Tomas Berdych has been in good form recently, or at least in patches. He's commonly known for his smooth ballstriking, and I’ve recently come to appreciate that more after some high quality performances in Brisbane a couple of weeks ago.
When he’s on, it looks like he has more feel for the ball than the majority of players with the way he’ll casually just put every ball into the corner, because why not when it’s this easy?
Berdych was pitted up against Robin Haase and he picked up right where he left off in Brisbane. Although he really didn’t, because in between, he had a strange loss to Peter Luczak in Sydney.
When Berdych plays like this, it looks rhythmic like he has gotten himself into a nice groove in the same way that a dancer would be moving to the beat of music. I can see why commentators mention that Berdych only does things one way, and that’s making everything look pretty, not dirty. Even when he lunges out to reach a ball, he doesn’t look fully extended. It’s like his long limbs are doing the job for him, though that obviously isn’t the case.
But Grand Slams are made of best of five set matches, so it was never likely that he’d be able to put in a consistently perfect performance. I tried to enjoy it while it lasted, the first set of the match. Haase tried to keep up, but it never looked like he could get to the ball quickly enough to hit an effective defensive shot.
He seemed intimidated at first by Berdych’s quick start but he settled down early in the second set, helped by a very loose service game from Berdych. That service game didn't eventuate in a break, but it changed the course of the match. This was always in the cards for Berdych, who generally plays significantly worse even at a 5% lower level. The second and third sets showed Berdych playing at a more neutral level until picking it up again late in the third, where he started to put Haase back on a string again.
That’s what Berdych generally likes to do, make his opponents cover large distances. Not much else comes into consideration such as whether making that risk would be necessary. Tennis is an instinctive game for Berdych, and it looks like he’d like to keep it that way. The first set was somewhat exhibition-like in its execution, not that I had a problem with that.
I have to give credit to Haase though, who tried his best to turn the tables around. He’d put in a special effort to take the ball earlier and control the match with his forehand. This was a difficult task in itself, because Haase's forehand has a significantly greater margin over the net than Berdych’s, so it's easier to retrieve.
Comparing effort levels, it was like Berdych barely broke a sweat while Haase needed to give his full undivided attention and intensity in order to play tennis like this. Therefore it was no surprise whenever he’d throw in a disappointing error, he’d shout at himself in frustration. It’s a lot he has to manage out there, not only his game. He kept it together today, but not well enough. Not well enough for a top class player like Berdych.
Near the end of the match, in what was the best point of the match, Berdych had sent Haase running side-to-side all over the court almost in a Davydenko-like manner, doing everything but missing the delicate drop volley into the open court. As amusing and meaningless it all was in the context of the match, is this a typical Berdych point from a more general perspective?
In what seemed like relatively good timing, I was able to watch the conclusion of the Fabrice Santoro vs Marin Cilic match, which I thought might have been finished last night. Things picked up right where they left off stylistically anyway. Both Santoro and Cilic must have been quite pleased that far more people were watching them this time around, and in a much more enthusiastic manner too.
There’s not much to mention about Cilic in this match-up. He approached this the same way as many of the other top players have done in the past against Santoro, and that’s to play with patience. The point was not how many unforced errors he made, but whether he could keep a calm head and avoid overplaying, then he'd fancy his chances to win the match.
This is where Santoro looks a bit lightweight. Maybe in a dream world, it would be really cool if Santoro could hit chip shots like he currently does now, while being able to drive through the ball with more pace too, to drive opponents crazy with changes of pace. But I guess anyone that wants to see that will have to stick with Andy Murray for now. Then again that would probably take away all the admiration and amazement that tennis fans have for Santoro, how he has managed to make it this far in the tennis world with not only such an unorthodox game, but with such a lack of pace.
The problem with Santoro’s drive shots was mainly the depth, not the pace. It would land short too often and Cilic would take advantage of that with more net approaches than we usually see from him.
Still, he managed to show a nice mixture of play to keep the match interesting with net charges, slow probing slices and some lobs. One thing that I forgot to mention, or failed to notice yesterday in my report about Santoro, is how difficult must it surely be to bend down as low as that to hit low volleys with two hands. I wonder why he doesn't switch to a one-hander on the stretch but he never does unless he absolutely needs to.
