Welcome to The Backboard, the new home for some of my tennis thoughts and musings. This column will appear every Monday here at The Changeover. You can find past editions of The Backboard here.
The Wonders of Watching Qualies
The qualifying tournament for the US Men’s Clay Court Championship (also known as the Houston ATP 250) started this past Saturday at the River Oaks Country Club in Houston, Texas. I’m covering the event for The Changeover, and since I live here in Houston, I’ve been at the tournament site since Friday (you can read my first two reports here). One of the things I was very interested in checking out was how the qualies work, since I’ve never been able to catch this type of event in the past.
Like other tournaments around the world, the US Men’s Clay Court Championship set up a three-round qualifying tournament, resulting in four spots in the main draw. They needed 32 players, but only got 27, so they awarded byes to the top five seeds. Players from 14 different countries can be spotted in the qualifying draw, which has Ivo Karlovic, who won this tournament in 2007, as the top seed.
The first two rounds of qualies were arranged in the outer courts of the River Oaks Country Club, and took place over the weekend. Courts 3, 4 and 5 are laid next to each other, with only a narrow aisle between courts 4 and 5 to serve as separation (that aisle is quite fascinating – more on it later). Only Court 3 has seating and an electronic scoreboard. Behind this trio of dark red clay courts, you can find two more courts that are set up as practice sites for those not taking part in the qualifying tournament. And naturally, the cozy Stadium Court is where you can find the big names of the main draw playing practice sets against each other, or taking part in drills designed to improve a specific part of their game.
Here’s the view from the aisle separating Courts 4 and 5. You can see the stands of Court 3 in the background:
But back to the qualifying tournament. If you read through the draw, you can see that it’s an interesting mix of the familiar and the wildly unknown. We all know Dr. Ivo Karlovic. Mischa Zverev has been a fixture in main draws for years, Robby Ginepri once made the US Open semifinals, and Teymuraz Gabashvili has been around for quite a bit as well. Then you can see familiar last names that have an unfamiliar first name attached to it: one such example is Gerald Melzer, who is Jürgen Melzer’s 22 year-old brother. Earlier today, Gerald beat Ivo Karlovic in straight sets to make just his second ATP main draw. Here’s Jürgen’s reaction:
— J Melzer (@jojomelzer) April 8, 2013
I was actually very impressed with how Melzer won his second round qualifying match on Sunday. He was down a set, and had to fight his way into a second set tiebreaker. I liked his positive body language: the younger Melzer was always trying to pump himself up, and he played a near flawless breaker to force a decider, which he ran away with.
Gerald Melzer obviously kept his foot on the pedal, as he capped off his impressive weekend with a straightforward win over Karlovic today, as I mentioned above. His game, not surprisingly, is heavily influenced by his famous older brother: he’s a lefty (even though the ATP site lists him as a righty – something that will be corrected soon, thanks to Pete Holtermann, Media Director for the event). What I’ve enjoyed watching from him is his two-handed cross-court backhand. Melzer gets some really nice angles with it, seemingly at will. I’ve also been impressed with how often he changes the direction of the ball with his forehand. He seems to have great control over that shot. It will be fascinating to see how the younger Melzer will cope with his next opponent, the Italian Paolo Lorenzi. Surely getting a nice win over Karlovic will aid him in terms of confidence.
Here he is, still with a wide smile after his big win:
Before we leave Dr. Ivo, I’ll never forget what I saw on Saturday during his second round match against Romanian Florian Mergea. You’d think that lobbing Dr. Ivo would be difficult, right? The man is 6’10. It didn’t matter: Mergea lobbed Dr. Ivo successfully not once, but twice – in the same set, no less. As it happened before my eyes, I felt my jaw drop. Sadly for Mergea, he still lost in straight sets.
Last thing about Karlovic: if you ever get a chance to watch the man serve, you should do it. Because then you’ll understand that the biggest reason why that delivery is so great is because every little part of it is absolutely sound, not just because he’s so tall. Look how high he gets for that first serve:
In terms of the wildly unknown, the name that stood out was Takanyi Garanganga. His nationality also stood out: the 22-year-old is from the troubled African nation of Zimbabwe. I saw parts of his first round match against doubles specialist Scott Lipsky (who is here as the second seed in the doubles draw). Garanganga has plenty of power, but struggles to get back into a point once he’s been pushed into a defensive position. Lipsky, who is in his thirties, was trying to get the Zimbabwean on the move, particularly into the forecourt by using some deft droppers. Sadly, it didn’t work, as Garanganga won their match 7-5 in the third set.
The next day, Garanganga provided probably my favorite moment of the entire weekend. He was stuck in a tight second set with Teymuraz Gabashvili, and the man from Zimbabwe was struggling. Still, the men were playing a fun, power-filled match, and one point found Garanganga fishing out a tough volley, only to see Gabashvili hit a beautiful running passing shot by him.
The crowd in that narrow aisle between Courts 4 and 5 erupted (it was packed in there) – it had been a fantastic point and it ended on a glorious shot. But here was my favorite part: Garanganga then stepped up to the baseline to serve, and before bouncing the ball, he looked up and said, with genuine admiration, “Nice play,” to Gabashvili.
“Thanks,” replied the Russian.
That was a neat little moment between two guys who were in the middle of a tough battle. One that you don’t see often.
Unfortunately for Garanganga, Gabashvili was playing a very solid match, using his great backhand to push the Zimbabwean wide. Garanganga was also struggling with his serve, which didn’t help matters.
