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Observations In The Arena — Scenes From An ATP Finals Weekend

Skip Schwarzman

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Skip Schwarzman

Friday’s matches weren’t particularly compelling – which is not a requirement of sport but vital to even mildly readable journalism – so between that and plans for the pub on Friday night, there was little reason or opportunity to write a standalone journal entry on Friday.

I will say, however, that tennis does itself proud by the tradition of having young children accompany the pros out onto court for matches. The kids are always glowing with such unbridled joy that it looks as though they’re about to burst. Full marks to both tours for this — it’s as good an example as there is of doing good for no reason other than to make someone else happy, and in this case the beneficiaries are children. That’s as good as it gets.

Both of Friday’s day matches, which is what we saw, were of the Bauhaus sort; form followed function. Or, as an alternative, think of architectural brutalism; get the point won in the quickest, simplest, most direct way possible, and if you failed in one attempt then rinse and repeat. Do it again until you get enough points to take the game or set: big serves, big returns, and especially in the doubles, big volleys. Just big, big, big.

In the doubles it was Marcelo Melo-Lukasz Kubot versus Oliver Marach-Mate Pavic.

The singles was John Isner against Alexander Zverev.

Not surprisingly the Isner-Zverev match didn’t feature too much nuance. Both of them were raining down aces (18 for Zverev and 10 for Isner) and unreturnable serves. At one point the O2 staff seemed to have decided not to flash the lights after every ace, which is what it otherwise did. We assumed it was because there were just so many aces occurring they didn’t want to blind the audience. Serving at set point out, Zverev hit an ace to the outside in the ad court, at 143! It was like watching someone gonging a bell with a sledgehammer at a carny: not a lot of narrative or tension leading up to the effort, just 1-2-3-BOOM, repeated over and over. Interesting, impressive, but not edge-of-your-seat gripping stuff.

Isner’s game dropped a bit, especially his serve (surprise!), and he blinked.  Zverev pounced, took the one break point he earned all afternoon, and won 7-6, 6-3. For Zverev, a win is a win, beauty not required. For Isner: Live by the serve, die by the serve.

— General comment on doubles: Friday, James announced that he was rooting for Melo-Kubot because their outfits were at least the same color. Yes, my personal bugaboo surfaced again: Why aren’t doubles teams required to at least wear the same colors? Someone at the ATP should be tasked with writing an essay on how team uniforms work in other sports. On Saturday our collective vote went to Herbert-Mahut. Earlier Mike Bryan wore a navy top while Jack Sock wore red – that’s bad. Murray-Soares were in the same dark color, but not the same clothing company – that’s acceptable. Cabal-Farah had matching kits, so 100 percent to them, but Herbert-Mahut had matching sweatbands and sneakers; bingo, the proverbial but otherwise impossible 110 percent! Plus, how can you not root for Nicolas Mahut?

Jamie Murray-Bruno Soares vs. Mike Bryan-Jack Sock

— Jack Sock’s forehand is a nuclear rocket on steroids. Murray-Soares avoided it at all costs, and it’s easy to understand why. Sock didn’t make every forehand, but the odds of him opening up the point or hitting a winner were pretty high. On the other hand, he launched a missile at Murray, who managed to mishit it (the best he could do, really). It dribbled over the net. A dirty little secret of volleying: When you’re up front, the ball doesn’t have to travel very far to land in court.

— I get nationalism, properly applied, and understand unqualified support for your favorite team. But calling out, “How about a double fault?”, to Mike Bryan, as one nob in the audience did, is just not okay. The crowd was about to lynch the guy. (This was far different than the night crowd – more about that later.)

— Serving at 3-4 in the second set and down 0-40, Mike Bryan put in four first serves and escaped. Now there is a lesson for every single tennis player all around the world.

— Having said the above, it helps to have Jack Sock as your doubles partner. The guy has fabulous hands (they all do on this court, to be fair), and is super seriously fast on his feet. It’s weird how doubles might have saved his emotional well-being in 2018, given his well-recorded tribulations in singles. I’m not the first to make that comment, by the way. Even he suggested as much in the postmatch interview.

