Monday, 11 January 2010

Up and Running…

As great as ‘Open’ is, it’s just occurred to me that there’s little over a week before Oz gets under way, and to tell you the truth I’m a little behind some of the storylines that have emerged in the first ten days of the tenties (please tell me we can do better than that for something we’ll be stuck with for the next ten years and beyond).

So let me make good on that right now.

nadal(Photo: AP)

I don’t normally have a whole lot of time for exhos, but Abu Dhabi (only in it’s second year) has already shown a knack for getting the very best to play at their very best – all with not a single ranking point in sight.

It’s not all altruistic of course (there’s a reason we call these things cash cows), but the environment of an exho sometimes feels like a strange behavioural study into the effects of playing for pride.

When it’s done right, the results can be very positive indeed.

Muscles are flexed. New weapons developed in the off season get to be ground-tested in a contained environment. You also, and here’s where I think Abu Dhabi’s positioning on New Year’s Day really comes into it’s own, get to send out a message at the beginning of the season, and just two weeks before Oz.

True, nothing sets you up for a season of tennis down under, like a lively but mostly carefree little exho – but whereas in the past they might only have been considered one rather makeshift step above a practice session, the players nowadays seem to place a lot more stock in playing for pride.

And just in case you were still in need of any convincing, they signed up both Rafa and the Sod to really liven things up (presumably without telling either of them who else is invited). How cute.

Rafa, as we all know picked up the title, but the bigger story for the few remaining enclaves of Soderling fans out there (we know not our true numbers, living our precarious scattered existences mostly as creatures of the night), was his 13th-time-lucky outage of Roger Federer.

Yes it’s a mistake to read too much into an exho; and considering what happened in Kooyong 2007, I’m guessing A-Rod fans still regularly convene for Wicker-Man-like May Day sacrifices where items of memorabilia gathered from the bomb site that was Melbourne 2007 and hastily assembled Federer effigies are set ablaze.

But when the score reads as close as 6-7 (6-8) 7-6 (7-1) 6-2, it’s a little difficult to argue that they weren’t both invested or that Robin shouldn’t take any encouragement from the win. I certainly intend to.

Soderling was unable to follow up against Rafa in the final, but their handshake at the end of it was as civil as I’ve ever seen. Let’s be having no more of that Gentlemen – I expect a full return to unmitigated hostility by the end of the month.

As for Fed, taken by itself Big Rob’s win over him is of little consequence. Viewed alongside Davy’s second consecutive win over him however, it could mean everything and nothing; there’s been signs since last year (as great as it was) that that great Swiss ship of his might not be as tightly run as it once was: that whatever greatness he’s still capable of will find itself nestled amongst shorter periods of rampant mediocrity.

That might not necessarily be a bad thing. Whatever philosophical position you choose to take on whether it’s increased competition or Fed’s own regression behind the state of near parity that seems to exist amongst the top 5 (almost as great a debate as nature v. nurture), I almost think it might be in his interest if he, you know, checked out every once in a while.

Such a managed setback might actually turn out to have a shorter lifespan than one of the unplanned variety, like he experienced in between Oz and Madrid last year.

Even if he continues to play at the height of his powers however, I don’t believe the occasional shock, like he just suffered in Doha, should be so very shocking.

Davydenko d. Federer 6-4 6-4

At least not against players as adept as Davy.

"Before I lost 12 times in a row to Federer, but because I beat him in London I felt like I really could win," Davydenko said.

"I still had the level I had in London, and that was good - but I don't know how long I can keep it up."


Davy’s going to have to drop the awkward social graces, this uneasiness under the the limelight, if he’s to step up as a serious contender at any Slam.

But even if he talked a better game, I’d be a lot more confident about his quest to fashion something between a silk purse and the sow’s ear that is currently his H2H with Federer, were he to defeat him in a Slam; there’s certainly no other reason he ought not to make at least the final of a Slam: outside of Fed, there’s not a single player in the top five (or beyond) he can’t beat.

The only thing that might (somewhat paradoxically) come in between him and his quiet quest for glory, is his own fitness. When he was in the top 5 for all those many years, he wasn’t perhaps as finely developed at the net as he is now and didn’t serve half as well, but his fitness was off the charts. The result? Four QFs and four Semis at the Slams. Scored during an era of alleged lesser competition.

davydenko (Photo: Getty)

Since Miami 2008, we’ve seen a more versatile though no less Playstation-like Davy, capable of ghosting in to the net with that scythed put-away of his and serving with more confidence and variety. He has however, only made a single QF.

Part of this has been down to injuries, and as I see it, a period of natural adjustment to his new found well-rounded prowess. But he’s also seemed less enthusiastic at the prospect of lengthy five setters – so long the staple of his stay in the top ten.

Davydenko d. Nadal 0-6 7-6 (10-8) 6-4

Davy overpowering Nadal on a hard court ought to surprise precisely no one.

But what happened in that first set? After just the first few games, he looked so worked over that I actually took off.

When I returned they were embroiled in a third set with Davy 5-4 up and serving for the match.

"In this tournament I came back to play my best tennis for a long time," Nadal said.

"I lost today but he played unbelievable tennis - he was just better."


I would focus on that first sentence – we all know Davy is on an all time high right now and I actually think he’s the better player on a hard court.

But here’s the thing: Nadal wasn’t actually injured during that poor spell he had at the end of last year, merely out of sorts and not at all match fit.

That’s not generally a worrying state of affairs where he’s concerned. It would be more concerning had he turned up injured with those bands of tape beneath his knees, and insistent about playing through all sorts of pain like some puerile rite of passage.

Rediscovering his confidence in an uninjured state is something he’s actually rather good at.

Not that I think he’ll defend his title in Oz; for now I’ll content myself that he’s attempting to draw more upon that flatter breed of hit he fashioned in London and that he’s put a dampener on the ravings of those galoots that continue to insist his career is winding down.

It’s not necessary to say too much on the happenings in Brisbane; while not all of us might have been convinced it would happen so soon, I doubt anyone out there thought Henin would be unable to rise quickly above the rest of the field, and assume her rightful place alongside the Williamses and the rest of the Pre-Safinite Sisterhood.

Early on it looked like Kimmie was set to run away with the match with a sustained bout of metronomic play we usually associate with Davydenko.

And so it more or less continued until she quite carelessly allowed Justine back into the match during the latter part of the second set.

kimhenin (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

But I still believe the right woman won. I’m not sure a win for Henin would be quite the right result to usher in this new Post-Safinite age of hopefully more ordered tennis.

And while we’re on the subject, I don’t know that that there’s anything significantly different with the look or feel of Justines new-fangled service motion.

While it’s competent enough, there’s nothing like the revamp (either in pace or first serve percentage) we were promised. Maybe we’ll get to see it in Oz.

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