Welcome to The Backboard, the new home for some of my tennis thoughts and musings. This column will appear every Tuesday here at The Changeover. You can find past editions of The Backboard here.
Ranking the 2013 Masters 1000: The Good, The Bad, and the Random
Those who know me won’t be surprised when I say that I absolutely love the Masters 1000s. All nine of them, really (though I have an “evolving” relationship with Paris, Cincinnati, and especially Madrid). And if you’ve been following The Changeover since last year, you probably saw the original Masters 1000 Power Rankings, which took care of evaluating the 2012 editions of these wonderful events.
I thought that this week presented a good opportunity to rank the five Masters 1000s that have already taken place up to this point, since we will be devoid of an M1000 for a while. It truly bums me out that we won’t have another one of these great tournaments until August 5. Which is far into the future.
I also had a selfish purpose in mind: I wrote the original M1000 Power Rankings at the end of December last year. That’s over nine months after the start of Indian Wells. I pride myself in having a good memory, but way too many things happen in nine months for anyone’s mind to keep track.
So without further ado, here’s how the first five Masters 1000 stack up against each other:
1. Indian Wells (BNP Paribas Open)
Larry Ellison and his team are hell-bent on making Indian Wells the best Masters 1000 of them all. They’re like a benevolent Sauron that way. By now you know that Indian Wells has set up Hawk-Eye in every single court, and the tournament is planning even further expansions to their already top-notch facilities. They want to be as big or bigger than some of the Slams, and they’ll stop at nothing to get there.
Still, that’s all structural/behind the scenes stuff. What makes a Masters 1000 great is not only great infrastructure, but great tennis. And Indian Wells had plenty of the latter this year.
The Good: There were so many high-quality matches that it’s worth it to name them all: the best one (in my mind) was the Round of 16 match between eventual winner Rafael Nadal and Ernests Gulbis. It was a thrilling match I wrote about here. But there was also Juan Martín Del Potro’s thrilling run to the final, which included great matches against Andy Murray (in the quarters) and Novak Djokovic (in the semis). Of course, the final between DelPo and Nadal was top notch, with great shot-making as well as plenty of drama. All in all, Indian Wells was simply fantastic this year.
The Bad: Much hype was pumped into the quarterfinal match between Nadal and Roger Federer, because … that’s what the tennis establishment always does. However, I found it baffling to prop up this specific encounter, since it was fairly obvious that Roger was struggling with a back injury he developed at the end of his second round match. Hence, Nadal didn’t have to do much to win in very straightforward fashion, much to the chagrin of those who had high expectations for Fedal XXIX (You can read all about that match here).
Honorable mention number one goes to Andy Murray’s inexplicable decision to get into a “You say I did this? I think you did THAT!” childish affair after his win over Carlos Berlocq, claiming that the Argentine’s grunting was a problem. The media, who LOVES to discuss grunting, saw an opening and we were suddenly flooded with grunting debates. It irritated me to no end.
Honorable mention number two goes to Stan Wawrinka, for finding a way to lose to a clearly hobbled Roger Federer in the Round of 16. It was one of the most frustrating matches I’ve ever seen – and Stan almost lost in straight sets!
The Random: Novak Djokovic played Grigor Dimitrov in the third round. The young Bulgarian was very impressive from the start, and found himself in the position to serve out the first set. What happened next? This sequence: Dimitrov double fault (No. 1), Dimitrov Ace, Dimitrov double fault (No. 2), Dimitrov double fault (No. 3), Djokovic unforced error, Dimitrov double fault (No. 5). Yep – Djokovic didn’t have to do a single thing to get that break back: Dimitrov did all the work on his own. Details of that match can be found here.
2. Monte Carlo (Rolex Masters)
For starters, there were no bad injuries due to faulty preparation on Center Court. We all remember what happened to Juan Mónaco and Julien Benneteau there last year – the far end of Center Court had a problematic spot where both guys fell and saw their clay season severely hampered. Thankfully, there were no such issues this year: the tournament had its usual strong field (minus Federer, who hasn’t played there since 2011), which ended up yielding a most historic final.