— While avoiding Sock’s forehand, it’s pretty obvious Murray and Soares were targeting Mike Bryan’s forehand. With his brother, Bob, with whom Mike plays the ad court, it’s a crosscourt powerhouse to be avoided. But with Sock, who plays the ad court in this pairing, daring other teams to find his backhand, Mike Bryan’s forehand simply doesn’t present the same danger from the outside.

— An interesting twist of the rules: Bryan served (to Soares?). The serve was a let and called out. Soares hit it back, reflexively, and as it went by Bryan in the air he reached out and knocked it aside with his hand. But wait, was the serve really in? Bryan-Sock can’t challenge, since if the ball was in play Bryan would lose the point for having touched the ball. Weird.

— In the match tiebreak, both teams reversed their serving order, having Murray and Sock serve first for both teams when the normal rotation would have been Soares and Bryan. I’m not sure what that says about both teams’ views of their serving – it could be argued that they put their best servers first, or kept them for the second two-serve combo – but it was a noticeable strategy chosen by both teams, oddly.

— Bryan-Sock came through, losing the second set but taking the match tiebreak. As Graham said of the Murray-Soares performance in the second set, “If you can’t win one out of seven break points you might not deserve the win.”

— Maybe it’s modern day tennis heresy, but I say that by the semis the doubles teams should be playing a full three-set match and dumping the match tiebreak. There’s enough time, no “128” draw’s worth of matches to schedule, and the drama is lengthened while chances of a team grabbing a match by getting a hot hand for a few points is avoided. Call me old-fashioned.

Roger Federer vs. Alexander Zverev

— The O2 has been running a contest, such as it is, urging the crowds to cheer loudly and be crowned the loudest crowd of the week thanks to a decibel monitor the tournament puts up on the giant scoreboard. Up until Saturday afternoon’s match it hadn’t cracked 99 dB. Federer is announced on court. The meter hits 105.

That’s got to hurt Zverev. Poor guy has to play Federer and 10,000 fans. Lendl’s going to have to cheer really loudly.

— The head-to-head for these two doesn’t give much indication about what will happen. Fed leads 3-2, not a big margin, and the last combat between them was here at the O2 a year ago, when Federer won in three.

— There’s not much between them as the match starts. Zverev, notably, was coming in to net more than he probably had in the past seven months; 3 out of the 5 points in the 2-2 game. It’s ironic that he’s doing that now, with Lendl in his corner, of all people. But it’s effective. The kid has solid volleying skills. (And he’s still only 21 [!], so I get to call him “kid.”)

— Zverev was trying to punish the ball, Federer was replying in kind, though primarily at the same or lesser pace, not ramping it up in his ripostes, while throwing in a good assortment of off-speed balls and a drop shot or two.

“Just because you want to go hammer-and-tong doesn’t mean I have to play that way.”

Twice, early in the first set, Sasha came in and Fed sliced soft backhands low to the German’s forehand, eliciting errors each time. Sneaky and effective.

— Following on my comment above, the crowd groaned with every Federer mistake or missed opportunity.

— 5-all in the first set, Fed’s game dropped two percent as Zverev’s improved by two percent. Result: Zverev got the break and the first set. Those two-percent shifts for each, in different directions, were all it took.

— Federer broke to open the second set. The crowd went wild. 105 dB again. His service stats for the first set weren’t stellar. It looked as though he was taking something off his firsts to bring up the average and deprive Zverev of a look at second serves. Serving at three-fourths pace, he puts in a 93-mph kick first serve and wins the point. Clearly he knows a thing or two about playing tennis.

— The German broke back, however, and the second set went much as the first. There is the episode with Zverev halting play midway through a key point in the tiebreak, having seen a ball kid drop a ball and move to pick it up. No one was sure what happened at first, and the umpire, Carlos Benardes, explained afterward as he said to replay the point.