Here’s what the Zimbabwean looks like. You can also see the old-school manual scoreboard behind him:
As you can imagine, I also caught a glimpse of a few unknown American juniors: I saw Bayo Philips, an 18-year-old from Texas, succumb to the very experienced Robby Ginepri, and I also saw Connor Curry, who will graduate from high school just next year. Bayo Philips had a very nice one-handed backhand, but he ran into an opponent who wasn’t going to forgive him for his lack of experience. Curry had a more accessible opponent in Greg Oullette, but he also ended up losing in straight sets to someone who was almost 10 years his senior.
Experience and consistency ended up being one of the main themes that ran through the qualifying rounds. You could see the difference it made for guys like Ginepri and Gabashvili (though the latter ended up losing rather meekly to 20-year-old Facundo Argüello in the last round of qualies). Youth was the other, naturally. In Gerald Melzer’s case, the youth and consistency themes joined forces at the right moment, and now he has a chance to get his first ATP main draw win.
After three days of watching qualifying matches, you inevitably come out with newfound respect towards the players who have to fight through these matches to get into the main draw. The conditions aren’t easy: for starters, their matches don’t have the same number of line judges of a normal ATP tour match: here each match had only two judges to cover both sidelines. This means that one person has to cover the entire sideline for a court. Then, there’s the issue of the noise: as I mentioned above, the three courts set up for qualies were set up next to each other. Players can definitely hear everything that’s happening in their general vicinity: scores, grunts, people walking by and chatting, you name it. And let’s remember that in order to get a spot in the main draw, the vast majority of these guys have to win three matches in three days under an unforgiving Houston sun.
A thought that kept running through my head during the past three days was that coming to the qualies is definitely a great experience for those of us who love this sport. Sure, everybody dreams of going to Slam finals, or watching all the top players. But there’s a lot to be gained from walking around the grounds of a smaller event and taking in all the little details that the pros have to offer. You can get a look at a fantastic serve like Dr. Ivo’s. You can watch a young guy like Gerald Melzer who has a unique ability to hit angled backhands with utmost ease – a shot higher ranked players could use. And you can watch a ton of guys hit spectacular shots during spectacular points – those aren’t reserved for the elite, you know.
More than anything, coming to the qualies is a visceral tennis experience. You feel like you’re within walking distance to the essence and origins of the sport. And during this weekend, the game of tennis seemed alive and well. That’s the feeling I got when I walked around that crowded aisle in the blistering sun, where fans were taking in matches of people they’ve likely never seen before.
You can see that more than fans of Player X or Player Y, these are fans of the sport of tennis. These are people that truly love this game, no matter who is playing it. It’s a very unique feeling to be surrounded by this shared affection.
And that’s why going to see the qualies of a tournament is well worth your time.
Things I’ve Read Recently That Made Me Think
The ITPL means more work – and money – for world’s top tennis players – Kevin Mitchell (The Guardian)
File this under “we gonna see, no?” Nothing has been signed, and it’s pretty evident that this Asian version of World TeamTennis is merely in its gestational phase. However, I can see how it could work: the format is appealing to top players, as are the huge sums being mentioned. Of course, should the top players engage in this event, their complaints of a season that’s way too long will fall on deaf ears.
XIX Entertainment And Globosport Form New Venture (Press Release) – XIX Globosport
This is a related bit of news: as you read above, Mahesh Bupathi is the visible figure behind this ITPL, and he just got in on representing Andy Murray, who should be part of the tennis elite for the next few years. XIX has been representing Murray since 2007, so this just means the inclusion of Bupathi’s Globosport company in the mix.
Again, we’ll see how this influences the development of the ITPL.
Tweet That Got Favorited For Very Obvious Reasons
The obvious reason is that this is a spectacular piece of sports photography. As for context, this was taken right after the Serbia doubles team composed of noted doubles expert Nenad Zimonjic and noted journeyman wildcard Ilija Bozoljac produced an unlikely upset against arguably the greatest men’s doubles team in history. In doing so, Zimonjic and Bozoljac shifted the pressure of clinching the tie from the weary (and justifiably unreliable) shoulders of Viktor Troicki onto the strong and experienced shoulders of the World Number One.
Novak Djokovic’s expression during his frantic embrace of the unlikely most valuable player of the doubles rubber is simply fantastic. It’s joyfully delirious, and intensely grateful. After all, at the start of the week, Djokovic faced the tough reality of sacrificing a week of clay court preparations in order to play two best of five matches, the outcome of which wouldn’t guarantee a victory for his country. And after Viktor Troicki succumbed in five sets in the second rubber on Friday, Djokovic had to be wondering just what exactly he was thinking when he decided to make the trip to Boise, Idaho. Given how great the Bryan brothers have been throughout the years, the tie seemed destined to be decided by the inevitable Isner-Troicki fifth rubber.
Turns out, a 27-year-old with a career-high singles ranking of 101 (his career-high ranking in doubles? 126) rose to the occasion, and along with Zimonjic, gave Djokovic the chance to clinch the tie himself. Which the World No. 1 did, even though he sustained a nasty ankle twist at the beginning of the match.
That ankle injury might well disrupt a significant part of Djokovic’s clay court season. However, the Serbian doubles team’s heroics, along with Djokovic’s extraordinary ability to stay on the court after that nasty twist have given Serbia a huge opportunity to hoist their second Davis Cup title. The 2010 champs will host Canada in the semis, and then will face either Argentina or the Czech Republic (Serbia would host the Czechs, while they would have to travel to Argentina) in the final.
The World No. 1 took a gamble, and even though there could potentially be a some negative consequences in terms of his injury, it sure paid off.
Music Used to Write this Column
This week’s column was written with the help of a few things. First, Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest. Then, the sound of Ian Darke’s voice as he narrated the Manchester Derby between United and City. And finally, the final push was given by one of my favorite pieces of music: the first half of Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. For some strange reason, I really wanted to listen to the opener, the fantastically garage-rocker that is “Custard Pie”: