It’s New Year’s Day holiday here in Brisbane, and I’m pretty sure the crowd attendance figures I saw today were the biggest I’ve personally seen since the tournament began in Brisbane. They had a Kids Day initiative going on today, where kids 16 and under can get into the grounds for free, play mini-tennis on Centre Court in between matches, have access to more tennis games and entertainment than the standard amount and also get a free information pack, which presumably includes information on how to join a tennis club. I think it’s a nice initiative.
It’s always a familiar feeling coming back to the Brisbane International every year. In the past every time I’ve come back, it has looked exactly the same, so it was a pleasant surprise to see that this year they’ve made a few upgrades. In particular, the much-needed shade covers above the temporary stands on the two showcourts have been added, which will surely increase the popularity of the tournament. Also, they have doubled the amount of seats on Showcourt Two making it the second biggest court outside of Pat Rafter Arena. They’ve also expanded the entertainment area, which I didn’t really get the chance to check out because I didn’t notice it until after I left.
Attending the Brisbane International is still a must-see event for me years later, despite my regular Australian Open attendances each year. It’s a chance to see what Brisbane, the community is like, what our interest in tennis is like, etc. Also, since I happen to know many people who play tennis, I usually wonder how many people I will see that I know. Today’s count: 3. Though considering there were huge crowds, there were probably heaps of people that I just didn’t see.
Anyone that has been following the blog over the years will tend to know that if Florian Mayer plays in an event that I am going to, I am probably going to blog on it. I have had some very fond memories following Mayer over the years in Australia. I guess this match against Denis Istomin, probably wouldn’t rank up there with one of them. Though I didn’t really think it was one of his horror matches either. Maybe the first three or four games were horrible, but I’d put that down to rust.
First of all, I’ll backtrack to where I was standing. I woke up this morning with a really cool idea. I thought, I’m going to try something new and different. I’m going to stand and lean over the fence to watch Mayer today. I started to get really excited about it, as this kind of closeness is impossible to experience at the Australian Open so it was something that needed to be done today. I’ve got memories doing the same thing, watching Alexandr Dolgopolov and his dropshots from last year, while leaning over a fence. Once I’ve got an idea in my head, it’s pretty hard to get rid of it, because I might think that I’m chickening out if I don’t do it.
So I looked behind on the grassed area and everyone that is on it is sitting down, trying to watch tennis by peering through the fence. Those that don't want to peer through the fence, are of course on the other side. There are still some spare seats over there, if they'd prefer to have a better view. There’s no sign that says, no standing up here on this side of the fence, so I figured I should be right. However, further analysis of the situation and seeing that no one else has stood up against the fence the entire day shows to me, that maybe I was being rude, inconsiderate, etc. I do remember that this was normal behaviour when watching Gael Monfils two years ago though.
It would have been a perfect opportunity to personally cheer on Mayer, however I became too much of a nervous wreck being the centre of attention as it was, to the point where it was a bit hard to concentrate and appreciate the match. I was the only one standing one side leaning against the fence. I will not do it again.
As for the match, the first five games or so were dominated by serve, with both players not really finding their rhythm on both sides. Though I’m keeping myself busy looking at the little details, like Istomin’s smooth service motion, how low over the net and slow in pace Mayer’s slice backhand is, how amazingly hard Istomin hits his double-handed backhand. I think Istomin hits his backhand harder than his forehand.
The crowd are slow to react to clapping on some points, and whenever a winner comes out of nowhere, the crowd don’t notice it quickly enough to clap it compared to a rally where a player has opened up one side of the court and hit a winner the next shot. Based on that theory, you can tell that a lot of Mayer’s crosscourt forehand winners come out of nowhere, because hardly anyone would ever clap them.
As the scoreline suggested, the match was completely even the whole first set until the tie-break. Mayer was flashy at times, but not as consistent as he can be on his better days, and perhaps his movement was not at his best either. His forehand was much improved after a poor start, but his backhand was inconsistent. He missed two crosscourt backhands wide to lose the tie-break from 4-5 (on serve). Istomin was up 5-0 in that tie-break at some point, but lost some concentration after the huge lead.
Istomin was composed and reasonably consistent throughout the match considering how flat and hard he hits it, and he took his game to another level in the tie-break. The best point was definitely the third point in the tie-break, when Istomin nailed two double-handed backhand crosscourt shots that looked like winners, and would have been winners if Mayer had been moving like he did in the rest of the set. I just remember thinking at the time, how funny it is that they stepped it up for the tie-break.
From early on in the second set, Mayer started muttering a few comments to his coach or whoever it was, which was probably the only thing that made me suspect that maybe an injury concern was there. Not to mention that after that, in the next few points, he didn’t make much of an effort to move as if to prove a point. It’s always hard to tell the difference between negativity and injury. But one thing was sure. Based on that body language, he seemed like the clear underdog. Yes, that is what you can do when watching live tennis. Make a prediction on a match purely based on how a player is walking, or how many hand signals they’re making. So Mayer retired soon afterwards at 6-7(5) 3-2. Perhaps the fact that he didn’t call the trainer indicates that he already knows a bit about his injury.
