21 January, 2012

Australian Open - Back From The Beer Garden

As many of you know, I'm not a full-time blogger.  Sometimes the day job demands my attention and the couple of hours a day I would love to spend writing here have to be put aside for...you know, the matters that allow me to have the disposable income to watch tennis.  In any event, that doesn't mean I haven't been catching some Aussie Open tennis over the last few days and I certainly have some thoughts to share on what I've seen.  Let's backtrack a bit, shall we?

Watching the Twittersphere explode the night in the wake of chair umpire Kader Nouni's denial of David Nalbandian's relatively late challenge left me shaking my head for a number of reasons.  To set the scene for anyone who wasn't watching, overtime in the 5th set, 8-all. Big John Isner is staggering, but unbowed.  Isner's all but verbally threatening to serve bombs for the next two weeks if necessary, just to win this second rounder.  A few loose points from the towering American and suddenly Nalbandian manages to snatch a break point for 9-8.  For Nalbandian, the next point comes with not only the opportunity to flip the standard narrative and serve Isner out of the tournament, it would have also come with a small measure of redemption.  Last year (read: six weeks ago) Davis Cup stalwart Nalbandian was relegated to bystander status (at least in singles) in the tournament final, passed over on the first day as his beloved team fell again behind to Spain, never to recover.  Isner rears back to serve and hammers down a booming serve that the linesperson calls out, Nouni quickly overrules.  Nalbandian ambles up to check the ball mark, peers over the net for a second then he turns away, starts walking back to the baseline and sticks a finger up, saying “challenge.”  Nouni, having just called the score, says it's too late for Nalbandian to challenge.  It's a judgment call, and not one that Nalbandian agrees with.  There's an argument, the tournament referee is brought in, but Nouni stands his ground.  No matter the venting, it's ultimately Nouni's call and thus, it's deuce.  Nalbandian has lost his hope and the prayer that was the advantage on Isner's serve in the game.  The big Yank goes on to serve out the game and soon after, wins the match 10-8 in the fifth.  This can't be the end of the story.

How did we as a sport get here yet again?  

The “Hawkeye” challenge system was famously enacted  when Serena Williams was jobbed by a bout of (repeated) horrendous line calling at the US Open in 2004.  It was the first of three US Open matches Williams would lose where the umpires were as much a part of the story as the combatants, but that's another story for another day.  This post isn't to vilify Kader Nouni, paint Serena Williams as a martyr, nor Nalbandian as a wronged man.  What good would that do?  From the beginning, the Hawkeye system, though a vast improvement on what it replaced (unchecked human judgment), has been a flawed enterprise. Let's fix one of those flaws, I fully support a “shot clock” on challenges.  Say, seven seconds after the call is made.  No more consulting the coach, the crowd, sauntering up to the net, staring at one ball mark among eighty and then saying, hey, fire up the big screen. Challenges, as great as they are, do truly interrupt the “flow” of a match.  After the exercise in kabuki theatre that is the current decision-making process on challenges, we have to wait for the team in the TV truck to find and play the right animation.  If you're being run ragged, what a great way to take a standing changeover mid-game.  If you think the call is wrong, why does a mini episode of CSI have to play out before a challenge? 

While I'm on my soapbox vis a vis challenges, let's also talk about the unnecessarily enduring class system around challenged too.  A full six years after Hawkeye debuted only ONE tournament, the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, is giving every player in the draw equal opportunity to challenge, not just the players on the big show courts.  Why is the challenge safety net in place for virtually every match Roger Federer plays on Centre Court, but no one wants to invest in making sure the result of Edouard Roger-Vasselin's match on Court 6 is similarly accurate?  The fact that in the years we've had the system not even the cash-rich majors stepped up to install Hawkeye on EVERY court is a crying shame.  Here's hoping Larry Ellison has shamed his fellow tournament owners into following suit.  First, Indian Wells, then Shanghai, then Dubai  and so on and so on.  

Hubbub aside, none of this mattered much afterward, at least not to the man to whom it could and should have mattered most.  After being pressed repeatedly by reporters on his reaction to Nouni's call and its aftermath, Nalbandian said “Anyway, I didn't lose for that.”  Great attitude, Nalbandian had hours to win the match.  Blaming the loss on a split-second call would be beneath Nalbandian and the game.

The headlines will mostly belong to veterans as we turn toward the second week and it's in part because a  few young guns failed to step up in the last couple of days.  American Donald Young followed his compatriot Ryan Harrison out of Melbourne dropping a listless four setter to qualifier Lukas Lacko, failing to find that extra gear, after pushing the match to a fourth set.  Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria ended a promising Australian swing with a loss to Nicolas Almagro, not a bad loss on paper, but the guy's a sub .500 player off the clay.  While up-and-coming German Cedrik-Marcel Stebe fell to the aging, but still game Aussie battler Lleyton HewittAlexandr Dolgopolov who opened his Open two five setters to the good, couldn't find the magic a third time, falling to fellow young gun Bernard Tomic in the third round.  

What does that mean?  It depends on who we're discussing.   Harrison drew an unenviable opponent in Andy Murray at the first hurdle in Melbourne, but he acquitted himself well.  Sometimes you just do what you can, dust yourself off, have a beer (he's legal drinking age in Australia) and look forward to the next day.  Tomic is looking like a better prospect every day.  While his countrywoman Samantha Stosur shrank from the glare of the home spotlight, Tomic is bathing in the glow.  His reputation is as a mercurial competitor and that may remain the case, but given his performances here and at the US Open, you have to believe he's a man who loves the big stage.  Milos Raonic is still around (though he might well be gone by the time you read this) and it took 5 sets and a potential career long rival to oust Dologopolov.  My take is that, in the grand scheme of things, the kids are alright.  Some are ahead of others and of course, we can't predict how fate may change a player's path, but there are some serious prospects approaching the top of the men's game right now.  Even if Juan Martin Del Potro doesn't live up to his billing and break the Big Four strangehold once and for all, someone will...and it will happen soon.

Is it just me or does Ana Ivanovic suddenly look like a player again?  She didn't last week in Sydney when she dropped her opening round match to Czech player Lucie Safarova, but suddenly she has again. The 21st seeded Ivanovic was a finalist here not that long ago, back in 2008, when she was World No. 1, but it seems like forever ago.  Forever and a day to be accurate.

Ivanovic has played powerful, actually impressive tennis thus far in Melbourne versus the shell-shocked brand we've seen from her in recent years.  With Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova cleared out of her path, the first seed she'll face will be in her round of 16 match, but unfortunately, that seed is No. 2 Petra Kvitova.  By rights, Ivanovic should lose this match; Kvitova should move on and order should largely hold in the women's draw.  That said, given Kvitova's prone to maddening lapses why couldn't a hot Ivanovic take advantage  A better question, even if she loses to Kvitova, can Ivanovic build on a solid tournament down under and put herself back into the ascendancy?  I think she can.

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