Sunday, July 24, 2016

2016 CITI OPEN FINAL: THE AIR UP THERE

Let's be honest - that started out the worst final I've ever seen.  Not just at the Citi Open, mind you.  Even Newport had some agonizing misses, friendly/ruthless netcords, and what passes for moments of intrigue in any match featuring the long arm of the Croatian law.  But in the beginning, there was almost none of that today.  The rhythmic clapping that entreats a favored gladiator to make the next point count, made its first appearance, rather apathetically it must be added, upon Monfils' evening the score on Karlovic's serve for the first time...at 15-15.  There were three break points averted in the last game of the first set, but the hand held fans waddled more energetically than the hands clapped after each of them was disposed of in depressingly similar fashion.

In fact the writing seemed to be on the wall in the very first game of the match.  Despite his much ballyhooed improved serve, which elicited 42 aces in 4 matches, Monfils struggled to hold his serve in the face of returns more befitting Djokovic than Karlovic, and a spring in his step that would have made Dolgopolov proud.  It was hard to tell on his 6'11 frame, but I promise you it was there.  Karlovic on the other hand sailed through his first 5 service games hitting more aces than faults, an ominous statistic speaking to both his efficiency and Monfils' profligacy.  In the end both translated into a first set that was about as dramatic as a bullfighter standing in the middle of the ring with an elephant gun.

There was a kind of resignation in Monfils, even as he himself began drumming aces in the second set.  It was almost as if he, a participant in this macabre exercise in Japanese pantomime, resented being a part of it.  Serving his 3rd ace of the game to close out the 6th game with just one point dropped on a running forehand pass up the line from Karlovic, he appeared to initiate a jig of celebration...but as he looked down to find his feet, it was evident that he had merely tripped over himself.  Karlovic, on the other hand, was full of merriment, as he gracelessly took the hot air right out of the stadium time after time, with irritating examples of the full repertoire of shots he possesses: drop volleys, inside in forehand approaches, slice returns landing 6 inches from the base and side lines.

In fact, one could argue that the better he played, the more the sanguine spectators, looking down their noses at the combattants like the Plebeians at the Colosseum, rooted against him.  One almost began to wonder if there wasn't something more philosophical in the desire to see Monfils emerge victorious from this encounter, as he had in fact, been the worse player for the better part of an hour and 1 and 15 minutes.  But the match turned on two things that both energized Monfils, and seemed to demoralize Karlovic.  

Karlovic left a half volley short in the court, but no where near short enough to be out of range of his majestic moving rival.  Monfils, sensing the moment, charged forward, slid into a frying pan forehand aimed ruthlessly at the trunk of his rival, and hit the mark in more ways than one.

Soon, the thunderbolts began to miss their mark.  Whereas previously he had been quite accurate, an underrated quality of his serve, when he served for the set at 5-4, having broken Monfils in the previous game, he began to rely on the second serve, which was not up to the task.  Furthermore, Monfils, plundering away under the assumption that something had to give, began putting those returns in challenging positions, forcing Karlovic to both loom and move with the grace of a gazelle - only one of which he was able to pull off.  After sending a forehand volley long on the last of 3 break points, off of a dying return scarcely framed by his flamboyant french foe, the trophy suddenly appeared to be just a little bit further from his grasp.

In the tie-break the same technique persisted.  Playing a kind of classic grass-court return game, dropping balls at the lumbering behemoth's feet, rather than trying to put them past him, while Karlovic struggled to maintain his efficiency, after another low forehand volley in the net, the roar from the crowd ushered in the realization that Monfils had persevered and a 3rd set was to be played.

The third set began with a return to form on Karlovic's serve, while yet another wobble in Monfils' was not enough to allow the Croatian giant to break.  That's when the rhythm (or lack thereof) appeared to get him.  A pair of first serves missed, and an overhead in the net, drew a kind of startled gasp from the crowd:  a bit like the moment in Rocky IV when Drago is cut.  Nobody could believe that the mountain had been traversed by that fuzzy yellow ball, and a genuine belief that another break (the only breaks of serve he's suffered at the 2016 Citi Open) was on the cards.  And Karlovic appeared to be wilting in the heat - already taking his time in between points, he appeared to do it moreso now that he had been broken, while the Frenchman accelerated through his games with aplombe.

The bending, the mid-court pick-ups, the stretch returns and the angled volleys began to take their toll on Karlovic.  Irritated when the towels weren't made immediately available by the ball kids, Karlovic seemed to play more and more first balls (off the return) from beyond the service line.  For a quality serve and volleyer, that is part and parcel of plying one's trade moving forward.  But for Karlovic, the effects of the burden began to seep into almost everything he did, and he began to do everything just a little bit worse.  The break, when it came, met with rapturous applause from the francophile audience, seemed a fait accompli, more than an accomplishment.  Nevertheless, once and for all, the match had turned in the Frenchman's favor.

Monfis on the other hand went from that all too familiar Gallic shrug to the battle cry of a Zulu warrior.  No longer content with pumping himself up, he moved on to the crowd, entreating them to entreat him to higher heights.  He even fortified himself in between serves, such was the evidence of his increased sense of urgency.  His serve, slower in the third set than it had been in the second, was more accurate, causing Karlovic to miss the return more frequently, and taking enormous pressure off of himself and, like Putin on a judo mat, rebounding it squarely on his rival.

Of course Karlovic just...keeps...coming.  And despite being down a break in the 8th game of the final set, he opened the game with two outstanding volley winners to put Monfils under scoreboard pressure, which might have been irresistible given the serve that would certainly have awaited him had he lost his.  But he finished the game with 4 outstanding serves that Karlovic alternately pulled out of and over hit to the delight of those now in full throated anticipation of a French victory.  Karlovic did his best to fend off the energized frenchman - standing (very) tall (indeed) on another mid court pick up that landed tantalizingly short in the court.  Monfils again went for the jugular, but not nearly dispassionately enough, and Karlovic was able to fend off the pancake with a reaction volley to the open court.  Two points later, he survived the game to make one last stand.

Monfils began uncertainly, with a double-fault into the net - never a good sign of nerves.  But he followed it up with a brave sneak attack off a high looping forehand up the line to Karlovic's backhand which he sliced tamely into the net.  Another missed 1st serve in the deuce court on the 3rd point was rectified this time by a 2nd serve ace wide.  The penultimate point was cagey, with Monfils stretching the rally out before drawing Karlovic into a clumsy approach, which he passed with a backhand up the line.  The match ended, ironically if only considering the source, with an authoritative ace up the T.

To the delight of the crowd, the popular Frenchman prevailed where he could have so readily taken the easy way out.  While Karlovic, attended briefly by the physio as he awaited his runner-up prize, was resigned to his role today as the sacrificial lamb.
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