The worst possible opponent at the worst possible time.
That’s what I kept thinking when I watched Gerald Melzer play yesterday in his first round match at the Men’s Clay Court Championships against Paolo Lorenzi. I got to Court 3 just in time to catch the entire match; I wanted to witness just the second time in the career of Jürgen Melzer’s younger brother that he was playing the first round of an ATP event (the other time that happened was almost 3 years ago in Umag).
Starting on Saturday, Gerald had battled through three qualifying rounds, beating Alex Kuznetsov easily in the first round, surviving a match point in the second against Roman Borvanov, and then getting a nice win over former tournament champion Ivo Karlovic to clinch his main draw spot. All of these matches were played in pretty tough conditions: under unkind sun and violent gusts of wind.
Across the net yesterday was a tough challenge for Melzer: World Number 62 Paolo Lorenzi is a veteran who loves clay and is playing pretty decent ball this year. He was also wearing a bizarre camouflage kit:
Melzer had caught the attention of a few fans during the weekend – particularly after his win over Ivo Karlovic in the last round of qualifying. On my way to the country club I met a nice man called Bruce who had watched that particular match, and wanted to catch Gerald Melzer again. Bruce liked Gerald’s game, and I agreed – when the younger Melzer is clicking, he’s fun to watch.
At any rate, I sat down to watch Melzer, who had a promising start. He had a break point on Lorenzi’s serve early on, but couldn’t take advantage of it. In the next game, he got broken, and would lose six straight games: from being tied at 2-all in the first set he went to being down 2-6 and 0-2. The Italian veteran was giving nothing away to Gerald: I’m not sure Lorenzi would have totaled more than 10 unforced errors for the entire match.
Gerald’s forehand started flying on him. His trusty backhand, which had been such a rock during the weekend, abandoned him, too. The switch from having plenty of open space to hit the ball into during the Karlovic match to having to construct points and find ways to outmaneuver a very consistent clay court specialist was too much for the 22-year old. The match was over in a hurry, 6-2, 6-2.
Afterwards, I sat down with Gerald to ask him a few questions. He was very kind, and even though he couldn’t hide the disappointment of the recent loss, he did seem to be happy with his three wins during the qualies. Here is what he said about the conditions:
“It was tough, not only because it was like hot and humid, but it was so windy and it was not like the wind was coming from one side – it was turning. And then you play a guy who doesn’t miss, which doesn’t help (smiles).”
I told him that during his match I kept thinking that playing a guy like Lorenzi has to be extremely tough in these conditions. He said:
“Yeah, I knew, like, if I want to beat him, I have to play really well, but yeah, I didn’t feel the ball 100% today, and that’s what I would’ve needed, maybe. But it’s tough to kill someone in these conditions, especially when he doesn’t miss, he doesn’t give you anything. And he played well – I didn’t play so well.”
I then asked about what he thought of his last three days here in Houston, which had to be encouraging for him:
“I mean, it’s not every day that I qualify to an ATP event – it’s my second time. And yeah, it was a good win yesterday (vs Karlovic). I’m really happy about that. I mean, right now, of course, (laughs) I just lost, but yeah, it was good days.”
Gerald then mentioned that he had struggled with a stomach bacterial infection while in South America earlier in the year. For some reason, I didn’t check his playing activity before I talked to him. Now I’m glad I didn’t: poor Gerald had to retire in the first round of his match at the Salinas Challenger event.
Salinas is in Ecuador.
I told Gerald about how impressed I was at his ability to return Karlovic’s serve. He had an interesting comment:
“I prefer to play those guys (big servers like Karlovic) instead of this guy (Lorenzi) like today, I mean, in these conditions. Because, OK, against Karlovic you have maximum one or two shots, three shots. And for him (Karlovic) it was tough to serve. It was so windy, and he didn’t serve how he’s usually serving, I guess. When I was there, I returned pretty well.”
I told Gerald that I had noticed that he was not falling back to return Karlovic’s serve. Melzer was trying to take the serve on the rise, which not many people do. Here’s what he said:
“No, I like to get in, and just block, more block it, because if you go back and you let it jump, you know, it’s going so high and it’s tough to control.”
Of course, taking a serve early is a pretty unique skill, and plenty of people like to drop back and take their chances with a high ball.
I asked Gerald the most common question here in Houston: what’s the difference between this clay (which is not Har-Tru nor European – it comes from Charlottesville, Virginia) and the kind of red stuff he’s used to in Europe. Here is what he said:
“I mean, this clay is red, but it’s not (laughs). It’s fake, but it’s like green clay. Just painted red. But, I mean, I like it. I mean, I played also the last years in Florida, and I did well there. So, I like it. I mean, it’s different – more slippery. Some of them are faster, some of them are slower. But we also have that with the clay we have (in Europe). It’s different.”
Gerald thought the River Oaks clay is not that fast, but that the bounce wasn’t a problem. He said that when it’s cold and wet in Europe clay tends to behave that way, too. Gerald did say that in his opinion it’s easier to slide on a surface like this.
Finally, I asked Gerald the obvious question: does it help or hurt to be the younger brother of a famous tennis player? Here’s what he said:
“I mean, it’s both ways, but I think it helps more. I can improve when I’m around him, and he’s helping me a lot and is giving me advice. I just think it can help if you have a brother who knows how it is to get there.”
After Houston, Gerald will probably head to Panamá to play a Challenger, because it might be easier to get in that draw than in Sarasota. After that he’ll play the Savannah and Tallahassee Challengers. If things don’t go well there, he’ll stay for two more Futures in Florida.
Gerald Melzer, as I mentioned above, is just 22. He’ll keep playing Challengers and Futures, but I think that if he can summon the form of the first three rounds of qualies here in Houston, he’ll surely get into more ATP main draws in the near future.
And maybe, just maybe, Gerald can get that coveted first official win on the ATP World Tour one day.