Saturday, 3 January 2009

Steady on Chaps! It's only an Exhibition...

I'm still reeling from the effects of what I saw this weekend.
But before I get into that, take a look at this view of the sunset at Abu Dhabi this weekend: it's just as arousing and hypnotic as the tennis featured there. You can see the image in it's full glory at momentaryawe's blog. Stunning.

Ok, back to the tennis. I expected quality - any tournament showcasing 6 of the current top 10 is bound to conjure up something special. But let's be honest, this was meant to be an exho (when was the last time one of those truly stirred you up?), a venue to allow players to ease themselves into the new season (I'm assuming Bodo wrote that before the final), and well, it was just the third day back from the off season for Pistol-Pete's sake!

It's always a mistake to think that what takes place in an exho matters very much - but I just don't see how you can pretend to think that the final in Abu Dhabi doesn't have a bearing on the Australian Open, or for that matter the rest of the year.

I'm pretty sure I haven't seen such an electric atmosphere at any exho, made all the more special by the fact that it wasn't the theatrics (usually associated with such an informal event - think Leconte and Bahrami) that brought the crowd to their feet; it was the quality of the players' tennis and their determination to win a match with no ATP points at stake.

For those that didn't see it, get out there and find a recording immediately - flog the family silver if you have to, just do whatever's necessary to get a look in at what went on here. It'll probably go down as one of the best matches of the year - and that's no exaggeration. The commentators were out of superlatives and by 3-3 in the final set (an especially electrifying game featuring amongst other things an attempted hotdog by Nadal) were reduced to making incomprehensible cooing noises as they tried to readjust their expectations and make some sense of what they were seeing.

Murray appears to have simply picked up from where he left off: if anything there's a more compelling robustness and purposeful dogged determination about his game, a product no doubt of his very busy off season in Miami; and after his defeat of Federer only a day before I expected something special.

But it's Nadal that really impressed. Just what idiot was it, that said he's not a contender for a hard court slam? Oh wait a minute, that would be me.

I suppose it wasn't the fastest court in the world and that probably helped, but he was playing opposite arguably
currently the best hard court player in the word, and normally in the face of such aggression we see him scrambling after balls three or four metres behind the baseline. His shots tend to lose some of their bite, becoming more and more loopy and scarcely landing beyond his opponent's service line.

None of that here. Even his defensive shots had a depth and purpose to them we don't often see. It was perhaps his most aggressive and convincing recent hard court performance - he did win Toronto I suppose, but I've always put that down to his riding the wave of confidence and momentum he had at that point in the year.

I also found myself pleasantly surprised at Nadals new sleeved'n'collared look. I've often found myself wishing he never tries anything like it and sometimes shuddering at the thought that he would- but was amazed to see it actually worked.

It gives Nadal more of an air of dignity that I think is quite consistent with his now statesmanlike position in the game. Ok, maybe he is still a little fresh faced for that description but I think you know what I mean. He's just about now beginning to lose some of that boyishness that is such a large part of his appeal, and as he transitions into the middle segment of his career, may need something a little different. With a few exceptions (Blake and Moya), I don't like sleeveless tops on anyone over the age of 23, but I think we all know he's capable of pulling off that bright and slightly impetuous look if he needs to go back to it.

Federer's performance wasn't bad - not great (still a little too many of 'those' forehands), but he was beaten by Roddick at an exho in Kooyong in 2007 and we all know what happened at Melbourne thereafter. So I'm going to reserve judgement and still consider him very much a contender.

It's old Djoko that I'm really interested in as he's chosen against playing Qatar in favour of Brisbane. I personally would much rather see him up against Federer and Nadal (I really should get into the habit of saying Nadal and Federer) - a deliberate decision to try and regain some confidence maybe? Only trouble with that theory is that a certain Mohammad Ali lookalike is also playing there and last time I looked its Djokovic that was on the receiving end of some of those proverbial (and rather painful) bee stings.

I'm really wishing he emerges from his recent slump - I think the top of the tour is better for his (sometimes a little too) colourful presence there. But one thing's for certain: Murray's really thrown down the gauntlet, and the resonance of the subsequent thud would have caused all but the very pigheaded to take note.

If anything, Nadal and Murray may have actually set the bar a little too high. If the tennis at Melbourne is half as good as it was in that final at Abu Dhabi, we'll have good cause to cheer. I hope I'm wrong but I've a feeling that this little exho final may turn out to be a contender for the
that match of this year .

Abu Dhabi image by momentaryawe
Nadal image by

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