PARIS — Anyone who says clay slows down the tennis ball has not encountered John Isner.
All afternoon yesterday the six-foot-nine North Carolinian moved gracefully on the Philippe-Chatrier court at Paris’s Roland-Garros stadium, where the French Open takes place, with a simple game plan: hit the ball as hard as you can and if Rafa returns it, hit it harder.
It did not look like he was hitting slow shots. And it very nearly worked.
Balobat — a French firm whose racquets Nadal uses — has a five-year contract as the French Open’s official ball-provider, and they came up with a ball which to the naked eye or the lousy player does not seem different from your average Wilson of Penn but which to the champions is easily recognizable as harder and faster. Isner, in fact, stated before today’s match that he understood his awesome serve would be harder to return thanks to these spheres.
Roger Federer observed that especially with brand new balls — they are replaced regularly throughout a match — their speed would demand utmost concentration. But he added that once you get into the match you adjust.
If you can. One of the wonderful things about most sports, of course, is that it’s never over ’till it’s over, case in point Mavs-Thunder in the last minutes of Game 4 the other night. In the most dramatic match in the first round of the French Open, the 6th ranked Tomas Berdych clearly was in control of the match, up by two sets on Stephane Robert before the 31-year old French qualifier made an adjustment. In one of those what’s-to-lose moments, he said afterward, he traded defense for offense and went wild with the unusually wide range of shots that he commands when he is in full form.
Slices, drops, baselines-down-the-alley, from everywhere on the court Robert attacked, never giving Berdych the same shot twice in a row. This is rare on clay, a surface that encourages long rallies back and forth during which each player waits for the small mistake that will allow him to seize the initiative. It paid off: thrown off balance, Berdych won only two games in each of the next two sets and found himself serving against a totally fired-up opponent at 7-7 in the fifth (no tiebreak). Robert passed him twice with some magnificent backhand returns-of-serve to break, then served out the match.
“That’s tennis,” was Berdych’s frustrated but respectful comment. “He won the last three sets.”
You can be ill or sprain an ankle or something, but tennis matches are won by the players’ focus. Of course there are accidents, missed key shots — look at missed free throws or layups in the last minute of a basketball game. But there are enough shots and enough minutes (in tennis, as many as you want) to make focus the decisive edge. Berdych, who was ahead 4-2 in the last set, did not keep his focus; Robert did.
I harp on this, which admittedly sounds obvious until you think about it, because the three-way battle here between Rafa Nadal, No. 1, Novak Djokovic, No. 2, and Roger Federer, No. 3 (odd as this sounds) — four-way with Andy Murray, according to Andre Agassi –which may not happen but which, going into the second round, remains for the moment the normative plot in this tournament, is going to be decided by focus — concentration.
Though with unmistakably individual styles — Federer’s classicism, Nadal’s boldness, Djokovic’s athleticism and endurance — the world’s top three are playing a comparable game in at least one respect: their opponents cannot find a weakness to exploit. When they play one another, the question is who will start making unforced errors. Who, in other words, will drop his focus for just that moment that suffices for the other player to gain an edge, either by putting the ball away with a deft passing shot or (this has been Federer’s bane for the past two seasons) provoking a wild one.
Murray’s problem by contrast is that he chokes at the end, which is to say he cannot keep all his attention on the only point that counts, the one he is playing.
The three tops’ focus — what Berdych seemed to lose — therefore will be key. I feel somewhat apologetic in saying this, because it is impossible to watch any of these players and feel that they could possibly be more concentrated on what they are doing than they are. Surely they have game plans, yet they play the point, as coaches tell young players to do. But at some turn in the match, the experienced observer will notice a slight distraction, and that will make the difference.
And yet, what happened yesterday on the Chatrier center court was perhaps not so much focus as fatigue. Nadal and Isner were magnificent in their steadiness. In five sets and over four hours they made a total of four double faults. Isner was hitting serves that were 224 km/hr. That, if my math is right, is 136 mph. Nadal returned them — there were few aces — and except in the second and third set tie breaks, he was able to keep the ball in play long enough to get it where he needed it. That is called controlling the point.
John Isner, winner of the longest match in Wimbledon history, does not tire easily. He resisted valiantly while Nadal pounded away from the baseline, was unfazed during the two tiebreaks, and never surrendered. But he just did not have enough left to win back the break Nadal won early in the last set. Whatever else this match means, it shows that Isner, ranked No. 39 and playing with confidence against the defending champion and world No. 1, is a strong man to watch in American tennis.
As is Ryan Harrison, a 19-year old from Louisiana who put up a good fight during two of his four sets against the Swede powerhouse and world No. 5, Robin Soderling. Sam Querrey did even better, winning his match against Philipp Kohlschreiber. This does not look like our year, but there is always another one — if you keep your focus, avoid distractions.
Speaking of which, Michael Llorda, a fine player who choked during his key match in Belgrade last December and blew the Davis Cup for France even as Novak Djokovic was warming up to launch the astonishing run of wins from the beginning of a season that, if sustained, will take him past John McEnroe’s record of 42 in a few days, was annoyed by one of the stadium attendants during a frustrating match against Steve Darcis (who is Belgian — it is interesting the way Europeans often adopt Anglicized spellings for their given names, but let’s stay focused). Apparently the kid, in an uncharacteristic lapse on the part of the Roland-Garros administration, was not properly trained and did not realize you must not move in the stands, let alone around the court, during a point. After pleading with her several times to sit still, Llorda finally lost his temper and sent a ball in her direction. Of course it was a mild shot, but this is very bad, imagine a ball player throwing a baseball into the stands. It happened to David Ferrer some months ago, he hit a ball toward a wailing baby during the Miami Masters. Granted the baby should not have been there and the young attendant should have sat still, athletes are supposed to be made of sterner stuff.
The umpire correctly reprimanded Llorda, but did not ask the attendant to observe elementary courtesy. Indeed, as she had three times failed to pay attention to Llorda’s plea to stop moving around during points, Roland-Garros regulations allow the ump to call security to escort her to another part of the stadium. Annoyed by the reprimand (plus he was losing), Llorda went to the chair and said, “Look, Mohamed, this is not the souk” (pro. sook, an Arab open air market), “do your job.” So then after the match Llorda found himself answering questions from the local media about his “racist” feelings.
True, French sports journalists are a bit on edge these days due to a messy affair in the football federation involving charges that managers were colluding to limit the number of players of color. Actually, Mohammed el-Jennati and Michael Llorda are pals, and moreover, Llorda pointed out, the best man at his wedding was Congolese and his nanny was Kabyle (Berber). So take that, politically correct press! And just to be completely clear, he said the souk trope was not his idea: other players had been using it to remind Mo to get over some sloppy officiating.
To stay focused.