Who says tennis is stuck in an ancient rut and resistant to all change? I left the sport behind for a week and came back yesterday to find that a sensational, revolutionary advance had been made in Stockholm: The ball kids were equipped with little pieces of netting—think mini lacrosse sticks—to help them gather up the balls. No more bending and stretching and grabbing and hustling like over-sugared children. If they could get to the ball when it was still bouncing, all they had to do was nonchalantly put their net around it, without even breaking stride. After a while, I started to think they looked lazy doing it, that it was all a little too easy now. What are we paying these kids for, anyhow? (On second thought, are we paying these kids?)
We’ll see if this long-delayed ball-boy liberation spreads as quickly as the Arab Spring. Otherwise, it was a moderately consequential week of fall tennis, the final lull before the frenetic stretch run. On the women’s side, Victoria Azarenka made herself a favorite for the season-ender in Istanbul with an easy win in Luxembourg, while Dominika Cibulkova won her first career title, in Moscow—I would have guessed she would have won something else along the way, but titles can be deceptively difficult to come by. (I also would have guessed that Gael Monfils would have won, even if it was just by accident, more than three tournaments, but that's all he had coming to Stockholm last week.) The match of most significance, though, was the ATP’s first all-Serb final, in Moscow, between Janko Tipsarevic and Victor Troicki.
With his win in that match, Tipsarevic took home his second title of the fall and kept himself alive for a spot in London. His success, as well as Troicki’s, reminds me of Fernando Verdasco’s in 2008 and 2009. Verdasco said that his clinching win in the Davis Cup final in Argentina and subsequent run to the semis at the Australian Open had been inspired in part by watching his countryman Rafael Nadal win Wimbledon, something a Spanish man hadn’t done in more than 40 years. Tipsarevic has said similar things about his own inspirational countryman, Novak Djokovic, this season. Tipsy and Novak are friends, while Verdasco and Rafa aren’t, really; but both pairs are tied together as Davis Cup teammates—they’re more than just separate individuals in an individual sport. Tipsarevic’s surge at 27 years old is also another case of the “next” good player coming not from the juniors, but from the ranks of established pros. He won the Aussie Open junior title way back in 2001. I haven't seen much of his play this fall, but Tipsy has always been a go-for-broke kind of guy, trading pace for consistency. He's obviously found a better balance lately; it's hard to think of a better example of that balance than Djokovic's game in 2011.
Speaking of established pros, two others, Monfils and Jarkko Nieminen, also contested the one match I did see over the weekend. What these two men had established, as much as anything else, were two very bad records in finals. Monfils, a perennial Top 15 player, came in with a 3-10 record, while the 30-year-old Nieminen was 1-9. The good news was that one of them had to improve on that.
That player was Monfils, who won in three sets, but both men showed why they’ve had so much trouble in these moments. Nieminen, a pesky, soft-hitting lefty—he’s a veteran, yes, but I don’t think the Fin quite qualifies as “wily”—played fine, steady, even controlling tennis for much of the first set. Then, at 5-5, down break point, he got a look at a nice, fat, mid-court forehand—and pulled it six inches wide. Nieminen wasn’t happy, but he didn’t look all that surprised either. Monfils went on to hold easily for the set.
Then, naturally, it was the Frenchman’s turn to let his opponent off the hook. Good players will loosen up with the lead and front run, but Monfils takes the concept to its illogical extreme: He loosens up so much that he appears aimless out there. In the second set, he took a step back and allowed Nieminen to dictate his own fate.
As I said, one these two reluctant titlists had to win. The match was finally decided at 2-1 in the third set. Monfils had a break point, and both players ended up at the net for a little cat-and-mouse display. Monfils overdid it, of course, sliding a forehand gently crosscourt when the down the line was wide open. But he won the point anyway when Nieminen’s next flick shot caught the tape. Monfils had the break, and this time he really did front run with it.
It was an entertaining end to a quiet tennis week. The crowd in Stockholm was upbeat and vocal in their support for their fellow Scandinavian, and the match was played in a similarly upbeat spirit. Monfils now says he wants to win in Bercy, but there’s no reason to speculate about his future—it’s always c’est la vie with him, anyway. What I enjoyed most on Sunday wasn’t his tennis as much as the variety of expressions he brings to each match. For the most part, he’s jettisoned the more annoying ones as he’s grown up—there was no rapping to himself or off-his-meds chest beating in Stockholm. Instead, Monfils smiled after well-played points, laughed at his own stupid line-call challenges, rose up with a look of showy, I-know-it's-phony-but-it's-fun-to-try-to-look-tough-anyway fierceness when he served for the match, crossed himself and thanked the heavens after the final point, and made his eyes bulge comically as he pretended not to be able to lift the huge Stockholm globe trophy (one of the best trophies of the year, by the way).
Gael Monfils: By almost blowing a match that should have been his easily, he made it more fun for all of us in the end. Some things in tennis really don't change.