Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Melbourne: Cuckoo-Clocks and ‘Crappy’ Tennis

Men’s Final

Federer d. Murray 6-3, 6-4, 7-6(11)

Whilst Fed was busy working every last one of Jo-Wills working body parts over, I was sitting there – like one of those hard boiled ringside analysts from the 40s, unperturbed by the occasional spatter of blood in my general direction – engaged in a mental soliloquy of sorts aimed at rationalising what I was seeing before me, the baying of the crowd now barely a distant hum.

Was it JW that was making him look so good? Had he peaked too early? Was it 2007 all over again?

The way I saw it, this kind of a performance was at odds with anything I had seen in the last two years. A period in which he won his share of Slams, though each of which seemed to have a less assured more sweaty-browed feel to them.

Had Federman arrived?

federer (Photo: QUINN ROONEY/AFP/Getty Images)

There wasn’t much in it in the opening two or three games, though I was immediately struck by the sound coming off Fed’s racquet as his SHB went toe to toe with arguably the finest DHB in the game for several high quality rallies.

It was a dull, assured thud – one which brooks no opposition – not that different to the sound of Michael Jordan hitting the backboard with what turns out to be the winning basket.

At this stage it looked like we were in for a treat: Muzz was striking the ball as well as he ever had and attempting to keep Fed pinned far back with a combo of flatties and and high bouncing loopies that landed near the baseline – perhaps the most important constituent of the type of game he brought against Nadal.

Then more and more of Muzz’s first serves began to fly into the net – halfway down the net. It wasn’t the greatest of openings – but proved to be the only one Federman needed. Muzz would lose it having only served a paltry 45% first serves in.

If Federman had succeeded in pushing Murray off the pier to claim the first set, he must have attached a concrete block to his feet, because Muzz was unable to resurface from the deluge that was to ensue in the second.

Quite simply the best set of tennis from Fed in well over two years.

We bloggers love to speak of momentum shiftswith Federman in form like this, I prefer to think of it as a momentum ambush.

The tempestuous nature of which leaves his opponents reeling. You can be sure Murray wasn’t thinking about gameplans in set two: he was wondering how best to stay in the point – and in the moment.

It’s a testament to his fortitude and temperament that he managed to wangle all of four games: this would normally be the cue for rounded soda-bread to be served.

Fed’s only miscue of the match would come at the beginning of the third set, a lapse which Murray would use to race to a 5-2 lead on the back of some fine serving of his own.

It’s unlikely to have changed the course of the match, but not being able to close that set out, and frankly allowing Fed back in with a slew of errors (mainly off that forehand) is what probably lay behind those tears.

I believe he approached the match with the right tactics – being blown off court in a manner not dissimilar to that first time outing in Flushing must hurt.

There have been far too many opponents in the past (particularly pre-2007) that have chosen to wilt in the assumed glare of Fed’s awesomeness before even stepping out on court – you simply cannot tarnish Muzz with the same brush.

murray (Photo: THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Mark Baker)

I would hate it every bit as much as I did the Jo-Willy blowout, were Muzz’s spirit and big match instincts found to be wanting.

But they were mostly intact, and what’s more is he didn’t flinch from executing precisely the game plan most of us well-meaning critics have being waiting to materialise for longer than I care to remember – in fact, he probably blew that last set because he stuck to it too rigidly.

Hardly surprising, when you consider this is the first time he’s used it in a big match situation, opposite the very best playing at his very best.

Over the last 36 hours, every article I’ve read has been at pains to emphasise how magic stroke ‘x’, strategy ‘y’ or tactic ‘z’ was responsible for this most singular of wins.

To me that’s a little like admiring one of those ornate, hand-crafted, wonderfully embellished Cuckoo-Clocks full of thousands of intricate working parts, for it being able to tell us the time.

What Federman did on court yesterday was nothing less than a feat of well-engineered synchronicity – one where his speed, timing and technique, but also a subtler array of skills such as knowing exactly what it will take to wrench control from your opponent and end the rally on your terms, all came together to put on one of the greatest shows in tennis.

I don’t expect the same guy to show up at every Slam – though at this point I can only see Nadal topping him when he does. Oh wait a minute, his career may be over.

Ladies Final

Williams d. Henin 6-4 3-6 6-2

serena (Photo: AP)

I’m not going to talk much about what happened in the match, because I thought it was crap.

Go on, be honest.

Oh sure, it had all the right ingredients: two of the very best players of the last decade, who by some quirk of fate somehow hadn’t met in the final of a Slam before, going head to head in what since 2005 has been my favourite Slam (You have Marat to thank for that).

There may even have been, for those desperate enough to seek it (and unwilling to let go), the faintest afterglow from the fireworks of 2003. Or maybe not.

And yet, not once were they both able to bring their best tennis to bear at the same time, which for me is the defining feature of any candidate match-of-the-year.

The first set was way too scrappy with neither player really able to impose themselves. The second half of set two saw that inexplicable streak from Henin during which Serena failed to win more than a single point. Serena eventually broke Henin down in the final set, with a relentless combo of big serving and heavy groundies.

It doesn’t get any more “Margery Daw” than that.

serena1 (Photo: MARK KOLBE/AFP/Getty Images)

And yet, there’s something strangely compelling about ‘crap’ tennis; it’s low-key, unpretentious stuff.

In the best tradition of the underrated cult classic, crap tennis doesn’t seek to grab our attention with anything so tacky as a digitally-enhanced first serve careering towards you in resplendent high-definition.

It’s also several orders above that litany of insufferable one sided ladies finals we’ve had to endure, that date back as far as 2005 (and no, I’m not a fan of Williams v Williams finals either) – Slasher B-Movies, every last one of them.

Not every Slam final has to be possessed of the sustained intensity found in say Henin v Dementieva (round 2) – just as not every men’s final has to compare well with Wimbledon 2008, to be considered a viable match.

The reality is, this is the best indication we’ve had in years, that the quality of Ladies Slam Finals might just be about to catch up with the men -- an era that will probably be shorter than we’d like given both finalists are in their late twenties -- but nevertheless an era that values real talent, nerve, determination and a healthier long term perspective, over big-budget forehands that no one cares to speak of in two years.

henin (Photo: MARK KOLBE/AFP/Getty Images)

What this final lacked in quality, style and “special effects”, it more than made up for in character, body and soul.

Two of the very best players this sport has to offer embroiled in a struggle in which neither is able to bring their best tennis; one struggling with injuries and movement, and to all intents and purposes, mummified from the waist down - the other, on a comeback trail, desperately trying to fashion a serve to go along with her otherwise very complete game, a battle which for the most part, she’s currently losing.

So raise your glasses if you will, to Serena Williams and Justine Henin - ‘Crap’ Tennis Players, both in their own unique ways.

I’ll take both of them and their ‘Crappy Tennis’ over any of the two set barfworthy beatdowns I’ve been suckered into over the years.

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