Thursday, January 7, 2010
Fortunately one person in front of me leaves, and I’m at least now standing with no one else standing in front of me. The scoreboard isn’t visible from here, A group of people behind me are discussing and asking each other who it is that Gael Monfils is playing against. One woman takes out her order of play, then reads out the name. This is what it’s like standing amongst a crowd watching tennis where all of the “expert” commentary is coming from the people next to you.
It looks like I’ve come at an important stage of the match, the tie-break in the first set but I was still acquainting myself with the match and my surroundings. This kind of view and atmosphere is almost like a complete shift in focus. I can’t really see the lines that well but I can see the pace of shot and the types of movement. The sound effects are exceptionally loud from this close, then again the hard shaded cover that the players play on amplifies all the sounds. When I moved onto watch the matches in Pat Rafter Arena, it just occurred to me, that do we perceive the pace of the ball almost entirely on sound, and is this an inaccurate way of judging things?
It’s clear that Serra is hitting his forehand exceptionally well today. It reminded me of the couple of matches I covered of him playing in Brisbane last year. His forehand is definitely his strength, the one he has more options with, off-forehand or down the line. He seemed to use his forehand to move Monfils around side-to-side, and assert his authority on the match, though strangely there were much fewer very long rallies than I was expecting, although there were some medium length rallies.
Monfils seemed to be doing everything at a snail pace in between points, walking as slowly in between points as possible. Given that I watched Sunday’s matches from a bit of a birds-eye view, it had been a while since I had been able to observe facial expressions. They really help fill in the gaps, such as why Monfils is taking so much time. Is he timewasting, being calculated and composed, dejected or whiny? Monfils is one of the most expressive characters on tour, and half this match ended up being about Monfils’ antics and the other about the tennis.
Maybe I caught Monfils on a bad day, but watching his facial expressions, I find it easy to believe that half the time he’s playing, he’s concentrating on something else other than the match. His mind looks like it’s completely elsewhere even when he’s not disagreeing with line calls and talking to the umpire. Though it must be said, there was a lot of that in between.
I don’t understand what was so serious that required a chat to the umpire almost every changeover, and one to the referee as well. It was clear that Monfils was unhappy with the line calls. I wasn’t in a position to comment, but I am certain that by the end, Monfils went ridiculously overboard in questioning almost every ball that landed close to the line. Somewhere in the second set, there was this really odd exchange between Serra and Monfils that had them both laughing about something to do with the line calls. This was after Serra hit a winner.
My impression of the section of the match I saw, only the second set really was that whenever Monfils picked up his consistency, he was the better player. I thought it was a good example, of how good consistency and defense can render an opponent almost completely ineffective. So it could be said that even though Serra played more aggressively, the match was more in Monfils’ hands. Monfils was the better player, but prone to concentration lapses. Serra had an excellent opportunity to break to serve for the match though, with 0-30 at 4-4 in the second set, but missed a makeable short ball, then mistakenly approached crosscourt off a dropshot instead of down the line and got passed easily with a shot that almost landed in the middle of the court.
It’s a unique experience getting to see the movement of Monfils up close, close enough to be able to hear it and watch him recover from those quick bursts of speed. I’ve heard a lot about how his choice to slide on the hardcourts strains his body and makes him injury prone. But you’ll notice also how when he moves, he quite often digs his feet into the ground and plants it. It’s a very aggressive way of moving around the court.
I didn’t watch the rest because I figured I wouldn’t have time to see it all anyway, and I needed to get some dinner. Besides I was primarily here to see Justine Henin, in her match against Sesil Karatantcheva. As Henin walked out, I expected to hear louder applause from the crowd, but it was a very mediocre volume of noise really. I’ll just interpret that to mean that plenty of people were interested in seeing her play, without being fans of her.
The other day I called her a ball basher based on TV and today it doesn’t look like she’s hitting the ball that hard to me. I’m pretty sure she’s hitting it at about the same pace today. Is it really all about the sound? Anyway, the first impressions of the match were that for such a high caliber player, Henin isn’t having an easy time winning points. She's having to engage in longer rallies and she's not looking all that reliable either.
Henin’s shotmaking was a little off to begin with. Sometimes she’d try really hard to pull the trigger straight away, and sometimes she’d rein it in too much not being accurate enough in her shotmaking. I guess you could say she looked distinctly average, unable to find that special shot to pull her opponent off the court and dictate it, and being too error prone too. Not being able to control points without trying to hit winners. Still, it was clear that her game was very different from all the other WTA players, in the manner she wins points.
Her backhand, as expected was very aesthetically pleasing to watch, especially from a side-on view, though she seemed to hit far more forehands in this match than backhands. I don’t think she hit that many winners on the backhand either. She definitely has much better disguise on this side compared to the forehand, but the forehand is a quick enough swing that opponents don’t really get much time to react.
Henin’s forehand really was shaky, and cost her dearly in the first half of the set. Credit must be given to Karatantcheva, however, who easily played a better match than I expected her to. She kept up the pace with Henin, strong groundstrokes on both sides and rarely looked like breaking down at first, even when stretched out wide. I cannot understand, however, why when the match was still even at 3-2 and Karatantcheva was playing a perfectly good match, she felt the need to call on her coach for advice.
In the end, I think the one-sided second set had just as much to do with Karatantcheva’s game starting to show some cracks, and showing signs of tiredness, as it did with Henin playing better. Henin did definitely show signs of improvements. For me, it’s a sign of reliability when I no longer watch wondering at the point of contact whether a shot will make it or not. Yep, Henin struck it firmly into the court almost every time. Though it seems whenever she hits a forehand, she has to put in a big effort to make sure that her body is moving forward into the court, to make sure that the ball doesn’t fly on her, or lose accuracy or pace.
I noticed that whenever Henin didn’t move right into the ball like it was short, she wasn’t able to hit down-the-line on the forehand anywhere near as effectively. In the coming weeks, she will need to add some accuracy on the forehand, in making it less predictable. I thought her forehand was much better on the return of serve compared to the normal rally, but on the other hand, she had the luxury of dealing with some short serves from Karatantcheva.
The final match I watched was between Tomas Berdych and Marcos Baghdatis, a surprisingly quick match. I’d say the whole match could have been summed up in the first 10 minutes, because I formed my first impressions then they stayed the same the whole way through.
Baghdatis just can’t seem to keep up to that pace, always one step behind Berdych and unable to find himself back into the match. If anything, it was thought that Berdych would let the Cypriot into the match, rather than Baghdatis finding his way into it. That was some high risk tennis that Berdych was playing. Baghdatis’ (perceived?) low first service percentage certainly didn’t make matters any better. I think it was like the match, that you kept expecting to change at some stage but it just never did. It never woke up from the dream, or at least it didn’t for Berdych.
It was a surprisingly decent match for its 6-0 6-1 scoreline. I didn’t feel like Baghdatis was terrible, more like too quickly overwhelmed to be able to find his range. I also find Baghdatis’ defensive forehand to be lacking sometimes, too prone to hitting it in the net especially when he is on the run and the ball has already started dropping.