The Good: The tournament enjoyed some very entertaining matches, as well as two big surprises: Jarkko Nieminen’s run to the quarterfinals after beating Milos Raonic and Del Potro, and Fabio Fognini improbably making his first Masters 1000 semifinal appearance of his life. The weather cooperated (for the most part), and the Monte Carlo country club looked as gorgeous as ever. However, what the 2013 Monte Carlo Masters will always be remembered for is its final: Novak Djokovic ended Rafael Nadal’s eight year reign as the ruler of the principality, and became the only man other than the Spaniard to win all the clay Masters 1000. Djokovic played a superb final, in which he even had a slew of bagel points in the first set (Nadal saved them all), and found another gear in the second set tiebreaker to achieve a truly landmark win. (You can read all about that final here)
The Bad: Much was expected of Juan Martín Del Potro in Monte Carlo, and the results were underwhelming (to say the least): DelPo partook in one of the worst matches of the year when he beat Alexandr Dolgopolov in the second round, and then proceded to lose to Nieminen in a third set tiebreaker. It should be noted that DelPo served for that match at 5-4 in the third, too.
The Random: It doesn’t get much more random than having Nieminen in the quarters and Fognini in the semis of a Masters 1000, no? Also, Jo-Willy Tsonga made it to the semis of a clay M1000. Not only that, but Tsonga came back from being down two breaks in the second set of that semi against Nadal to force a tiebreaker. Which he blew, but still.
3. Rome (Internazionali BNL d’Italia)
The renovations have finally been completed, and the Rome Masters looks absolutely stunning. I thought the people in charge of the world feed for the event did a great job showcasing just how beautiful those grounds at the Foro Italico are. I’m sure most of us wanted to get on a plane and walk straight into Pietrangeli to catch a match (any match, really). In addition, Rome’s Centrale is my favorite center court of all the Masters events (I know you’re looking at me, Monte Carlo, but those stands around you are mostly temporary). I just love the way that stadium is shaped: it reminds me a lot of the gorgeous Allianz Arena, where Bayern Munich plays their home matches. No sharp angles, and decks that rise up and engulf the court, instead of putting fans further away from the action. There doesn’t seem to be a bad seat in the house, and the atmosphere sounds electric. In my long list of tennis dreams, covering Rome (or just attending it as a fan) is very, very close to the top.
The Good: It was great to see two up-and-comers, Jerzy Janowicz and Benoit Paire, have nice runs into the quarters and the semis, respectively. Janowicz took out the French division in the top 10 (Tsonga and Gasquet) before falling to an impeccable Federer in the quarters (you can read all about that match here). Paire upset DelPo and then took advantage of Andy Murray pulling out of the event during his match against Granollers. Paire also impressed in his semifinal against Federer – like Janowicz, he should’ve at least forced a third set.
The Bad: The worst part of Rome was that Novak Djokovic robbed us of another Djokovic-Nadal duel on Centrale. Djokovic was up 6-2, 5-2 in his quarfinal against Tomas Berdych (who hadn’t beaten the Serb in their past 12 meetings), and somehow ended up losing that match. Instead of getting to see the last dress rehearsal between the top two candidates for the French Open crown, we saw Nadal trash Berdych once again. Partially related: that was the 13th straight time that Nadal beat Berdych.
An honorable mention goes to that Fedal final, which didn’t deliver on the hype, did it?
The Random: The draw ended up being hilariously imbalanced ahead of the quarterfinals: in the top half you had Novak Djokovic, Tomas Berdych, Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer – that’s four of the top six players in the world. At the bottom? Roger Federer, Jerzy Janowicz, Benoit Paire and Marcel Granollers. That’s pretty random, no?
4. Madrid (Mutua Madrid Open)
You know very well that I love to place Madrid at the bottom of every ranking of Masters 1000, right? I tried my best this time, but I just couldn’t do it. For once, the surface was not the main talking point during the week, and Ion Tiriac resisted the urge to try out a new featherbrained gimmick. Instead, the event just tried to be a very good (and not very flashy) tennis tournament, which should’ve been the goal from the beginning.
The Good: Grigor Dimitrov and Kei Nishikori, two members of the unheralded generation that has the unfortunate task of following the Big Four, got a bit of headline love as they knocked out the top two (at the time) players in the world: Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer (you can read about Federer’s Consistency Ratings for that match here). Both matches were quite entertaining, and it was great to see both young guys assert themselves against their more experienced peers. Sadly neither could advance further, as Dimitrov ran into the white-hot Stan Wawrinka and Nishikori couldn’t overcome Pablo Andújar (more on him later). Still, this was a step in the right direction for the future of the ATP.
My favorite part of Madrid this year? Steph Trudel coming up with the great hashtag #CajaTrágica. Simply fantastic.
The Bad: Sometimes it’s useful to remember that Madrid has only been a Masters event for 11 years. They’re still working out the kinks. This year, the scheduling was simply horrific, particularly ahead of the quarters. Somebody had the genius idea of scheduling six quarterfinal matches on Manolo Santana (the main court). Matches were due to start at 10:50 a.m., but even that early start couldn’t prevent the inevitable backlog that forced Stan Wawrinka and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to finish their match well past midnight.
You can get away with scheduling six early round matches on a Center Court, simply because the match-ups (featuring mostly elite players) tend to be lopsided. But six quarterfinal matches at this kind of event? That’s just asking for trouble. Plus, it’s not like Madrid lacks the facilities to spread the big matches evenly. A disaster like the quarterfinal day at the #CajaTrágica could’ve been easily avoided.
Honorable mention number one goes to the #CajaTrágica itself, which remains a hideous, cold and (insert an antonym for “picturesque”) venue.
Honorable mention number two goes to the Madrid crowd, which was simply a disgrace during the Djokovic-Dimitrov match, and has developed the annoying habit of whistling anybody who dares check a mark or beats a Spaniard.
Honorable mention number three goes to the awful trophies, which only serve to highlight the complete lack of good taste of Mr. Tiriac. Now that I think of it … I should probably like them for this same reason.
The Random: Pablo Andújar, the 27-year-old King of Casablanca, made the semifinals of a Masters 1000. Future generations will look at the 2013 Madrid draw and say “Wait … who the heck is Pablo Andújar?”
5. Miami (Sony Open Tennis)
Putting Miami at the bottom of these rankings is as painful as NOT putting Madrid last. I love this event. For one, it’s the Latin Slam, and well, I’m Latino. Then you have the wonderful night atmosphere on center court, which has spurred many great matches throughout the years. Yet … so many things went wrong this year that it made it impossible not put them in the rankings caboose.
On top of misfortune, Miami is becoming the biggest casualty of Indian Wells’ rise. But let’s make it clear from the beginning that I’m not blaming Larry Ellison for anything here: Miami just hasn’t kept up with the times, and it’s starting to look decidedly like the lesser Masters 1000 when compared to its richer West Coast cousin. Which wasn’t the case in the past.
The Good: Let’s see … what was good about Miami this year? Tommy Haas had a great run – he blitzed two-time defending champ Novak Djokovic 6-2, 6-4 in the Round of 16, and he was phenomenal up until the semifinals, when he reverted to his usual self, blowing a third set lead against David Ferrer and spraying forehands all over the place. It was fun while it lasted, I guess. Richard Gasquet and Nicolás Almagro played a supremely entertaining match, which resulted in yet another heartbreaking loss for Almagro. That’s all I can come up with. Am I missing anything?
The Bad: The air was let out of the Miami balloon right from the get-go, as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal both decided to opt out of participating in the event. Federer’s announcement was not a surprise, since he had made that clear last year (plus, the Indian Wells injury would’ve forced him out of Miami anyway). Nadal’s absence was more due to the fact that the Spaniard played most of the South American clay swing, and then Acapulco and Indian Wells went back-to-back. Of course, Nadal winning both events didn’t help Miami’s cause. To make matters worse, Djokovic lost early. Normally when the star power leaves, it’s up to someone else to pick up the slack (see last year’s Paris, for example). Tommy Haas looked the part, but faded in the semis. So … no dice.