After taking a short break, I headed into Pat Rafter Arena to watch Serena Williams play against Chanelle Scheepers. The last time I saw Serena play, I wasn’t exactly paying attention, so this time I felt I was better able to appreciate the experience. I really like watching how explosively Serena moves onto her forehand on the run. I think how she moves onto the ball is surely what separates her from many women’s players, which allows her to be such a good shotmaker even from a more defensive position. Also, all of her shots look so technically sound that it’s very aesthetically pleasing. Perhaps the technical aspect is another reason why she has been able to play so well in the past, coming back from injury.
I tend to pay more attention to matches early on than afterwards, and one of the highlights for me was seeing one of Serena’s scorching running forehand winners, then seeing the stare down of intimidation afterwards. It was just such a cool reaction. It didn’t seem as manufactured as it does on TV. It looked like a natural reaction, a very confident one. However, Serena went on to lose that service game, and took on a more relaxed mindset afterwards allowing herself more shots to play to control points, and she also started to serve better.
Despite Scheepers giving a good effort, there was always the sense that Serena had the upper hand with her greater weight of shot. Serena didn’t need to make it flashy straight away. Every shot she hit put her another foot in front of Scheepers until Williams could win the point. It felt inevitable, but Scheepers did well to prolong it in the second set. Unlike Serena’s serve, Scheeper’s serve looks like a wobbly mess, with how stiff she keeps her right arm when launching into the motion. There is no explosiveness in the action. It is like it is in slow motion, unlike Bernard Tomic’s super fast abbreviated motion (yet both arm motions in a way are similar). I think it is abbreviated, but maybe not entirely. The decisive break of serve in the second set came after Serena stepped in early on a second serve return to rip for a winner, then faced with a similar situation, Scheepers double-faulted with the threat in sight. Serena won 6-2 6-3.
Now onto the best match of the day which was between Bernard Tomic and Julien Benneteau. This was Tomic’s first appearance in Brisbane without a wildcard, and it is nice to see some improvements in his game from past years, such as the improved faster pace forehand which was probably the standout shot from the first set. Tomic does have the ability to sometimes rip winners on some shots, and even after he does it, I still don’t really know if the timing was clever. To me, it just seems more like completely random. But the forehand definitely does look like a much more potent weapon when he injects some extra pace into it.
Tomic raced off to a 5-0 lead but it didn’t seem entirely indicative of the match to me, because Benneteau was close to breaking back on one of those games earlier on. Despite the massive gap in the score, I decided that I really like watching Benneteau play, because of the way he moves onto the ball and also with his point construction. He makes so many little split steps when he moves that it’s great to watch, but it also looks incredibly tiring. I had a brief look at Tomic’s footwork, and he probably makes half or one third the amount of steps in comparison. Some might call this lazy footwork, or simply being more efficient.
Benneteau controls points once he hits an aggressive shot, and he tries to keep it there, with accurate ball-striking and good point construction. This also means that if he hasn’t started the first few shots aggressively that he’s likely to have to play more defensively after that, because he doesn’t have the same ability as many other players to hit impressive defensive shots. At least not to the same level. In the first set, Benneteau butchered a few key rallies that he had created in his favour, and his serve was also not up to scratch, not that I really noticed (heard the interview afterwards).
The second and third sets anyway were enjoyable to watch, filled with long and highly competitive rallies where both players appeared to be having difficulty with finishing off rallies. I’d say the rallies were filled with accurate, controlled ball-striking, so it wasn’t like the match was filled with passive rallies. In the end, the deciding factor was with Benneteau’s legs, and I guess it was understandable given all the running he did in the match and with it being the first match of the year.
Tomic could have made it easier for himself by converting one of his earlier match points, but in the end, Tomic finally pulled through on his sixth, helped by Benneteau double faulting on the match point. The result was 6-2 4-6 7-5. The crowd here in Brisbane have been extremely quiet, seemingly paying some sort of respect to the players by not talking during the matches, or very quietly if so. Only in the final stages, they started to show some support to Tomic. I guess you could say everyone was saving their breaths for when they really needed it.
So that was three matches done for the day, yet it still felt early. I left Pat Rafter Arena, and was able to see again that it was indeed a very, very crowded day at the tennis centre. I stood there waiting for the end of the Haas/Stepanek doubles match, catching people leaving at the end of the match to grab myself a seat for the match between Gilles Simon and Ryan Sweeting.
I had never seen Ryan Sweeting play before, or read anything about his game previously, so it was funny to see Andy Roddick’s service motion without expecting it. I wonder if he tried any other service motions before deciding to settle on this one. Anyway, his serve is good, but not great. The first serve seems incredibly flat, and with little margin for error unlike Roddick’s service which kicks up quite a lot. I was not at all impressed with Sweeting who seems to be a very loose cannon. He bases his game around a huge forehand, but misfires a lot with it. He also hits a slice backhand quite frequently, but its purpose is more just to extend the point to allow him to hit a forehand.
This was the perfect matchup for Simon. No expert strategy required, or any need to go out of his comfort zone. He could just use the pace he was getting from Sweeting, to keep returning the ball cleanly with interest, and also to hit great passing shots on the run if required. After the first three games or so, the way this match was going was almost inevitable. Sweeting was mainly only winning the short points, and not having much success on return though he did come close in that final game failing to convert two break points. This was a nice way to wrap up the day, I thought, as watching Gilles Simon can be a relaxing experience, how he so easily seems to have perfect timing on his shots particularly off the backhand.