Sometimes, the game of tennis can play out in a very poetic manner.
No, this is not a reference to the exquisite beauty of a Federer backhand, or the sight of a Monfils in full flow. This is more about what we learn from what we watch. And like good poetry, tennis often teaches us about the conflicts within the human mind, about the intricacies of competition, about the subtle distinction between winning and losing. We got a well-choreographed dose of it last weekend, as the Asian swing of the tennis year gathered steam.
Two tournaments took place in parallel – one in its debut appearance on the ATP calendar in Shenzhen, China, and the other in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Both were ATP 250 titles, minor tournaments in the lead-up to the bigger events on the horizon. But they provided some great storylines over the week. And none more ‘poetic’ – there’s the word again – than the two finals that were played on Sunday. One made news for the loss, while the other made news for the win, and between them, they showed us what really determines the greats among tennis players.
Slipping from the Front in Kuala Lumpur
In the Kuala Lumpur final, Julien Benneteau was taking on Kei Nishikori. Obviously, this was an unenviable task for Benneteau. Nishikori was last month’s US Open finalist, in the form of his life, and a clear favourite. Benneteau, on the other hand, was coming into the match with a unique storyline of his own. This was his tenth ATP singles final appearance of his career, and he had lost all nine of his previous encounters.
So, why couldn’t he take that final step to claim a trophy? What exactly was he missing? It could not be a question of talent or tennis skills. This was a man regularly in the top 30, with two memorable career wins over Roger Federer, and always a threat to any big name in his section of the draw. And if he could string the 3-4 wins required to reach the final on ten different occasions, surely, he could win one more game in succession. But apparently, this was a task too great for him.
Benneteau started off in explosive fashion, and was soon up a break and serving for the first set. But then, he tightened up. Perhaps, it was the aura of the finals, perhaps it was the jinx of his personal record in finals, perhaps it was just the lack of a killer instinct. Whatever the reason, Benneteau provided an opening for Nishikori, which the Japanese eagerly took.
As Nishikori later summed up the first set, “It was a really tough start, because he was playing so aggressive. I was waiting for my opportunity. In the last game, he got a little bit tight, and I took my chance.” The second set was played tough again, but always with a sense of impending doom for Benneteau. The final scoreline was 7-6, 6-4 in Nishikori’s favour. Yet another opportunity at a singles trophy had slipped through the Frenchman’s grasp.
This defeat may not hurt as badly as last year’s Kuala Lumpur finals for Benneteau, where he had once again been in the finals, up against an unfancied Joao Sousa. He had been match point up in that encounter, just one point from breaking away from his own dispiriting record. Memories of the on-the-run passing shot that Sousa played that day to save match point are likely to still be the stuff of Benneteau’s nightmares. He lost that day, as he did today – from strong, winnable positions. By its absence, he proved the most valuable asset that a champion needs to have – the confidence to win.
Coming from Behind in Shenzhen
Just a few hours and a few countries away, Andy Murray was scripting the tale in reverse. The inaugural Shenzhen tournament was being treated to a roller-coaster of a final between Murray and Tommy Robredo. The Scot was a last-minute wild card entrant into this tournament, in his search for valuable points that would help him qualify for the year-end championships in London. It had been a frustrating year so far for Murray in his comeback from back surgery. The results had not been consistent enough, and he had not won a title since his memorable Wimbledon win in 2013.
He continued his less-than-perfect play in the Shenzhen final, and found himself a set down and facing four match-points in the second set tie-breaker. But this was Murray, a 2-time Grand Slam champion and ex-member of a Big 4 in men’s tennis.
“I tried to get as many balls back in play as I could. I just tried to fight till the end,” Murray elaborated about those match points. A simple statement, but it was an intent that resulted in an incredible turnaround. Murray would go on to save 5 match points, win the tie-breaker, and then power past a dispirited Robredo in the third set, 5-7, 7-6, 6-1. The match was never pretty, with neither player playing at his best, but the encounter did show off the Scot in all his dogged glory. His core defensive skills and mental fortitude had seen him through the day.
Again, there was a sense of inevitability about the result, once the cauldron of the second set tie-breaker had passed. This was Murray after all, he had seen this before – his comeback win from 2 sets down to beat Fernando Verdasco, en route to the Wimbledon crown last year, was just one example of his stubbornness on court.
Perhaps it was the sense of purpose driving his autumn calendar, perhaps it was the belief in his ability to win ugly, perhaps it was the knowledge of having done it all before. But Murray knew exactly what was needed to dig himself out of a hole on the day, and steal a much-needed title victory. He had the belief and the confidence to win.
Of course, Murray and Benneteau were up against different opponents today, in different conditions, and they are at different points in their personal careers. As individual players too, it is undeniable that Murray has more weapons than Benneteau on a tennis court, with greater strength and speed, to add. But the underlying reason for their starkly contrasting results over the weekend could well come down to one key dimension – their confidence to win, whatever it takes. Murray knew he could do it, Benneteau was not so sure. And therein, might lie the difference that defines many tennis careers.
With these results today, Murray took an important step towards cementing his spot in the year-end championships, while Benneteau took another step towards cementing his position as the best player never to win an ATP singles title.
Tennis, as poetry, it appears, can be inspiring and tragic in equal measure.Published 01 Oct 2014, 11:08 IST