15 June 2008

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I may as well rename this blog to something more tennis-oriented if this carries on. How about throughsilver in lob? Anyway, today ended the Artois championship at Queen's Club in London. The traditional week-long warm-up for most budding Wimbledon competitors, Queen's usually features a mix of potential challengers for the top spot at the nearing grass court Grand Slam event (though never the man who usually ends up with the aforementioned spot, Roger Federer).

In a way it's slightly tragic, as the spoils of this event had been divided equally between perennial Wimbledon bridesmaids Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick for the last forty-three years or so (okay, since 2000). Granted, Hewitt won the last Wimbledon before the onset of the Federer Regime, but since then both Hewitt and Roddick have looked terribly mortal at SW19. So the Artois was something of a comfort blanket for them, a shelter in which they could hide and pretend they are the kings of grass while Roger is plugging away in Germany and similar.

This has especially been the case in the last couple of years, when a new brace of pretenders-to-the-throne have established themselves, yawning ever wider that chasm between RoddItt and the absolute peak of professional tennis. First came Rafael Nadal, that hyper-aggressive dynamo, once a clay specialist, but now so much more; the last twelve months has seen the rise (two GS semi finals, one final, and one title) of the even younger Novak Djokovic. The Spaniard and Serb are both sufficiently excellent, and fit, that the fancy of winning another major has moved so far out of reach for Andy and Lleyton that they must surely envy poor, soggy, old Tantalus at this stage.

Still, they have had Artois and its $800,000 prize money as consolation. Until now! Yes, in a succession of events that display a changing of the guard as brutally as possible, this week saw Hewitt discarded by Djokovic 6-2 6-2 in the quarter finals, while Roddick made it to the semis before taking his leave in straight sets at the hands of Nadal (albeit in slightly more optimistic 7-5 6-4 fashion).

If those results suggest to you that there is nowhere left for the old guard (how ageing is it that this 'old guard' is currently 25 (Roddick) and 27 (Hewitt)) to run, spare a thought for David Nalbandian. Historically close to greatness without ever achieving it, the Argentine player pours hot and cold. He's made a Wimbledon final in the past, as well as semis in the three other majors, but he is currently further from the pace than his usurped peers. The fourth Artois 2008 semi finalist (and fourth seed as I recall), he managed to beg one game from Djokovic before finding himself in a heap outside Queen's Club with head spinning, wondering what exactly happened in that final, love, set.

I digress. The final occurred this afternoon, and a fine example of the sport we call tennis it was too. The initial quarter of a set suggested it would be all-Djokovic as the 21-year-old Serb continued his game-winning streak from the Sacking of Nalbandian, breaking Nadal in going 3-0 up. Given how Novak has said in the past that grass is his favourite surface, and how insanely quickly he is improving, I feared this would be a rout in the fashion of Djokovic's semi final match.

Perhaps the Mallorcan southpaw thought the same thing. After throwing away a break point in the opening game of the match, Nadal quickly brought the match back to 3-3. After a set of pretty spectacular tennis, which Djokovic largely looked closer to winning, Nadal stole the honours in a dramatic tie breaker.

On a high, Nadal took control of the second (Artois is best-of-three sets, for those who don't know) set early on. Both men were playing absolutely insane shots, and the narrative was really of Djokovic using his athleticism and shot-play to get the ball in excellent places on the court, only to look on in disbelief as it returned to his half of the playing area.

Despite Nadal stating in a pre-match interview that he would be happy with the status of losing finalist, both men were desperate for that win, knowing that a loss meant one more obstacle in addition to Federer come June 23rd. As a result, we got to see the rather scarily competitive Djokovic at work (including screams when he missed certain shots, violent introductions of the racket to the lush grass and the kind of fist pumping that was imbued with a meaning absent from every Henman celebration ever). He verges on the psychotic, that man, but he does come as a welcome contrast to both the stoical Federer and super-physical Nadal.

Key moments came in the form of unintentional splits from Novak, a diving shot that almost hit the spot from Rafael, not to mention no small amount of break points. While Nadal hadn't been leading the match until the tie breaker, he had the lion's share of break points, which Djokovic defended admirably.

In a surprisingly draining two sets, though, Nadal emerged victorious with a suitably dramatic smash to take the second set 7-5.

So what does this mean for Wimbledon? Who knows, really. The second- and third-ranked players in the world certainly look like the top two this year, with Federer receiving hidings both in Australia and France and generally looking eminently beatable. But now more than ever am I convinced the Swiss five-time Wimbledon champion will want to send a message to all who would challenge his throne.

For all his relative frailty, the last twelve months have seen him win two majors and reach the semi-final and final of the remaining two. Not to mention the small matter of not losing a tennis match at SW19 since Elvis was at number one in the charts. While I had viewed Djokovic as practical favourite before today, Federer really does remain the man to beat on grass. As great as they have been thus far this year, Nadal and Djokovic will be squabbling for #2 seed in my Wimbledon listings.

I'm official, don't you know.

Tipsarevic Watch: I think I was correct to keep believing in everyone's favourite Dostoyevsky tattoo bearer. He made it to the third round of this years Artois before falling to eventual finalist, and compatriot, Djokovic. We're rooting for you Janko!

Makiri Watch: And after exhorting Maria Kirilenko to reach greater heights after a so-so period, the plucky Russian today won the WTA Barcelona event. Kudos to you, Makiri!

* I could really have just reused the Roland Garros pic.

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