James Pham is on the ground in Bangkok. He’s writing about the Thailand Open this week for The Changeover.
Day 1 of the tournament and qualies are still being played. I head over instead to the practice courts, separated from Court 1 by just a black curtain. In the early days of the tournament, the practice courts get more action than Heathrow. Berdych gets a whole court to himself, while four of the lesser players share a second court. Later in the day, Gasquet and Tomic are hitting side by side on the same court. After a general warm-up, they play practice points with their respective hitting partners, trading off every 2-3 points.
The first thing I notice about the majority of players is that they are huge, almost down to the last guy, dwarfing the many Asian players hanging around. And everyone can hit a hard ball; even the qualifiers are absolutely crushing it. Spanish players who venture into the net during actual play about as often as El Niño comes around can nevertheless hit crisp volleys during practice with the consistency of a ball machine. And there is no chit-chatting, just the relentless back and forth of the tennis ball. Here, 54-shot rallies are the norm.
Random practice court observations:
- Practice sessions aren’t much different from high level club players, with players switching off between serves and returns, rarely playing out full points, except maybe to bury a weak return into a corner. That all changes when there’s about 10 minutes left to the hour’s court time when points get played out. Berdych is making mincemeat out of serves returned up the center. Even his backhand slices into the corner are deadly.
- Players only stop and towel off or go for water every 20 minutes or so, which makes it bewildering why they need to towel off after every single point in regular play.
- Berdych fist pumps nice shots in practice and looks way better dressed in a gray t-shirt, black shorts and red shoes than he ever does on court in his proper ill-fitting H&M kit.
- What’s impressive isn’t necessarily the pace of the ball – I’ve seen a few club players get off a groundstroke with similar speed – but the consistency. Net drills go into the dozens with a single ball at about three-quarter pace.
- Even the lower ranked players drill the ball in practice with tremendous consistency showing that it’s not he who hits the hardest who comes out the winner, it’s more the intangibles, the tiny decisions that go into crafting a point. While points you see played on TV usually average five or so shots, it’s often the result of psychology more than technique. In practice, these guys can hit their spots ad infinitum.
- Richard Gasquet likes rolling balls off his head.
It’s Day 2, and there are still more players about than media. In this morning’s transport, players, coaches and umpires pack the van. We’re all waiting for Lukas Kubot (“I cannot leave without my player,” pleads his coach). People shuffle out to take another van leaving sooner. Lukas arrives and we’re off. In the battle of the Lukases (Lukasii?), he plays Lukas Rosol later on today. There are other players in the van, but even as a tennis fiend, I have trouble sorting out my Marinko Matosevics from my Robin Haase’s. I feel like I need an Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada-type assistant to whisper names in my ear.
Over by the practice courts, I talk to Ryan Hung, a 23-year-old from Taiwan, struggling to make it on the professional circuit. He lost in the second round of qualifying but it’s been a good tournament for him, his first ATP-level one. We talk about the challenges of making it on the tour, and he tells me he’s been playing futures and challengers mainly in the region (Hong Kong, India, Vietnam) because he earns only 30% of his expenses. He’s sponsored by his tennis-loving father against his mother’s wishes (she finally relented and gave him two years to prove himself). He’s currently ranked around 800, and wants to be somewhere in the 200 mark by next summer to qualify for Wimbledon.
Even though he’s out of the tournament, he’s staying around for a few days (although in a cheaper nearby hotel rather than the swank InterContinental where the main draw players are staying), watching some matches, and signing up to be hitting partners with some of the guys from the main draw. Yesterday he practiced with Berdych, and this morning he warmed up Soeda.
“I can keep the ball in play against those guys, but the main difference is their balls are faster, the trajectory lower. Berdych can put the ball wherever he wants and can change the direction from ball to ball. They’re all very good,” he says a little wistfully. He won’t be playing next week in Beijing because it’s a 500-level tournament and he can’t get into qualies.
I then head over to Court 1 where about 30 people are watching Santiago Giraldo play Go Soeda, in a battle of qualifiers. I talked to Santiago yesterday on the way back to the hotel about life on the road. Ranked in the 80s, he still needs to play qualifying rounds for most tournaments. As long as you keep winning, though, the tournament keeps paying for your accommodations, meaning the difference between staying at a five-star hotel and a cheap guesthouse, not an insignificant source of motivation for those guys ranked 100 or lower.
The last match of the day session ends, as Tomic pulls out a tight one against Karlovic who’s been attacking the net as he does. It’s a close battle of two contrasting styles. Bernard squanders a 3-1 lead in the first set to lose in a tiebreak, but buckles down and is leading 4-2 in the third when Karlovic retires, after getting medical treatment for his back a few games earlier.
After the match, I ask Bernie about a couple of games early in the third set where he showed some real determination, clawing back to win a service game from 0-40 down and hitting a gorgeous lob en route to breaking Karlovic the next game. Given the flack that he’s gotten recently, was that determination now part of his persona?
Tomic: “It was difficult out there today. I tried to stay in it as much as I could. I had chances, but they fell away. If you dig deep, you can get out of situations and it can turn things around for you.”
I follow up by asking him about his next match against Gilles Simon, who must be tired after winning in Metz earlier in the week against Tsonga. In a battle of counterpunchers, what does Tomic plan to bring to the mix?
Tomic: “I’m going to be the more aggressive one and take my chances. He’s only going to do one thing, the thing he does very well and that’s get a lot of balls back.”
With that, I head for the van back to the hotel. Berdych shows up just before the van is leaving, and I wonder if I’ll have the nerve to chat with him in the confines of the van. From what I’ve seen of him in the last couple of days, he rarely smiles. But in a Transport Fail, he waves his player’s badge and in two minutes his own car shows up. Sadly, it’s just me and some guy from Doping Control making our way into central Bangkok in the rain.
When James Pham isn’t aiming swing volleys directly at opponents, he’s editing a magazine in Saigon, Vietnam and traveling the world as a writer and photographer. He spent his youth ushering tournaments around the Washington D.C. area (and perhaps even skipped school to do so, but don’t tell his mom!) and remembers when the WTA Tour was sponsored by Virginia Slims cigarettes and you had to screw your wooden racquet into its frame after play. He blogs about his on- and off-court adventures at www.flyicarusfly.com.