The way the scheduling and timing worked out, this allowed me to watch the match between Jurgen Melzer and Florent Serra, right from 0-0. This match was played on Court 11, right in the middle of numerous outside courts. It’s basically the most distracting court in Melbourne Park, though I still think this is a fair deal considering that it’s not like players have to deal with any music or outside entertainment.
In my line of sight, I had the additional light entertainment of being able to see Tommy Robredo and Santiago Giraldo swing through their groundstrokes without having a clue where their shots were landing.
Melzer didn’t seem to like the atmosphere much though. I was amazed that every noticeable distraction, such as the umpire reading the score from a nearby court, a sudden cheer or someone walking into the stands mid-match, he’d notice it to the point of even stopping play because of it. It’s just that you would think that if everything was noisy and chaotic, that little things like people walking across the stands would mean little in comparison.
The way the stands on Court 11 are built, one side doesn't even have an entrance meaning you can just walk past and sit down straight away. Yet on the other side of the court, we’re practicing normal tennis rules here. I did think it was incredibly amusing though whenever the chair umpire would remind people to not come in until changeovers, as if the people sitting down were the same people who had not yet arrived.
As for the match itself, it was a bit of a grower. Early on, this definitely seemed like a lower standard of tennis than what I had been watching before. Whenever they were a little off their timing, the ball would fly on them. At least Serra was cracking his forehand though, so that made a big difference in dictating the match. The first set was more like a sub-plot in itself, separated from the rest because Melzer picked up his play after that.
The second and third sets were played at a whole new intensity, with rallies that were physically challenging and difficult to keep up with. Suddenly everything seemed to be moving at a faster pace, and sometimes I became fixated with watching the ball move back and forth, the ball being hit with such skill, noticing little angles here and there and down the line shots. Things like that are generally more interesting at this close side-on view. Melzer has a better ability to include subtle variety in his game, throwing in a double-handed slice backhand and a decent transition game which he used more sparingly than he normally does.
I really liked Melzer’s fighting spirit here, how he went from being dominated in the first set, to being able to dig deep enough to hold his own ground in the baseline rallies and slowly outmaneuvering Serra. Watching the match unfold, I could feel as if Melzer was increasingly starting to take over more control in the match. The third set was the critical stage, the one where he continually had more chances to break serve, only to lose his serve in the final game which was outlined by a potentially bad line call.
I took a short break after the end of the third set to prepare for the rest of the match, and this helped emphasise how the last two sets were so much different from the second and third. It must have been all that intensity from the earlier sets being so hard to keep up, that it became very patchy towards the end.
Somehow after all of that effort, Melzer snatched the fourth set rather tamely. By now, Serra had decided to hit the ball harder, though it seemed clear that Melzer was no longer chasing down balls as quickly as he was earlier. He has a reputation of this, of slowing down and becoming fatigued in the fifth set, and this is what happened here. Just like how he had resigned to the loss, I had too. It was a long match to follow, but I did it.
After watching an intense competitive match, it was refreshing to watch a more straightforward match storyline-wise, as I diverted my attention to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s match against Sergiy Stakhovsky. I thought for a moment with Stakhovsky going up a break in the second, that maybe it would be competitive. But as soon as I sat down in the arena after Tsonga broke back immediately, he never looked threatened.
It’s been a year now since I had seen Tsonga live, and straight away he reminded me again why he’s one of the most fun players to watch. Sometimes tennis can have a tendency of looking overly technical live but not for Tsonga. Tsonga’s game just stands out. He hits a couple of forehands, leans right into them, then he comes in to knock it off for a volley. Or at least that’s how he would like to play, by having as few in-between shots as possible.
He was able to do that at first, but after a while, he started to engage in more rallies with Stakhovsky and that’s when you start to see his range of higher looping balls too. I don’t think they’re a strength of his, but at least he covers the court well.
Stakhovsky’s game isn’t too dissimilar from Tsonga’s actually. He likes coming into the net and playing an all-court game, and he doesn’t hang around too long at the baseline. That’s why this match was being played at an extremely quick pace. He plays aggressively from the back of the court too, sometimes to his detriment because of his inconsistency.
