Match reports like this tend to focus on the first couple of games, when everything still seems important, the difference between a player winning and a player losing. Midway through the first set, the match fell flat quickly and before it was even over, it felt like it was over.
Fortunately I can still recall the events of the match. How much promise the match began with, only to quickly fade into disappointment. This was an exciting match-up between two contrasting players, and in your face personalities.
Monfils likes long rallies. Stepanek likes to shorten them. Monfils prefers to stay far behind the baseline, and Stepanek loves dropshots. The difference between Stepanek’s dropshots and everyone else who can hit them well, is that he can follow them up at the net. He gets away with it far more often than it looks like he should and he’s always bordering on being obsessed with the shot.
Both players opened the match with comfortable service games, as the players were still on their way to settling down in the match. There were a few too many unforced errors, but the rallies were promising. Stepanek, whenever he had a slightly shorter ball would take it on the rise and swiftly move into the net, especially on the forehand side. Stepanek seems to have this wonderful ability to be able to make the slightest differentiation between a shot he should be rallying on an even keel with, and when he should step it up.
It’s a different challenge against Monfils, however and he loves to hit passing shots on the run. For some reason, he actually appears to have more precise footwork hitting on the run, than from down the middle. I think it’s because of the way he plants his foot on the ground so he can recover to make it to the other side of the court if he needs to.
After the first couple of games, the players settled in, and the way the rallies unfolded, it was the perfect showcase of the athleticism of both players. Especially with all of those dropshots and lobs from Stepanek. No one really talks about Stepanek’s movement or athleticism much, but he is exceptionally quick and athletic. There was a lot of squeaking of the shoes around the court, and it was coming from both sides. It appears that Stepanek can also slide all over the court, although nowhere near as well of course. There was one rally where he did it three times amazingly.
Midway through the set, it actually looked like Monfils started to get the upper hand on Stepanek, as the rallies started to turn more and more into long, drawn out rallies. By now, Monfils had found his depth and consistency of shot. Given the reputation that Monfils has as a super athletic, amazing defensive player, I always seem to put the high expectation on Monfils to rarely throw in any unforced errors. I mean, doesn’t he only lose because he’s passive?
Surprisingly over the course of a match, his level can dip drastically, and it did so here quite suddenly at 2-3 down in the first set. It’s hard to explain why when he appears so secure sometimes. It took me a while to put a finger on it, but I started to notice the types of errors he was making. Usually setup big forehands, shots that are either putaway shots, or setups for winners. The shots that are supposed to be easiest for the players, but Monfils doesn’t like playing purposefully. He likes to play whatever he feels like in the moment.
Equally as disappointing as Monfils’ poor performance, was what happened as a direct result of it. Stepanek’s decision to play more direct, simple tennis. He earned his first break of serve with early, deep returns down the middle, but the longer the match went on, the more he sensed that he didn’t really need to do anything spectacular. I’m sure he wouldn’t have believed in the beginning that engaging in regular rallies would have done the job. But that’s the path he ended up taking as Monfils would throw in these strange errors.
Instead of trying to put in a big effort to focus and play out some tough points, Monfils had resigned himself to a loss. He’d laugh at himself, and he appeared sluggish all the time. Stepanek would throw in a couple of fist pumps and positive displays of emotion just to make the situation more clear. And he aimed it directly towards his camp, at his coach, Petr Pala. You had to love the precision of the raised little twirl of the finger he did in his camp’s direction at the end of the first set, straight after hitting a smash winner, and with his back turned away from them.
In little over an hour, Stepanek had made it into his second Brisbane final, and he’ll face Andy Roddick in the final. The day was in danger of becoming a big disappointment, and it seemed headed in that direction at the end of the first set between Roddick and Tomas Berdych, which Berdych won 6-1.
Speaking of consistency, Roddick is another one of those players that I expect to rarely make any unforced errors. To be fair, he didn’t make an excessive amount and it wasn’t shockingly bad. But it was bad for his standards.
To be honest, I had mixed feelings with how the match was going. I think on most occasions, if I’ve decided to root for a player that I have clear preferences for, I’ll find it hard to make that step of wishing it was a better match. Because that would be like completely switching sides and loyalties. It’s different if you’re confident of that player winning anyway, such as the first round of the Australian Open and you’re hoping that the low-ranked underdog will play a little more inspired than he currently is. But this is Roddick against Berdych, and he’ll be dangerous or maybe even favoured once he starts playing better.
In the end, I was pleased that Roddick did pick up his level though because it turned out to be a much better match to watch. Still, Berdych’s performance in the first set should be acknowledged, because it was impressive in the same way that his one-sided win over Marcos Baghdatis was.
This was Berdych hitting the lines with remarkable consistency. When Berdych is on form, it’s impossible to not be on the back foot spending all your time lunging around and scrambling his shots back. It looks great when it works, but generally the longer the rally goes, the less likely he’ll be able to keep it up.
I am not sure how much was forced or unforced, but Roddick couldn’t find his range on his aggressive forehand early on, and his transition game. Whenever he tried to hit a forehand to come in on, he’d miss it almost every single time. Then he’d start to miss these slower floating balls on his forehand side as well, much to his frustration.
Roddick casually threw around his racquet, hit a ball into the roof, then to end the set, dropped his racquet and quickly walked to take a bathroom break almost as if he wanted to get off court as soon as possible. Yet in spite of all of this, he always seemed committed to what he was doing, what he wanted to achieve tactically. After Monfils' earlier lack of fighting spirit, it was great to see Roddick competing well and digging deep, not that we would expect anything less. Though putting it into perspective, Roddick's antics were almost like a sideshow, not a display of serious frustration.
He continued to try to hit his forehand with purpose and slowly it came together. His forehand is effective in more subtle ways than Berdych’s is. It's accurate and heavy, effective enough to keep Berdych moving side to side, and he has the additional option of coming into the net, something that Berdych rarely does. When Berdych does it, he looks hesitant.
I also found a weakness in the Berdych smash. Apparently he doesn’t appear to know how to hit a slice smash or a three-quarter paced smash, or either he doesn’t want to. He seemed stubbornly committed to trying to hit a winner off whatever lob was thrown at him, if it was high enough for him to smash. Regardless of whether it was close to the roof or too close to the baseline.
What Roddick is exceptionally good at doing is piling the pressure on, and as soon as he started playing better, the consistency of good quality rallies started to significantly increase. Now they were having tough points almost every single point, and it was really only a matter of execution. By now, Roddick’s forehand was working much better, so his well-known serve/forehand combo allowed him to hold serve more easily.
Berdych continued to try to push the boundaries and his ball-striking abilities, hitting close to the lines with frequency. His level had dropped a little from the first set, but he was still capable of being accurate often enough. Accurate enough to be a potential threat, although the match was starting to turn in Roddick’s favour. I started to hold my breath whenever Berdych hit a shot, and when he hit a great shot, I would often gasp. Because he would often save break points and other important situations with high risk, difficult shots. Berdych doesn't hit with safe margins over the net either. He really needs to add a transition game to make it easier on himself.
There was hope of Berdych suddenly putting together a glorious game, but in the end, it followed the same trend that the match had been heading. Berdych finding himself undone by his own errors, as a direct result of all the consistent pressure that Roddick put him in. And Roddick hitting a couple of aggressive returns in the decisive game.
It was strange to hear in the on-court interview, Roddick putting all the credit on Berdych for the loss of the first set, despite all of his on-court antics. This only adds to my impression that part of his reactions were more for the show, than anything else.