The weather seemed unwilling to cooperate yesterday at the Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship. It was overcast, it was drizzling, and overall just annoyingly wet. However, with patience and hard work by the grounds crew, the full slate of round two matches of the qualifying tournament was completed, and we were left with eight men vying for those four main draw spots. Here are some observations from what transpired between the late start, the brief rain delay, and the end of the last match.
The Best Match I’ve Seen So Far
I had a good feeling about the lefty battle between Yoshihito Nishioka and Thiago Monteiro, and boy, did they deliver. Only a year apart in age, both couldn’t be any more different as tennis players. Nishioka is the crafty lefty with the underpowered (but pretty) forehand and the glorious backhand down the line. Monteiro (five inches taller) is the owner of a monster lefty forehand that he clearly enjoys blasting all over the place, but he also owns an inconsistent backhand that tends to break down. The 19 year-old from Japan flies around the court at astonishing speed. The 20 year-old Brazilian finds it hard to get back in a point when he’s pushed back behind the baseline. Even if he looks extremely fit, it just doesn’t seem like Monteiro has that burst of explosion when he covers the court.
Nishioka is constant, meticulous, and always willing to chase down the shots that probably should be left alone. He can do that very contemporary thing of flying towards his backhand corner and hitting a proper drive backhand from way behind the baseline while being 75% of the way towards doing the splits (pretty much like Novak Djokovic does). You see this maneuver being performed not 30 feet from you, and it seems like a live CGI demonstration. But that forehand just lacks a consistent pop, and frequently lands short in areas that get Yoshihito in trouble. There’s also the issue of the serve, which is already a challenge at 5’7. Nishioka has a simple motion, but doesn’t really push with his legs into the shot. The resulting lack of power is felt more acutely in the second serve, and as the match wore on, Monteiro found it easier to pummel hard returns close to Nishioka’s quick feet.
Speaking of Monteiro, he is a fascinating character. He’s mostly full of positive intensity, pumping his fist after most good points. I think more and more people are becoming aware of his Janowicz-ian primal screams after winning sets and/or matches. But he has found it hard to consistently harness his game in ways that might help him avoid make-or-break situations like having to win a second set tiebreaker in order to stay in the tournament (vs Harrison), or find a way to break serve down 5-4 in the third set against Nishioka.
Remarkably, Monteiro found a way to survive both close encounters with elimination. What I saw from Thiago in that 5-4 return games was a complete and fearless commitment to the cause: he left no cartridge unused. If he had half a look at a forehand, he whacked it as hard as he could. If he was forced into a backhand, he was aggressive with that shot, too. He was relentless, and it certainly paid off: he ended up taking the match in the third set breaker, 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (4).
Regarding Yoshihito Nishioka, let’s let this question set the tone:
@jjvallejoa Do you think Nishioka's lack of size hurts him? He's shorter than even Ferrer, after all.
— Adrin (@Chalk_Flew_Up) April 6, 2015
The easy answer is “yes.” David Ferrer told me the other day that he doesn’t envision players of his height (5’9) surviving in the next decade or so, and Nishioka is two inches shorter. However, Nishioka’s timing on that backhand is impeccable, and his forehand is so accurate that I don’t think that his height affects the baseline game negatively. What I do think is that Yoshihito might need to get stronger. Much, much stronger. He faded in the third set in ways that allowed Monteiro to boss him around, effectively taking control of the match out of his hands. Early in the match, it was Nishioka who was moving the Brazilian around, even if he played a terrible service game at 4-5 and lost the first set. But in the third, almost every Nishioka shot was landing in the general vicinity of the service line. That lack of length made it easier for Monteiro to step in and overpower him. And a lot of the times the siege started after a second serve, which needs to improve significantly if the entertaining man from Japan is to seriously take that next step in his development.
With all that being said, Nishioka played the craziest point I saw all day. In the deciding set tiebreaker, Yoshihito tracked a Monteiro counter drop in a way that defies words. The teenager managed to somehow materialize himself and his racquet at the very last fraction of a second before the ball bounced twice on his court. There was no margin for error on that shot: I’m pretty sure that there wasn’t any space left between the clay, his racquet, and the ball. The crowd assembled in the walkway between Courts 4 and 5 was astounded, and so was Monteiro, who seemed beyond puzzled that Nishioka not only got to the ball, but managed to get it over the net, too. It was an impossible get – one that I wish I had recorded to watch again and again.
This lefty duel was such an enjoyable battle to watch, and it maintained its intensity even with a rain delay sandwiched in it. A remarkable feat.
The Chung Domination
I thought Ryan Sweeting would provide an interesting test for Chung Hyeon. After all, we’re talking about a former champion at this event, and Kaley Cuoco’s husband did dismantle Tennys Sandgren rather easily in round one.
I was dead wrong.
The South Korean kid delivered a double order of breadsticks to the American in just 54 minutes. And honestly, it felt like the whole thing lasted no more than half an hour. Sweeting was quite rusty, and a significant amount of his shots ended up either buried in the middle of the net, or about a foot long. He was desperately trying to stay with Chung, but it was just not possible. The 18 year-old was getting tons of depth, making a ton of returns, covering every inch of the court, and serving beautifully. There wasn’t much Chung did wrong out there. There simply was no adversity to overcome. It was such a thorough beating that it was quite funny to hear a loud Sweeting fan yell “there’s plenty of time!” when the score was 5-1 in the second set.
Up next for Chung is another veteran: Mischa Zverev. The 27 year-old German currently sits 628 spots lower than his career high mark of No. 45 in the world, which he achieved 6 years ago. Zverev won 2 and 2 today, so it will be interesting to see how he matches up with the in-form teenager.
Here’s the order of play for tomorrow. The night session looks interesting, but you can probably guess where I’ll be during the day.
Previous posts from the 2015 US Men’s Clay Court Championship: