The shades are changing, as the curtain is drawn on the hard courts of North America. The tour heads, racket, bag and bunny in tow to the red dirt of the European Summer – to ply their
trade of toss, stretch and swing – an indulgence in those endless rallies, that often seem like a ballet in the Sun. The clay court season has begun in earnest, with the galaxy of stars being hosted at the exquisitely private Monte Carlo Country Club. A master series event, run mainly on courts built to engage the wealthy members of this Mediterranean club.
As the players sweat it out in the grime their socks turn orange, the shoes a ragged mess. You may have just enough time for a quick glug of your favourite energy drink and a swipe with the towel, before your opponent gets the ball back in play. No wonder then that patience and the ability to stretch those last sinews are rewarded handsomely, albeit slowly, in the clay courts of France, Italy and Spain.
There is a romance in the manner in which the boys and girls around these courts toil with a large net in hand, doing their best to wipe away the evidence of the walloped ball and the sliding feet. The languid charm in having the umpire get off her high chair to closely examine the circle of impact to dismiss or second claims of an overbearing player – looking cross, hands on the hips – is a thing of beauty that may be living its last dunes in the sand. Roger Federer may not trust the physics of trajectory and the rhythm busting appeals, but the ATP Tour is better off using the science.
Half of the top ten are on a leave of absence, some injured, others who don’t give a damn. There is a lot of chatter about player motivation – mainly about how little a man called Roger cares for these tournaments anymore, but more importantly about the inability of Andy Murray to really show up at these events and play. He is still reeling from the drubbing down under in the finals of the Oz Open at the hands of the Master, but then he will ruin his season unless he picks his strings, tightens his lace and gets down to some serious work.
He has done himself a disservice in losing his first match here at the MCCC to a German journeyman, what was it – 2 and 1? We all know what this man is capable of when he runs around a tennis court, with body, mind and soul intact. Unfortunately though, he is guilty of arriving mid-court with one or the other missing. Put it all together, and here is an unlikely British specimen that can play some real smart tennis.
There is something about dirt that draws the Spanish and the South Americans, like bees to flowers, and they descend in droves. So we will have an eclectic mix of players upsetting the applecart of the seeds. There is also the seasoned campaigner, David Nalbandian for one, fresh from rehabilitation and a new hip ready to mix up things with his magical angles. Tsonga can come into his own on his day. Juan Carlos Ferrero is trying to make his closing arguments; there is Feliciano Lopez with that ferocious forehand and a handful of others that will ruin the season for the elite and then make a quiet departure themselves. In the end analysis, men’s tennis is robust at the top and it is difficult to see the trophies slip from their grasp, just yet.
Andy Roddick is a reborn player, rising from the darkness of serious contemplation about leaving the game. After all he has the license to drive into the inviting arms of a certain Brooklyn Decker-Roddick, cannot blame the man, can you? Fortunately for us, better sense prevailed. Larry Stefanki arrived courtside, armed with the etiquette of a blacksmith and the calm of a monk. He has a devoted and realistic disciple in Andy, who is once again willing to explore the possibilities of his talents and the fruits of hard work. He has the best record on tour this year, but all of that may not be enough to get this man to the business end of the clay season. We will wait for this man to arrive at Queens to see him blossom again.
With Del Potro nursing his wrist, the real suspects are the usual handful – Novak Djokovic, Rafa Nadal and of course Roger Federer. The Djoker’s game was evolving really well, as you could gauge from his stellar show last season. It is just as well that he will work with a single coach, who can help him tide over his confusion and once again trust his game. He has it in him to run Rafa close, question is can he pull it out of the bag when he needs it most. The final at the MCCC will help us figure that one.
Federer seems removed from the madness in Monte Carlo, but he must be watching closely. We will know soon if the meal he was making in Indian Wells and Miami was a mere blip or a trend. He certainly seemed at sea against all and sundry, before making listless exits from both tournaments. He has a task at hand, getting his game together during what is the busiest part of the season. He has the added motivation of making a definitive argument for his rightful place at the high table of Tennis greatness, by defending his crown at Roland Garros.
But the last word on dirt ought to belong to Rafa Nadal. Poor old Michael Berrer was having the season of his life, till he ran into the Marauding Majorcan. The man is a beast, when his knees aren’t living on tape. He seems ominous all over again, back chasing balls, with that unmistakable spring in his step. It appears he will once again rule the roost in the grime, grinding his way past opponents. We have some feast at hand, there is some tennis to be had.