It’s a difficult and frustrating day of tennis. Every 5 minutes or so, the weather changes from gloomy to drizzly to sunny, and from cold to hot in a matter of minutes. As I walk around the outside courts, there’s a distinct lack of atmosphere. Maybe it’s the puddles everywhere that have drawn people away from the courts, for the moment at least.
I’ve decided that I’m going to head where the large majority of people seem to be going according to where all the noise is coming from anyway, where the Chilean supporters are. They’ve taken up a massive block in the middle of the stadium right behind the umpire’s seat. Sometimes to show how patriotic they are, they'll collectively raise a big Chilean flag right above their head but this confuses me, because doesn’t this interfere with their sight? Either that, or they are looking for the TV camera to be heading into their direction in between points.
I hadn’t seen Gonzalez play live before, and in hindsight maybe my expectations were unrealistic. Taking into the match all these preconceived ideas of Gonzalez’s forehand being an explosive, intimidating shot, I was expecting Gonzalez’s forehand to be a sudden burst of excitement. The fact that Gonzalez has opened up the match with numerous forehand winners, without having that effect on me seems to suggest that this is probably not going to happen.
Actually Gonzalez’s forehand looks surprisingly contained, more skilful and less wild. I guess it’s like that for most players though, how everything looks so technically sound. It’s a very good shot though, and it’s obvious he can dominate matches with it. It’s only when he goes to huge lengths to run around to it where it starts to look more like a risky shot.
However, it didn't take me long to adjust my eyes to it and this was when I started to focus more on the match being of a high quality. These guys were playing extremely clean tennis. Gonzalez’s winner count kept piling up, without throwing in too many errors. This was definitely the highest quality match of the day that I saw.
It was a good match from a tactical point of view too. Rochus, in particular was fun to watch because he seemed to have a good idea of how to finish off points, despite not really having the power to do it in one sudden change of pace. It’s a massive disadvantage having to do so much when Gonzalez can sometimes just slap a winner that isn’t even far away from Rochus, without him getting anywhere near reaching it.
I’ve seen Rochus try to play a moderately aggressive game in the past before in an attempt to keep up with his opponents, but often hurting himself more than his opponent in the process. But today was different. Today, he was great at taking any midcourt ball early and closing it off at the net. I think the backhand crosscourt really helped too. That was the one safe place Rochus could go to at least for a while without getting burnt. Maybe with other opponents he doesn’t have that.
Still, it seemed that for the majority of the match that Gonzalez was one step ahead of Rochus the whole time while Rochus was desperately clinging on. Gonzalez kept threatening to break serve with many break point opportunities, but the games were too extensive to call this a simple, one-sided match. It’s just a good thing that Gonzalez’s winners to unforced error ratio was so high.
Strangely the trend of the match never seemed to fluctuate much, with both players knowing their own games well enough and playing well enough to try to execute them the same way the whole match through. Even in Gonzalez’s third set loss, the difference was just a little bit of sluggishness and concentration loss, before normal service resumed in the fourth set.
I billed this as the battle of the slice backhands, though it didn’t end up being 100% correct. Mayer likes his two-handed backhand, and hits through it most of the time, though he does possess the variety to throw in enough slice backhands for it to be a decent description of the match. You would think from the one-sidedness of the scoreline that it could have been a self-destructive match.
It looked that way when I first headed there. I was in the corner of the stands waiting for a changeover and Petzschner was looking around outside the court so much that it often looked like he was looking at me. I was obviously not the right person to ask for support because I was firmly on Mayer’s side.
It was an interesting adjustment to make in this match though. I’ve noticed recently that a large part of my observations tend to come from comparing the most recent match to the last couple that I watched live. And my first impression was that Mayer does not look like a professional player.
That is probably part of his charm. He has awkward looking groundstrokes and he seems to dig the ball back, rather than athletically drive it back like most players do. Still, the more I watch his backhand, the more it’s obvious that it’s a very solid shot and he hits it crosscourt especially well. In terms of constructing points, he has a special ability of being able to sneak into the net, and because he’s often hitting low slices anyway, it doesn’t look like that much of a transition for him to hit low volleys.
In this match, he was picking on Petzschner’s backhand which seemed to have completely broken down. Almost every error that he made was off the slice backhand, and I’m not sure if he can even hit a drive backhand, that's how little he utilised it.
It looked to be turning into a very one-sided match, until from about 4-0 down in the fifth set when Petzschner started to play more freely and show some good shotmaking of his own. I really liked the variety in this match, but unfortunately for Petzschner, when he couldn’t convert break points to get back even on serve in the fifth set, his game dropped back a level yet again.
Two breaks down and Mayer serving for the match, neither player seemed to be bothered much about the rain falling yet again. Until it started pouring down at match point, then Petzschner waited and shrugged his shoulders, before briefly pausing thinking it was too much to continue. This is where it’s probably not useful for countrymen to play each other, as Mayer friendly urged Petzschner to finish off the point, which he did by intentionally hitting a forehand return long.
