Friday, August 7, 2015

CITI OPEN: KING KEI vs GOLIATH...THE GIANT (KILLING GIANT) IS SLAIN

King Kei slew the Australian Goliath today, in the first quarterfinal of the Citi Open at Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC.  The match pitted one of the best biggest serves in the game, against one of the best returns in the game.  And like the key in most matches on grass, where the serve is universally assumed to be the deciding factor, it was the player (ostensibly) bringing the least to the table in this regard, that prevailed.

Finding himself in a spot of trouble in his third service game of the first set, with an outstanding backhand return winner up the line from Nishikori, Groth bore down and served an ace.  Then in a neutral rally in the next point, after getting pushed wide, Groth hit his best backhand of the match: a crosscourt backhand winner that left Nishikori flailing.  To win the game at 40-15, he hit a comfortable 117mph wide serve in the deuce court, before finishing the point with an inside out forehand volley off of a heavy cross court return from Nishikori.  After winning both of his first service games without a hint of his improved overall game, Groth sent a message to Nishikori that, even without an ace from him, it wasn't going to all the rising sun warrior's way.

Standing 6 inches shorter than his gargantuan opponent, it was impressive to me the way Nishikori's technique on nearly every shot was, not only superior to Groth's in its production, but in effect.  Whereas Groth may have had the liberty of biding his time against his previous three opponents, before bludgeoning his way to net, that was not the case today.  The irony of that condition is that, in many ways, the fewer decisions Groth has to make in the point, the better he does, and would it were not for the significant gap in quality between the two, the directive to shorten the points as quickly as possible, may have served the behemoth better than it in fact did.

In his fourth service game, after two solid returns, and three errors from Groth, he hit two aces, then off of a second serve, Nishikori chubbed the return, which Groth handled with an inside out forehand volley, eliciting an error.  A few points, and some beautiful first volleys later, Groth faced a fifth break point in the proverbial 7th game, and after double-faulting in the deuce court, Nishikori promptly jumped on the opportunity with an outstanding return off a poorly placed first serve up the T, and eventually ran away with the set.

There are always questions about the extent to which a player with an enormous serve can benefit from it in the modern game, because the string and racquet technology frequently allow the returner, if they are sufficiently gifted in hand eye coordination, to put the ball back at the server's feet before he's reached his optimal court position to defend the net.  Today, as soon as Nishikori got a beat on Groth's first serve, anything less than a perfectly placed bomb was returned with interest, and Groth was ironically unable to handle the pace of his own serve.  Despite being up 0-30 in the game following his break, Groth was unable to get to net quickly enough, either in the rally, off of his approach shots, or off of his serve, to do what he does best - devour the net with his broad wing span, and massive upper body and lower body strength.  Again and again, the quickest hands in tennis were a blur as he burnished a trail of felt whizzing by Groth's ear whenever he got a good look at a pass.

Along the way, Groth amazed us with several 145+ serves up the T, as well as the slider in the ad court that, if his opponent wants to hit it he'll have to make a trip into the deuce court to find it.  Groth actually hit a serve 145mph out wide in the ad court, meaning it was in all likelihood 10mph faster up the T.  But generally speaking the match, and it's result, never really appeared to be anywhere but on the strings of the #2 seed.  Had Groth been able to consult with his coach, he most likely would have counseled him to stop hitting inaccurate flat serves in either court, and concentrate on creating as much movement after the bounce on his serve as possible, with any combination of topspin and slice that he could muster.  The fact that Nishikori was more effective on his serve doing just that, makes one  wonder how the biggest serve in tennis would fare at 25% less it's top speed, but 25% more spin.  It would also have the added benefit of giving him more time to close the net.  As it were he had neither, and it cost him a chance at the biggest win of his career and a chance to enter the top 50 for the first time.

For that he'll have to qualify for Montreal - either way, Nishikori won't have that problem.

The second set started in a similar vein, with Groth feeling the pressure of Nishikori's return, by now consistently more effective than in the first, being forced into a number of highly pressured second serves.  Early on he was up to the task, holding his serve in the first game after several deuces, but as the match wore on, it felt like a matter of time before the result proceeded to its most natural conclusion.  It wasn't until the 5th game of the set (Groth's third service game of the set) that Nishikori actually bothered to hit a lob - the first a topspin offering off the backhand that won him the first point, and a forehand defensive lob, that had enough height to clear row Z, which elongated the point and forced Groth into a tentative half court groundstroke that Nishikori desperately chased down and dropped 12 inches from the Groth's side of the net.  Groth should have handled it easily, but the wind got a hold of it, pushed the ball within 6 inches of the on court camera, and disrupted him sufficiently to send the ball long into the open court.

It was at that moment that the match was won, because despite being up one more break point in the set, Groth never really looked like he was in with a chance to break Nishikori - ironic given the disparity in their serves, but fairly obvious given the equally patent disparity in their returns.

It turns out that was the most important, and deciding factor in the match, as it always is in men's tennis.
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