Australian Open 2014: Stephane Robert and the art of casino tennis
Stephane Robert is a self-proclaimed gambler when it comes to his shot-making on the tennis courts, taking his chances and mixing unorthodox game-making with the more conventional. Off court he’s one of those wry, self-deprecating individuals making light of all the struggles he’s endured so far in his career, before got his chance at the Australian Open this year.
Before the start of Robert’s sojourn at the Australian Open, not many knew about him, least of all in the majors. Those who knew him faintly did so because of his upset over Tomas Berdych in the first round at Roland Garros in 2011, nearly three years ago. That match, another long forgotten event, had become the summation of the high point of the Frenchman’s career, possibly never to be repeated again.
Robert’s presence in another major wouldn’t have been repeated too, had it not been for Philip Kohlscreiber’s last-minute pull-out. Kohlscreiber’s hamstring injury – as unsympathetic as it sounds – paved the way for the 33-year old Frenchman’s re-emergence from relative anonymity and a possible limiting of his globetrotting, playing his way through the lower tournament rungs.
In that, Robert indeed emerge to be the lucky loser, advancing not just through each round in the main draw but also side-by-side making his mark in the history books of the Australian Open as well. He got through easily in his opening two rounds against Aljaz Bedene and Michal Przysiezny. Even before Robert could step onto the court to play against his third round opponent Martin Klizan, another lucky loser himself, the two guys had made it to the sport’s record books by becoming the first two lucky losers to play in the third round of a Grand Slam in more than four decades. The last time this occurred was way back in 1973, in the French Open, where 81 players had boycotted the event and 50 lucky losers were substituted to take their place in the main draw.
Despite his self-declared inexperience of playing in the third round of a major, Robert outplayed Klizan without much fuss, booking a career-best fourth round place against Andy Murray. And just like that, the world suddenly became intrigued with him. For never before in the history of the Australian Open had a lucky loser made it to the second week, and in spite of the Scot being the favourite to win the match, the feel-good factor remained with the Frenchman.
Sportsmen talk of passion being the most important incentive that drives and motivates them. In the face of adversities, drumming up passion becomes quite a daunting task indeed for many athletes. Some even succumb to the lure of taking an easy way out, despite the risk of being caught out, just so that they can have something to speak of by way of returns. And there are those like Robert who wait it out by biding their time optimistically and spurring themselves on to take the tougher route even if it doesn’t get them increased returns.
In Robert’s case, such patience will see him net a much-needed supercharge to his ranking and a pay-cheque containing figures way more than what he had previously struggled to earn in a single season. The cost of earning this boost hasn’t however come easy for Robert who’d been dealing with a niggling back problem throughout the course of his run in the four rounds. Though the sway will certainly be with the Frenchman to push himself ahead into the season, one can never really tell about the way tides and fortunes could change for the Frenchman, especially with him being on the cusp of celebrating his 34th birthday.
Being the ‘casino tennis player’ that he is, Robert himself wouldn’t prematurely count on his cards being full flush. Nor would he give up playing in case he doesn’t have all the right cards; that’s just not the way he is. And that is precisely the quality that makes him to be one of the toughest opponents to play against, as Andy Murray found out in their fourth round match.