It had been threatening to rain numerous times in the morning, but it never eventuated long enough to interrupt play until now. Unfortunately this is where the fun of following simultaneous matches ended, with the matches now being limited to Rod Laver Arena and Hisense Arena.
It was midway in the first set when I arrived there, and there were hardly any rallies going on. Del Potro was dominant on serve, and Russell seemed incredibly nervous that on one point he seemed to have tangled himself up, trying to move for a particular shot. I just don’t think that Russell, being a counterpuncher, should be making this many errors. The first thing I noticed when I was first able to observe a rally, was how Del Potro moves so much better now than the last time I saw him. Note that this was an initial reaction, not the final one, because I think he got more sluggish as the match went on.
His legs seemed to be doing a ridiculous amount of work, constantly moving to get himself into the best position possible. I’m not sure if it’s his long limbs that make it look like he does it more than other players. He was especially quick moving out wide to his forehand side though and moving side-to-side as well. I would think that on a good day that this has definitely improved. His running forehand is his trademark shot after all. Early on, it seemed almost like he was moving too quickly, his feet, that when he got to the ball, he wasn’t static enough. That’s how I explained the errors he was making anyway.
Still, he was controlling the match, hitting big shots and making enough of them to have a comfortable lead. Though the way the match started to turn made me wonder whether it was Russell making the errors or Del Potro being too strong. Regardless, it was a poor match to start with. So in the second set, my wish for there to be more long rallies came true, and amazingly it turned into a completely different match.
This was exciting for a while, being able to marvel at the athleticism of both players and being able to watch competitive rallies. This was more of how I expected Russell to play, consistent and steady. He doesn’t seem to have much of an ability to finish off points though, mostly only through being able to force his opponents out of position.
The longer it went on, the more clear it became that Del Potro had taken it down a gear. Del Potro in more average form will generally hit large amounts of crosscourt shots, and I was reminded of that yet again today. Despite Russell’s crowd-pleasing effort, the match was largely tedious and also littered with errors as the statistics board would show. Still, some people in the crowd managed to enjoy it based on the numerous positive comments I heard as I would constantly wander in and out of the match hoping that play had resumed on the outside courts.
I suppose it's because it had all the attributes of what you would describe as a professional tennis match – power, athleticism, consistency, technique, competition. So if you came along to the tennis and decided you wanted to watch a match so you could admire the pros and how skilled they are, then this would be it. While mentioning athleticism, I should add that even I joined in on the collective gasp when Russell did the splits running to a dropshot.
Del Potro can obviously play better than this, and in a more entertaining way. This is merely a description of the match itself. He did, though attempt to play more aggressively in the fourth set, but his form wasn’t good enough for it to be called a vintage performance.
In the warm up, I am taken by surprise as Henin hits her first two serves with an abbreviated service motion. Has she changed her service motion yet again? But no, it looks like maybe she has forgotten that she has a different one now, as she started to move into a slower, overall longer service action, one that simply requires more thinking.
Since her comeback, Henin’s serve is something she’s been struggling with, and this was the case yet again today in terms of first serve percentage. It definitely caused her more trouble in the match than there needed to be, but fortunately I never pay much attention to service percentages in matches anyway until breaks of serve and double faults happen.
This was a very stylish performance from Henin, and you could tell from the beginning that she was keen on mixing up the play. Four points into the match, and she’s already hit a slice backhand on each one of those points. What a difference it makes too, because Henin’s slice sets up whole rallies. It helps her construct points. I think it’s when she throws in the slice that she starts to earn her tag of being the “female Federer”, otherwise she’s missing some much-needed finesse.
Overall it was a great backhand day for Henin, definitely much better than when I saw her in Brisbane. Her backhand pretty much dominated the match, in the first set at least, then her volleys also ended up being a big part of that as she spent the large majority of the second set at the net barely hitting more than three consecutive baseline shots in one rally. The thing is, Henin didn’t need to be at the net that often. But she chose to be, because she wanted to, and that’s not really her natural game. 40-0 serve-and-volleys seemed to be common for her in this match too.
She was playing in such an aesthetically pleasing way that it didn’t really matter that she was hitting so many unforced errors. Mostly from the forehand, by the way. But she always contained it well enough for it to not leak quickly in rapid succession. I remember one game in particular where she lost serve due to three forehand errors, only to win the next game with four winning forehands. That was impressive.
Somehow it seemed, whenever Henin played a poor game, she’d bounce back right away with an even more aggressive than usual return game. This usually means standing incredibly close to return serve, and that was the manner in which she finished off the match.
Normally I wouldn’t write about such a small portion of the match, but in some way I’d like to make a tribute to Santoro, to his unique brand of tennis. Whenever he’s hitting the ball, it looks like he’s gently floating it across. But somehow how he manages to finesse it deep on the baseline time and time again without putting any noticeable power into it.
When he’s running out wide, he can hit this slow, probing slice backhand that keeps curving back into the court like a paper aeroplane. He also seems to have two slice backhands, the slow annoying floating shot, and the one that he carves across to skid low. It’s quite amazing how much finesse he has. His whole game is made up of it.