Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Vive La France?

The iron's no longer hot but I thought I should include these picks for the sake of completeness.

Miami's Iron Maidens:
Have to admit I'm struggling here (my own rules prevent me from including Azarenka in the list).

Svetlana - Some hairy moments aside, this wasn't what I'd call an unproductive week for Sveta. She's ditched her coach (who knows what makes these things work), but seemed to be playing more freely and effortlessly than I've seen in months. Oh and she won the doubles with Amelie. Still things to work on, but plenty to be proud of too.

Jie Zheng - Just coz I love the way she plays and she went out to (an unstrapped) Serena in the fourth round. No disgrace in that. Great things really do come in small packages.

Na Li - One of the cleanest ball strikers (and one of the better techniques) on tour, I do find it a little surprising she hasn't had more success. Still, a quarter final here shouldn't hurt.
Miami's Damsels in Distress:

Ooohhh Boyyy...

No shortage of contenders of course, but I think Dinara, Nadia and Alize particularly stand out for me. I'm a little disappointed with Alize who's recently gone from being a gutsy dependable presence to a frightened, unimposing wreck.

Which leads me to the main point of this post. Just what is going on with French tennis these days?

I've been more than generous in heaping (deserved) praise upon the mens game, but here's something to wring your hands about: I don't think it's a coincidence that two of my thre
e picks for the more disappointing performances in Miami were French.

Despite not being 100% against Djoko, I don't think you can fault Tsonga too much: he's already won two titles this year and made the quarters at Melbourne.

I want to limit the scope of my criticism instead, to three players in particular: Gael Monfils, Richard Gasquet and Gilles Simon. (pointing)You, you and you - My office - now....

Richard Gasquet

I don't think it would be that valuable to rehash all th
e problems he's had with belief and mental toughness. That's hardly news, and in any event, is a charge you could level at French tennis in general: for all their talent, they're running a little thin on that stuff you sometimes find on roads - grit.

But here's a few other reasons why I think Reeshard comes up short so often.

-- His shotmaking is probably the reason why most people think he should be a top tenner at the very least. Some even thought of him as a Slam contender a few years ago. Quieter on that front now, though easy to see why. He can take the ball on the rise and can rip winners from pretty much anywhere on court. But that's very much the point for me. Why, if you had the hand skills to take the ball as early as he does sometimes, would you chose to spend 75% of the match camped five feet behind the baseline. It defies belief. I don't care that he's capable of hitting the occasional ripped winner from back there that defies
the laws of physics. He's shooting himself in the foot, and it's costing him the early stages of his career.

-- A corollary of the previous point. His style of play is way too passive for someone of his ability. He seems to occupy a space that straddles the line between being able to step in and end a point in one or at most two shots (which I would argue he should be doing more of), and hanging back (for far too long) and engaging in high, loopy clay court exchanges. I don't like it one bit. Gael Monfils suffers from the same ailment. Murray used to too. Then someone knocked some sense into him. Now he's threatening for the #3 spot.

-- Have to credit Mark Petchey for this one as I certainly didn't think this was as big a problem as some of the replays he ran appear to suggest it is (must try and dig out a YouTube clip). Reeshard's never been the best mover. But he does seem to scramble around an awful lot - undeniably a result of playing from so far back. Unless he's able to win the point in the initial few exchanges, he too often gets turned into his opponents' yo yo. But here's the thing. Next time you see him play, watch how inefficient his side
to side movement is. Whenever they're chasing balls down, the top players tend to always have their feet in a decent enough position to recover their balance and more centralised position at the baseline. Net result: their scrambling looks less laboured, smooth even - and they don't tend to lose any momentum as they chase the next ball down. I don't expect many players to have the pristine footwork of Federer or Murray. But if Reeshard is to have any credibility as even a top ten player, he's going to have to improve upon that horribly imbalanced and inefficient, jittery side-to-side movement - especially if he intends to spend that much time scrambling around, which I would argue he shouldn't even be doing.

Anyway the point of that analysis -- prepare to have your hearts pierced -- is that I don't think Reeshard is quite the player he's sometimes been bigged up to be. Yet. His dazzling array of shots -- some of which we wouldn't even get to see if he shortened points in the way I think he should -- often distract people from noting some pretty glaring defects in an otherwise fairly complete game.

"Cover your eyes COVER YOUR EYES!"

It' s not that I've suddenly stopped admiring those groundstrokes -- I still think he can crack the top ten on the strength of those alone -- I just think that to be considered in the same breath as Djoko and Murray you need to be more of a complete a player than he is just now.
Gilles Simon

On the one hand it's not that I don't admire what he brings to court. I've already spoken loads about his fitness and defence -- I even think there's a lot to be said for his shotmaking. But here's the thing (there's always a thing): Admirable as all of that is, it's still a pretty slender and limited bag of tricks to have made possible the incredible run of form he's had recently, which more and more are beginning to suggest was on the back of a few dodgy performances by the top players. Would he have still cracked the top ten if that didn't happen? Maybe, but his stay would be more brief. Would he have still got to the final of M
adrid last year? Probably not. Now that some of that dust is settled, could it be, that some of these earlier losses we're beginning to see, are a truer indication of his standing in the game?
Gael Monfils

Another guy who I think is way too passive and more than capable of wrestling the initiative from his opponents and ending points earlier than he does. But that's not what I want to talk about. I would argue that Gael's bigger problem is to do with maturity. Or the lack of it. For a guy that had so much success as a junior and has just cracked the top ten, he's one of the poorest thinkers out there. It's not just that his tactics don't always appear to be well thought out. When he's in trouble with his gameplan, he really looks lost out there. That's ok I suppose as he's still pretty young, and having Roger Rasheed in your corner can't hurt.

Much as I love this sort of thing...

But I really do think that the time has now come to cut out some of the more flamboyant on court amateur dramatics. You know, all that stumbling, scrambling and diving around after balls that are hopelessly beyond you. It is a crowd puller, I grant you, and is great for building up his image as a crowd
pleaser as well as for tennis in general. But I think there comes a point at which you have to ask how good that is for your body (he does seem excessively prone to injuries), and whether you're in this racket (pun intended) to garner public affection or on court success. That's where I think Rasheed will be particularly useful. Whatever else you may think about him, he doesn't suffer fools easily and will be sure to give Gael a pretty hefty boot up the hindquarters if he feels he's not taking things seriously enough. Maybe he already has - I seem to detect less larking around on court recently.
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