Then you had the horror show that was CBS’ broadcast of the final here in the US. Long story short, they moved the match to the Tennis Channel right as the third set tiebreaker was about to start. And then the Tennis Channel wasn’t ready, so we missed the first point of said deciding breaker. I wrote about this fiasco at length here.
Honorable mention number one goes to the aforementioned final, which wasn’t as bad as many make it out to be, but wasn’t close to being good.
Honorable mention number two goes to the crowd during the Janowicz-Bellucci match, which was completely out of control. You can read Twitter’s reaction to that crazy match here.
The Random, and the Highlight:
Things I’ve Read Recently That Made Me Think
Why Rafael Nadal is the man to beat — and not just at the French Open – Douglas Perry (The Oregonian)
Douglas wrote a wonderful article about the evolution of Rafael Nadal as a player, a journey that has taken him well beyond the normal stereotypes still associated with the 11-time Slam champion.
Yet those stereotypes persist. Just last week Ernests Gulbis was blabbering nonsense like this:
“He is solid and he didn’t do anything special and I made mistakes and so he won.”
Of course, that quote says a lot more about Ernests Gulbis than about Rafael Nadal, but it also reflects the thinking about the Spaniard that’s still out there after all these years: he’s nothing extraordinary, he just gets the ball back, he’s just a grinder. The mainstream tennis media has been around Rafael Nadal for eight years now, and it doesn’t feel like most people actually “get” him. Particularly in the English-speaking world.
Few people understand all the subtleties in his game. During the match against Ferrer in Rome (a fascinating, yet predictable affair), it was a joy to watch both men try every possible way to outmaneuver each other using all of the weapons in their arsenal. They would use angled shots, flat shots, slices, drop shots, lobs, volleys … you name it. It was “total tennis,” if you will.
And that’s just clay. Nadal has made enormous strides to adapt his game as he transitions to other surfaces. His resumé can easily tell you just how successful he’s been outside of the crushed red brick: four Slams, six Masters 1000 titles, and an Olympic Gold medal.
So why do people not “get” Rafael Nadal, even after all this time? I wonder if it’s because most of the tennis media written in English just doesn’t understand clay court tennis. I wonder if it’s because only recently has Nadal been able to communicate more intricate thoughts in English (he’s always been thoughtful and articulate in Spanish, though).
Hopefully more people follow Douglas’ lead and dig deeper into what makes Nadal great: his superb tactical acumen, his capacity to adapt and adjust (sometimes within the confines of a match), and the many layers to his game (I’ll try my hand at some point, so stay tuned).
As for the point Douglas is making through the title of his article, I’ll simply ask you to look at the ATP Race (which tallies all the points obtained in the 2013 season so far):
Tweet That Got Favorited For Very Obvious Reasons
— Miguel Seabra (@MiguelSeabra) May 18, 2013
You read that correctly: the head of men’s professional tennis in the year 2006 chose to walk his dog instead of watching one of the greatest (and most significant) matches of the past decade. It was too “lengthy” for his taste, apparently.
I was never a fan of Disney Man’s reign (2005-2008), and I was glad to see him leave. He was the generic global CEO who doesn’t really like or “get” the industry he’s supposed to lead. I clearly remember him trying to disband the Masters 1000 (then Masters Series), but couldn’t find any traces of those quotes. Which is unfortunate, because I would’ve loved to lambast that moronic idea if I could prove he actually said it.
Regardless, let’s hope that Brad Drewett’s successor continues the trend of having someone at the head of the ATP who truly loves and understands the sport. Or at least someone who won’t walk the dog when a transcendental match is taking place.
Related recommended reading: Steve Tignor and Pete Bodo talk about the legacy of Brad Drewett, and the benefits of having a true lifer of the sport in charge of men’s tennis.
Music Used to Write this Column
This week I went back to an album I really liked when it came out earlier this year, Toro Y Moi’s Anything in Return. It’s a wonderfully diverse atmospheric album, where anything goes – you’re never quite sure what’s going to come after each song ends. Which is quite remarkable, given that Toro Y Moi consists of a single person: South Carolinean Chazwick Bradley Bundick
Here’s one of my favorite tracks off of Toro Y Moi’s album, the very groovy “High Living:”
“When (if ever) was the last time you really listened to an album all the way through, giving it the same rapt attention you would to, say, a new Mad Men episode or a movie?”
It’s important to note the difference from the original question included in the title, and this second version. In my case, the answer for the first one was easy: “Yes! All the time! Just a few minutes ago!”
But the answer to the second one … that wasn’t as easy to come up with. It made me think about the way I consume music now, and the way I’ve consumed music through the years. I quickly realized that my habits have changed in very significant ways.
When I was a teenager falling deeply in love with Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, and Genesis, I didn’t have a computer in my room. I didn’t have a TV, either. But I did have a stereo. So I listened to many, many albums from start to finish while lying in bed and looking at the ceiling. It was a wonderful experience, but one that I’ve discontinued since.
Years later, with my high school buddies, we’d listen to whole albums all the time … though the MP3 era had arrived, and we started to create mix CDs more and more frequently (after all, it was so much easier to make one of those than a mixtape!). It was a communal experience, but we definitely talked while the album was playing, and not always about the music.
Fast forward to my college years, and I remember something changing: I had a computer in my room. I now listened to music all the time, both on CD and on MP3s. But I was also doing other stuff on the computer. I realized that my favorite scenario for listening to something new was to have it play while I did something mindless on the computer, like trying to beat one of the simple games that come pre-loaded with Windows (FreeCell, Minesweeper, etc). In those years, another avenue for listening to a full album appeared: while driving a car. This is still one of my favorite ways to listen to an album: driving is sufficiently mindless that my ADD brain can have something to keep itself occupied while the rest of my grey matter is busy taking in the sounds coming out of the car speakers. There’s also something special about listening to music you love while in a moving vehicle. Music is indeed movement, so the effect is enhanced while you’re in charge of your own trajectory. Just last year I drove around Chapel Hill, North Carolina while blasting Radiohead’s The King of Limbs. It was probably the most I’ve enjoyed that otherwise lacking album.
However, the drive has to be mindless in order to be perfect for album-listening. If you’re trying to pay attention to any album while trying to navigate a busy highway at rush hour, you probably won’t get much out of the music.
Around those same college years, album-listening opportunities also popped up through every day life: the commute to my university in Argentina was around 45 minutes each way. That meant I could listen to two albums a day – which I often did. I carried around my Discman everywhere, and selecting the 25 CDs that came with me on any given day wasn’t easy. Of course, while most activities during my public-transportation commute were mindless enough to avoid distracting me, there were always distractions (the noise, the crowds, etc). It’s not the same as the controlled environment of your own home, or even the car.
Lastly, in my post-college life, work presented opportunities for album-listening. However, it was a different kind of relationship: you can’t really pay attention to all the details in an album (as you would a Mad Men episode) while you’re working on a Word document, answering emails, and trying to figure out how to get someone a visa to India.
I actually loved having mindless spreadsheet tasks at my previous job: I could really focus on the music while I jumped from cell to cell. But I could rarely listen to music during translations, and I could never focus on anything when I was composing an email.
Still, I realized that when you do listen to music in this way (which is the same avenue I use to write this column, or any post on this site) you take in the music in a deeper, subconscious way … and if you’re lucky, your subconscious will alert you if there’s something that’s worth a repeat listen. It’s not the most efficient or dedicated way to take in an album, since more and more listens are demanded. But at least your brain is experiencing a musician’s entire ouvre, in a more visceral way.
Anyway, I still can’t find a suitable answer to Robin Hilton’s (expanded) question. It probably was when I was covering the Houston ATP 250, and I had a 45 minute commute. I remember paying rapt attention to Grizzly Bear’s Shields, as well as their earlier album, Veckatimest. And the drive became automated enough that I could really focus on the music.
What about you? When was the last time you listened to an album while paying (as close to) full attention to it? Have your album-listening habits changed? Have they evolved – or have you kept them the same?