It's been a while since we've had a genuinely exciting day of tennis, and yesterday was it. The billing would not have suggested it, standard early round matches for the big guns, Nadal vs Almagro and Federer vs Benneteau.
I was originally more interested in the outside court, and it's a testament to how dramatic the matches were, that I was somehow able to feel the tension in it while knowing the result of it (but not the scoreline).
Marat Safin vs Juan Martin Del Potro
It was Marat Safin's final tour match officially, an occasion that meant something to Safin himself, not only his fans like his previous ceremonies. The tournaments beforehand had been building up to it with little ceremonies everywhere for Safin in the last month or so, but this was the real one. I found the match had more sentimental value than I thought it would. Safin is the first big name player to retire that I've followed since the beginning of his career, at least the first to be given a proper farewell.
I tuned in at the end of the first set, and saw Del Potro's amazingly good winners-unforced error statistics. My first impression was that both players play relatively similarly, especially feeding the pace off each other, hard-hitting groundstrokes that would usually be characterised by clean struck shots right off the centre of the racquet in the first few strokes, then it would be more of a battle to see who could keep up.
Safin had a lot of trouble returning Del Potro's serve but he held up his end of the bargain on serve. Typically as you'd expect Safin sprayed more off the forehand, and he tended to overplay more than Del Potro did. Somehow I think that's what we wanted to see in Safin's final match though - losses of concentration, glimpses of brilliance and a close, dramatic contest. For a period in the middle to end of the second set, Safin went through a good period with his backhand at one point hitting this amazingly powerful backhand down-the-line winner, reflexed right from the shoelaces off one of Del Potro's shots that landed near the corner on the baseline.
The third set was more erratic on Safin's part, now sensing that the end of his career was closing. And his attitude summed up much of the conflicting and confused emotions that often characterised his career. In the change of ends, he was smiling and leaned over in his chair, relaxed and enjoying the atmosphere. Then two points after the changeover, Safin's disgusted with his effort and throws his racquet in frustration after hitting another wild forehand error.
The most touching moment in the ceremony was seeing Safin's tribute in the form of other players, former and current, and also a wonderfully ecletic mix of players in terms of nationality and personality, from Ivo Karlovic to Novak Djokovic and Tommy Robredo. Realizing that this ceremony was just as much a celebration and form of closure for Safin, as it was for everyone else, and having that added warmth about it. It's the sentiment, not that spectacle that counts.
Rafael Nadal vs Nicolas Almagro
The way the match was played out, this was Almagro's match to lose. Five match points squandered and multiple leads lost in the second and third sets. Some credit must be given to Nadal's fighting spirit, the way he saved those three match points from 0-40 down.
As a spectacle I found it in an incredibly strange match to watch. It was long and drawn-out, but not tension-building. Nadal's missing an element of specialness to him, that sense that he can turn difficult points around right into his favour. Almagro went all out, plenty of winners and plenty of errors, but errors didn't seem to bother him much. In the past, players had to be a little more consistent to have success against Nadal. Think about how Youzhny, Blake and Berdych would generally be able to keep up great shotmaking point after point. And Cilic and Del Potro in recent times.
The backhand looked particularly worrying for Nadal. It was most noticeable on the big points when Almagro tightened up, and started playing more passively. Every shot went to Nadal's backhand, and Nadal would slice it back with no penetration whatsoever, until Almagro eventually made a mistake. The commentators, Robbie Koenig and Jason Goodall have mentioned continuously that the key for overcoming Nadal is to attack his forehand. But to me, it's a combination of hitting to the backhand first, then getting that floating ball to hit deep and hard to Nadal's forehand.
After breaking Almagro's spirit in the second set, surprisingly Nadal took his foot off the accelerator early in the third and Almagro was back in it. For an instant it looked like Almagro's tiredness, turned to cramping later on would help him favourably, after showing a sudden improvement that allowed him to break serve late in the third set. I was somewhat confused at the end, as to how that great shotmaking suddenly turned into a poor effort the following game when Almagro was serving for the match again. He didn't only miss shots, he missed them by several metres. And he looked like he was incapable of doing anything other than standing and delivering completely upright. Then his shoulders slumped afterwards and Almagro never looked like winning the match again.
Roger Federer vs Julien Benneteau
This match was the anti-thesis of the Nadal vs Almagro match, straightforward in the way the scoreline played out, but compelling in its own right. What was most impressive was the fact that Benneteau never even blinked. He never even faltered with one noticeable bad or nervous point.
It was Benneteau's typical game red-lined. Typically solid ball-striking, defending his own side of the baseline perfectly seemingly showing no gaping holes to hit into. Whenever he ran to a shot to the open court, he looked like was huffing and puffing to get there, not to the point of tiredness, but not looking like he'd be able to recover for the next shot.
Buoyed by the support from the French crowd, everything Benneteau did was just a little bit better than usual for him - deeper shots, more energetic movement and some inspiration that helped him finish off rallies with impressive crosscourt and down-the-line backhands. What I liked the most was how well Benneteau closed off the net, which was the key to him winning the most crucial of points.
It was a big occasion for the Frenchman and he relished it. The more the match reached closer to the end, he focused more on the crowd, and chose to direct his emotions positively and outwardly. It's one of the few times I've felt a shared experience, emotionally involved in a match that I didn't expect to feel involved in. These are the kind of matches that are worth watching tennis for, those little heartwarming moments that don't mean much in the main scheme of things but make for great viewing.