It’s worth noting that Zverev hit a forehand to return the ball Federer had hit to him and then put up his hand, and that the ball kid was behind Federer, right down Zverev’s forehand sideline. The distraction was legitimate, if not obvious to the crowd or Federer.

— Federer played close to Zverev all match, but never really hit any kind of stride. He had no break points in the first set, failed to defend the only break point against him, and in general was never playing with his nose truly out front. The tournament’s site isn’t listing unforced errors, but Federer probably doesn’t want to see that number. It can’t be good. The German, on the other hand, was the braver player, going for his shots (and yeah, making them), serving well, and moving out of his comfort zone to attack the net.

Yes, Federer botched a simple forehand volley in the second-set tiebreaker to hand the mini-break to Zverev, but his play had been spotty enough that taking the “W” would have been a matter of scratching out the win unless things changed radically. Would that have mattered? No, a win is a win. But it didn’t seem to be in the cards.

— About the booing Zverev received during the on-court postmatch interview: It was appalling. It was undeserved, rude, ill-informed, and contrary to the best of the spirit of competition and tennis’s traditions. Thankfully, it was countered by a larger portion of the crowd clapping and cheering for Zverev as he apologized, more than once, for having stopped play. He was entirely within his rights, and the rules, and if Bernardes had thought to have the tournament play the clip showing the ball boy’s gaffe, as it did after the match, the ugliness might have been avoided. Chalk this up to the less pretty side of fanaticism. The most rabid Federeristas in the crowd did not reflect glory on their hero.

— A word about mid-game and between-match music: The bulk of what was played said the tourney sees its demographic as way different than the youngsters all of tennis moans about needing to attract. (And yes, I myself moaned as I typed “youngsters.”)

Here’s the playlist from Saturday, which is not 100-percent complete but close to it: Rolling Stones Aretha, The Who, Blondie, Stones again, Stealers Wheel (“Stuck In The Middle With You,” which I’m proud to say I pulled from my memory banks), Bowie, Lou Reed, The Jam, Amy Winehouse, Michael Jackson, Rihanna, Slydigs, AC/DC, and what is the apparent theme song, “Legendary” by Welshly Arms.

I can’t say what the soundtrack should have been. I’m not that current over the music scene. Yet, disenfranchising some of the older folks over music choices might go a little way in appealing to younger ticket buyers.

Pierre-Hugues Herbert-Nicolas Mahut vs. Juan Sebastian Cabal-Robert Farah

— The doubles brought out a Colombian cheering section which would have cheered its team’s breathing if it had been able to hear it. Eh, it wasn’t rude or bothersome. Mostly funny. But the coordination of Herbert and Mahut’s outfits clearly tilted the balance and they made their way into the final, where they would meet Mike Bryan and Jack Sock.

Novak Djokovic vs. Kevin Anderson

This is all I’m going to say about the contest between Novak Djokovic and Kevin Anderson, won by Djokovic 6-2, 6-2: The match wasn’t as close as the score suggests. It was a thrashing. Anderson may be the most earnest, diligent pro on the ATP Tour, but he had nothing. Anytime he mounted a slight pushback Djokovic would fire a groundstroke, or ace, and shut down the insurgence straightaway. Quite frankly, it was boring. Anderson was game for the fight, but he was on the short end of a contest between unequals.

And so our sojourn ends, Saturday being our last day of matches. We head home not having had a match in five sessions that caught fire, not one where you’d say, “Hey, I was there for that one, and it was epic!” There have been fine moments, but nothing momentous.

That’s not why I came to London, though. I’ve spent almost six days with guys I’ve been playing tennis with, and teaching with, for decades. I’ve caught up with their families’ stories, teased them about how they missed long-ago volleys, and hugged them as we parted, promising to meet up again soon. If the tennis wasn’t scintillating, and our own efforts to find an open public court for a hit were futile, well, that ain’t no big deal.

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