which his disappointing performance is a symptom.  If it isn't resolved, like most immune responses, left untreated, will eventually kill his him - or at least his chances at the US Open.
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