January 21, 2010

Digging Out of a Hole

A funny thing happens during Grand Slams -- every year, almost without fail, as I watch the men play, I'm amazed by how many five set matches we see. And every year I wonder if we've set the record for time on court or games played. This time I feel it has to be true!

It's a testament to the fitness and ability of these athletes that they can put forth so much effort for three, even four, straight hours -- and a bigger testament to their mental toughness that they can pull themselves together and come back in a match they would have lost in any other tournament.

Take for example the marathon second round between U.S. Open champ Juan Martin Del Potro and my dear James Blake which lasted four and a quarter hours. Blake led the thing two sets to one, and at a non-Major would have been off the court -- with a wholly different result -- more than a hundred minutes sooner. While I personally was rooting for the American to pull off the upset, I have to hand it to DelPo for continuing to show the perseverance of a champion and once again quieting critics who say he isn't fit enough to be a contender.

Even more impressive, though, were a couple of matches contested on Thursday.

Thirtieth seed Juan Monaco, once ranked #14 in the world, has been clawing himself back from a rough 2009. He should have been a heavy favorite against Frenchman Michael Llodra, who hadn't passed the first round of the Australian Open since 2000. But after just over an hour, Monaco inexplicably found himself in a two set deficit. The two men traded breaks in the third, ultimately forcing a tiebreak, but then it was all Argentine. Juan won almost two of three points for the rest of the game and actually took every point on his first serve in the fourth set. Somehow he was able to regroup just in time to pull off the victory.

Spain's Albert Montanes found himself in a similar predicament while facing #104 Stephane Robert. The two had met twice before in Challenger events way back in 2004, but Montanes has clearly had the better career since then. A titlist in Bucharest and Estoril last year, he claimed the thirty-first seed in Melbourne, but after losing the second set tiebreak he was in trouble, too. He might have benefited from his less-experienced opponent losing steam, though, as the next three sets combined took less time than the first two put together -- Montanes upped the quality of his serve while Robert's fell apart and only allowed one break opportunity from that point on.

One seeded player, though, wasn't able to avoid the upset. Veterans, David Ferrer and Marcos Baghdatis have been around for years and the Spaniard won their two previous meetings in straight sets. He would have here, too, had this only been a best-of-three tournament. But Baghdatis, the winner in Sydney last week and the '06 finalist at the Open, tends to do well Down Under. He was unable to convert on any of five break chances in the first set, but like Monaco he rallied in the third-set tiebreak. And after averaging only sixty-three percent on first serve in the opening two sets, he improved to 87.5% in the last two. The Cypriot closed out the four-plus hour match with a 6-1 set to make the third round for the fifth time in his career.

Playing five sets is clearly a test of physical endurance, but even more so of mental maturity. And when players do everything they can to secure a straight-set victory only to find themselves still trying to smack forehands and fire off serves hours later, it's easy to see how even the best players can let big leads crumble -- Blake, after all, had been infamous for an eleven match losing streak in five-setters. But hats off to those who are able to stay with it, and even play better as the match wears on. Of course it remains to be seen if any of these players can follow up their recent wins, or if they'll be too exhausted to even lift a racket in their next match. But at least they've proven they shouldn't be counted out too soon.

And that maybe they should be considered even more of a threat now.


Anonymous said...

Great article! There's definitely more pressure (physically and mentally) in a 5-setter. Some players thrive under the pressure, while others tend to fall apart. And sometimes, it's just a matter of a few key points that determine the winner, which I believe was the case in the del Potro/Blake match.

Kavitha said...

I agree! So many chances for Blake -- something that can be said of a lot of matches (including last year's Wimbley final!) But I think that's what makes these matches interesting