James Pham is on the ground in Bangkok. He’s writing about the Thailand Open this week for The Changeover.
It’s semi-finals day and to everyone’s delight, all top four seeds make it through in what is a stellar line-up for such a small tournament, with the world’s #6, 9, 11 and 14 ranked players battling it out.
The first semi pits #4 Gilles Simon against #1 Tomas Berdych.
Treated for a bad back yesterday, Gilles starts today’s match walking around between points zombie-like. It’s not looking good. The first three games go by in a flash. Berdych’s returns come back faster than Simon’s serves and the match feels like a practice session.
During changeovers, Simon again half leans, half sits against his courtside table instead of going to the chair. During points, he runs like a teenager but immediately after adopts the gait of an old man. What he said in a presser earlier in the week that injury would be his biggest problem is proving true. But buoyed by some untimely Berdych errors and the Bangkok crowd support (Simon has made a few deep runs here, including last year’s final and a win in 2009), he manages to even the score at 5-5 after an epic game which ends in an unplayable net cord winner. The crowd goes wild when Simon surprisingly takes the first in a close tiebreaker.
Second set, same as the first. Berdych takes a 3-0 lead and is using dropshots and angles more. At one point, though, Simon chases down a dropshot / lob combo, hoisting the ball back high, managing to miss the many wires and lights strung high above the court, inducing a Berdych smash error. Brave but not enough. Berdych, 6-2.
Into a third and Simon is countering Berdych’s superior firepower to perfection, biding his time until he can go for a winner of his own. While Berdych is winning the battle of Hawk-Eye challenges, all the net cords go in Simon’s favor, one even bouncing a couple of times before dribbling over. When one of Tomas’ own shots hits the net cord and comes back over on his side, he screams “Just one!”.
Despite the tension, the mood between players is friendly, with each muttering extendedly to the other after every call overturned by Berdych or unplayable net cord winner by Simon. The crowd is loving it.
Players hold serve to 5-5. Simon senses the end is near either way. He quick serves three points in a row and shoos away the towel girl who’s been his constant companion the whole match. The courtside signage goes on the fritz, holding up play for a few minutes, after which Berdych hits a gorgeous passing shot to go up 6-5 and serve for the match. He quickly falls behind 0-40, though, and the stadium reverberates with chants of “Si-mon! Si-mon!” This may be a tiny tournament in a far-flung city with a winner’s check of barely $100,000, but these players are giving it their all.
Tomas is having none of it, though. After nearly 3 hours of play, in a gut-check of five successive clean winners and unreturnable serves, he snuffs out any hope of a Simon miracle and seals his place in the finals, gunning for (surprisingly) his first tournament win of the year (the only Top 10 player without one…) He looks pretty psyched.
The second semi features world #9 Gasquet and #11 Raonic. In the very first game, 5 of 6 points are winners. It’s promising to be a good one.
Raonic steps up to the line and his very first serve is already over 200 kph to the gasps of the crowd. Eva “Ugly on the Inside (!)” Asderaki has to reprimand them to stop making noise during points. Gasquet’s backhand is on, though, and he effectively blocks back the Raonic serve to take the first set 6-3. Players hold serve until a Gasquet lapse lets Raonic break to take the second, 7-5. For the second time today, we’re into a decider.
Even though the score proves as tight as the first match, there is nowhere near as much tension, perhaps because with Raonic’s serve finally clicking, three aces a game to avert a break is the norm. For most of sets 2 and 3, no one seems to have a chance to do any damage on the other’s serve. The crowd resorts to doing the wave at each changeover to generate some type of drama. In the end, though, Raonic takes the match 6-4, again on a bad Gasquet service game.
Finals: Berdych v Raonic in what promises to be a display of power tennis.
As the last day of the tournament approaches, I’ll leave you with some other random observations from the practice courts earlier this week (before I was told by a nice lady that my press pass doesn’t allow me to hang out there without an escort. Whoops!):
- Even in practice, and four to a court, players still hit 95% of their shots within the singles lines
- Gasquet’s roundhouse take-backs off both sides are even more pronounced up close
- Richard’s backhand is incredibly versatile. He can scoop the ball with very little back swing, loop it with extra topspin, hit screamers flat down the line or slice it hard, giving each of his shots a different look. It’s hard to believe he could ever lose with a weapon like that
- Every doubles team has its own method of practice. Some practice singles, other teams play practice sets
- Leander Paes and Daniel Bracciali practice singles, at one point each standing mid-court and crushing a 20-shot volley drill on a single ball
- While the tournament organizes practice partners (which is why some of the qualifiers like to stay behind, even after they’re out of the tournament, to be able to hit with the top players), sometimes pick-up practices happen, like when Lukas Rosol asks Tomic if he wants to hit a few around (guess he’s never heard of Dan Evans?)
- Tomic practices the way he plays, caressing the ball on the rise, playing low slices, generally absorbing the pace of the ball as Rosol absolutely clocks everything
- Bernard is much sturdier in real life than on TV where he appears lethargic, but he’s actually quite a big guy with huge hands
- Gasquet really likes rolling balls off his head
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.