Manic Monday at Wimbledon

Written by  //  June 28, 2011  //  Sport  //  Comments Off

It says something about the equal dose of frustration and excitement that always ensues on Manic Monday that I managed to watch only four Round of 16 matches. Of all the contests lined up – many of them mouth-watering prospects, as is the norm with the second Monday – I was looking forward most to the first match on centre court. Andy Murray versus Richard Gasquet had a sense of history about it. Three years back, at the same stage, Murray flexed his right bicep after coming back from two sets to love down to seal a marvellous victory against Gasquet – the Frenchman whose unfulfilled talent never ceases to exasperate. The gruelling triumph, however, had taken much out of Murray, both physically and mentally. He fell in the quarterfinals to Rafael Nadal in straight sets, offering not even a smidgeon of competition.

This year, Murray, had cruised into the second week, not so much serenely, but without unduly worrying hiccups. Gasquet, the inscrutable genius blessed with the most divine backhand had had a hitherto more comfortable run, losing not a single set in the first three rounds and playing with an amalgam of panache and composure that is not always typical of him. Murray, though, not only needed to win, but also had to do so with a comfort that would ensure that he has enough left in the tank for potentially bigger challenges to come. This as both history and current form suggested would be no easy task.

But starting a whole hour or so earlier, on one of the show-courts was eighteen-year-old qualifier Bernard Tomic’s tie against Belgium’s Xavier Malisse – a talented stroke maker and former semi-finalist at Wimbledon. I’d seen Tomic dismantle Feliciano Lopez at the Australian Open this year with a blend of power and intelligence that belied a player of his age; before falling to Nadal in the third round in, what must be said, respectable fashion. Tomic – much to the dismay of the Australian tennis authorities – plays very little on the professional tour, with his father insisting that he be slowly nursed into the big stage. His service action is rudimentary at best, but through what is seemingly a strange happenstance, he finds both remarkable pace and angle on it. Especially on the deuce court to right handers, where he gets the ball to curve away from the receiver’s forehand, opening up the court beautifully for him to finish.

Although oozing with easy power, Tomic has the patience to work his way into points. He often uses little slices and dabs, runs his opponent ragged before pulling the trigger on what is usually a very flat and ferocious groundstroke. In the third round against Robin Soderling – one of the heaviest hitters on the tour – Tomic outmuscled him in the first set, before bizarrely changing his game plan in the second and third set only to be proved right. He frequently took the pace off his strokes, instead choosing to find particular spots on the court that would most trouble Soderling and waited either for an unforced error or the opportunity to unleash his own brand of the power game, one of which invariably occurred.

Against Malisse, Tomic was similarly impressive. An unconventional player blessed with the rare gift of timing, Tomic regularly made Malisse scamper across the court before finishing points with insouciant ease. For all his talents, however, what was most impressive about him was his poise on the big points. He never looked hurried, always giving the air of a man taking a gentle stroll on a promenade.

Having broken Malisse to pieces in a straight sets triumph, one would have thought the celebrations would be over-the-top, in line with modern-day practice, but Tomic seemed to consider the victory almost routine. Only Boris Becker, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg have made the quarterfinals at Wimbledon at a younger age in the Open Era. Not bad company to keep.

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Over then to the centre-court, where Murray and Gasquet played a high-quality first set, one which Gasquet dominated for most bits only to succumb in the tiebreak. In the early phases, Gasquet produced angle after angle of geometric brilliance, seemingly slicing Murray into dices, but the Scot kept at it, ensuring that he did enough to hold his serve. In the tiebreak, Murray upped his game, finding greater ferocity on his groundstrokes and in one rally at 4-3, he outplayed Gasquet on the backhand wing – no easy feat – alternating between delicate slices and his powerful two-hander and finding greater angle and greater depth with each stroke before muscling a winner into the open court. It was tactically superb and aesthetically even better. In the second and third set, Gasquet’s game unravelled, and Murray exhibited a greater sense of authority, breaking thrice in all, to take the match, 7-6, 6-3, 6-2.

Gasquet’s backhand is a thing of rare beauty. But his game, as is sometimes made to believe, isn’t only about the backhand. Admittedly he is comparatively frail on the forehand and has a serve that often lets him down, but he has an all-court game including fine volleying skills, which should ideally be helping him to win majors. But he lacks a champion’s edge, or more pertinently a champion’s mind, which as Louisa Thomas explains in this fine piece for Grantland is like having no mind at all.

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On Court 1, immediately after Marion Bartoli had upset the odds with a victory over Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic took on France’s Michael Llodra, who continues to play a delightfully old-fashioned serve-and-volley game. But a style, which may have worked well against most opponents on grass, failed against Djokovic who is undoubtedly the finest return-of-server in the men’s game. Throughout the match, Djokovic looked like a player who could win the Championships this year – his movement was more assured with each passing point and his groundstrokes remained decidedly dazzling.

The contrasting styles of the two opponents, though, occasionally made for compelling viewing. Llodra picked many balls virtually off his shoelaces and placed them over the net like he was pitching a golf ball off a sand-bunker straight into the hole. Djokovic chased down balls with vigour and vitality before showcasing masterful racquet skills – proving yet again that there is no one better than him at turning defence into attack. Ultimately, the Serb proved too strong, emerging victorious in three straight sets, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3. Tomic, awaits in the quarterfinals.

***

Finally, over on centre court, World No. 1 Rafael Nadal was pitted against Juan Martin del Potro in, arguably, the fixture of the day. For much of the first set, the players muscled ball after ball from the baseline, Nadal’s hit with greater top spin, del Potro’s with greater savagery. All of this made for a wonderful exhibition, but when at 6-5 on set point, Nadal felt a twinge on one of his ankles, one expected del Potro to exert more authority. In the tiebreak that followed after a medical timeout, though, Nadal as is so often the case, found a way to win even in the most trying of circumstances.

The second set saw the gangly Argentine exert his will more; he found more punch off an already heavy forehand and I thought we had a classic on our hands. But Nadal is the old master at converting a potential classic into a damp squib, slowing down points by mixing his groundstrokes with potent amounts of spin and dip. He took the third set on a tiebreak before breaking at 3-2 in the fourth courtesy of a brace of astounding forehand returns. The solitary break was sufficient for the Spaniard as he served out at 5-4 for love. Nadal is due for an MRI on the injured ankle to see if he can continue, but regardless, as fine a player as Mardy Fish is on grass, I doubt he’ll give Nadal a sleepless night today.

About the Author

Suhrith Parthasarathy is a journalist currently living and writing in New York. Suhrith grew up in Chennai, India and studied law at the National University of Juridical Sciences in Kolkata. He practiced as an attorney for two years before giving up the law for journalism. He is presently studying for his masters at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. You can find him on Twitter (@suhrith) or on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/suhrithparthasarathy)

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