Aesthetically it doesn't share many similarities to Tsonga though and his moves from the baseline to the net are nowhere near as smooth. His mannerisms especially when returning serve reminded me so much of Philipp Kohlschreiber, and his backhand is a little similar too, maybe more so just because I have already linked them together in my head.
It should be interesting to see over the coming years what Stakhovsky can add to his game, because it looked promising but rough to me. Like he seemed to be developing a good idea of how he should be playing but without pulling it off well enough. In the end, he was comfortably outplayed by Tsonga, who showed positive signs but will need to tighten up the screws over the coming days to avoid any potential difficulties.
In any case, that match was a nice short break from drama because I was in for another hotly contested match, this time between Richard Gasquet and Mikhail Youzhny. This was my first experience watching a late night match that ended up being extended late into the night, and I had a lot of trouble with it, clock-watching all the time to make sure I wouldn’t be back too late, whatever that meant.
This was a high quality match though, definitely the best match I’d seen so far. What I liked about it the most was not only the variety of both players, but the variety of shot selections from point to point. I think the best way of analysing whether a match has long lasting appeal, whether it will continue to be entertaining three hours onwards, is whether the pattern of play is predictable or not. Whether each point is played out a different way, involving different strategies, and not seeing similar contrasts again and again.
Youzhny opened up the match looking shaky and lost his opening service game. Gasquet seemed much more calm and controlled in comparison, an indication of all the tennis he’s played leading up to this event. From the view I’m looking at, at first it’s difficult to adjust to seeing the spins so clearly from the players, almost to the point where it looks like every shot is a safe shot because of the margin over the net.
Gasquet started to impose himself on the match quickly already with his trademark backhand, opening the match with some smart tennis while Youzhny was still finding his range. Soon enough though, Youzhny regained his consistency and they were back on serve in the first set.
There wasn't much separating the two quality-wise. Youzhny is great at creating clever rallies and opening up the court, while Gasquet is better at utilising his transition game and playing a more outright attacking, but straightforward game. This was always an entertaining match-up on paper because despite both players having great backhands, they were never going to be overly reliant on one shot or tactic.
I had the feeling initially that Gasquet had the upper hand because he had the ability to be more attacking and finish rallies in fewer strokes with his net ability. Yet Gasquet never really pulled away from the match that much, even though he threatened to several times. He snatched the first set on the back of a nervy tie-breaker from both players that was full of poor errors and double faults towards the end. It was great drama though, and the crowd reacting and making sounds during good points definitely added to that.
In the second set, Gasquet started to play more of a baseline oriented game. He appeared to be carrying a niggling injury in the beginning of the third set, then twitched his face to show he was in some pain, then switched his tactics back to play more aggressively again as a result. This was definitely the right way to go, and it helped him take the second set without the need of a tie-breaker.
The longer the match went on, the more enthusiastically I started to cheer for Gasquet hoping that it wouldn’t go too late in the night. But he continually refused to finish off the match. More accurately, he couldn’t finish off the match. I could tell Youzhny was getting stronger and stronger as the match went on. His forehand started to become much more of a weapon, whereas before he was guiding it to its spots. Then he also took some advice from Gasquet, and started shortening the points and coming into the net with far more frequency.
I think mostly, it just seemed that Youzhny had been re-energised. He started to look much more alert controlling the points more too. It all started from the third set tie-break, which also contained good serving from him. But his form continued to fluctuate in the fourth set, down an early break and down a match point in the fourth set, but Gasquet let Youzhny off the hook by playing far too passively.. Though when Youzhny played well in that set, he was brilliant.
Just as I happened to be mentally preparing for my exit, the fourth set finished in the best possible way I could have imagined. With both players running all over the court and Youzhny ending it with a backhand down-the-line winner that looked like a backhand crosscourt winner, based on how far Youzhny was out of court.
That was the shot that ignited the stadium, not that they weren’t already into it and Youzhny celebrated it in a way that a shot and point like that deserved to be celebrated. Gasquet realized the job that was ahead of him now and hit a ball out of the stands of Margaret Court Arena. At first I thought this was a terrible way to leave a match, but no, it was perfect and it provided some closure in the same way that a TV show cliffhanger does.