Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - A Different Way of Watching
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A Different Way of Watching 10/08/2010 - 3:35 PM

Gm Last night’s match between Andy Roddick and Gael Monfils from Tokyo made me feel as if I hadn't seen any tennis in months. This wasn’t true at all, of course: I’d watched Caroline Wozniacki win in Tokyo last Sunday, and made it through a long Davis Cup weekend prior to that. Maybe it was the fact that Roddick-Monfils was being played on an outdoor hard court, which made it seem like a throwback to an earlier part of the season. Or maybe it was because I hadn’t watched any ATP singles since the U.S. Open. It’s been slim pickings for tennis telecasts lately, both on TV and the Internet.

Whatever the reason, the sport felt fresh again, which was also a surprise. By the end of the Open—actually, by the middle of the Open—I was woozy from turning my head as tennis balls went back and forth in front of me, and I took little pleasure from contemplating even the most important match-ups. That’s the way it goes when you’re at a Slam; there’s so much tennis compressed into each day, you can get your fill of it extremely quickly. At certain stray, dark moments, usually at the end of a long day, the sound of another racquet hitting another ball can even begin to hurt your ears.

But the fan’s desire doesn't take long to rekindle. A break in the viewing action can even change the way you perceive the players in front of you. At the Open, I was critical of both Monfils and Roddick, the former for his cavalier attitude, the latter for his lack of an attacking game. On Thursday night, though, I found myself unwilling to judge or criticize, even when the two of them inevitably reverted to their bad habits. Monfils blew a 5-0 lead in the first-set tiebreaker, then Roddick gave it back at 5-5 with a characteristically too-safe  flicked forehand approach that Monfils hit for a passing shot winner. What I noticed about that last point was not Roddick's approach as much as the way he immediately dropped his head and looked straight down at the court as the ball went past. This also a characteristic move of Roddick’s, and it usually comes after his opponent hits a big shot on a big point. There’s something fatalistic, rather than angry or frustrated, about the way he does it, something that says part of him expected it all along. It’s a human and involuntary reaction, and it belies his cocky image.

The same went for Monfils. As always, he huffed and puffed and flexed and rapped to himself and made his eyes bulge and bellowed “Allez!” And as always, when it came down to winning the crucial points, he was more lamb than lion. Normally, this would frustrate me, because I do like Monfils’ game and have always thought that if he were to, say, become a multiple-Slam winner, he would draw fans to the sport. Today I rolled with him: The inner softness under the shell of bluster just made him seem, like Roddick, more human.

Who cares if Roddick’s approaches landed short and sat up? Who cares if Monfils  wasted half of his athletic advantage by playing from as far behind the baseline as he could? Who cares if he blew a short ball so badly that the announcer, Jason Goodall, blurted, with disgust in his voice, “That’s a terrible shot”? It's the competition and drama that counts more than anything in tennis, and this one had plenty. And while no one likes to see potential wasted, there are more satisfying and realistic ways to react to a match than telling the losing player what he or she “needs to do.” No matter how hard he works, and how many improvements he makes, a player is who he is, flaws and all. How many of them, once they’ve turned pro, succeed in radically rearranging their games and solving all of their problems over the courses of their careers? The percentage is close to zero. You’ll get more enjoyment from a player if you learn to love the flaws as well. In Monfils’ case, start by remembering, and being thankful, that you’re not his coach.

I’ve said that your favorite tennis player is like your kid. A player you like, but who resides somewhere below favorite status, is like a friend. Tennis pundits are supposed to critique the pros’ games and point out to readers and fans what they’re doing wrong. And that’s legit; it (hopefully) provides insight into the sport. But fans should also know that it’s not realistic, or even a good way to be a fan. Expecting perfection from people is a recipe for having no friends at all.

I was rewarded for my outlook in the end today, from both guys. Up 3-2 in the third-set tiebreaker, Roddick, who had been chipping his backhand in the usual way for much of the match, took a two-hander from the baseline and put just enough extra juice on it to get it past Monfils for a clean winner. Roddick pumped his fist. At a crucial moment, he’d taken the rally to his opponent. It didn’t last, but that fist-pump was memorable in itself for what it revealed: Roddick had gone beyond himself.

The same went for Monfils. In predictable fashion, he played his best tennis once he was down match point. From there he hit two aces to claim his own match point. In equally predictable fashion, he began that rally by feebly and tentatively tapping his return back. Roddick came forward and hit a nice short volley. Monfils raced up to get it. He found himself with the same forehand flip that he had missed so badly earlier, the same shot that Goodall had called “terrible.” When Monfils hit it this time, it appeared to be going long. "I knew it!" I thought. Then Roddick dropped his head straight down, in that way of his. The ball had been in. Monfils put his hand in the air and smiled. It wasn’t a look of triumph or arrogance on his face. It was a look of happy surprise, which a much more natural and revealing look. For a moment, he’d put his flaws behind him.

***

Have a good weekend.


 
33
Comments
 

Posted by bobby 10/08/2010 at 04:13 PM

If only Monfils can keep it up,he can become a real crowd puller in every part of the world and will be great for tennis as Rafa is doing at present in Japan and last week in Thailand.I think that his court coverage is as good as Rafa`s.As for the last article were you compared Rafa with Wozniaski,i think that it is a little premature.But some of the comments regarding that article were a little over the top because i think that you have always written positively about Rafa.Keep up the good work.

Posted by petewho 10/08/2010 at 05:27 PM

Monfils confuses me , at one point ( last year ?? ) he had some sort of emo hair thing going on then went back to his roots - so to speak and now ..

He appears to be going dreadlock it would seem

Well hell , Im all for it .. now only if we could get Federer to grow a beard and get a tattoo and chew tobacco , wouldnt that be fun ?

BTW It looks like Murray is trying to grow his hair out too , perhaps to mimic the ponytail the Federer once had ?

Meanwhile poor Rafa seems to be losing his..

Posted by Wendy 10/08/2010 at 06:37 PM

Steve, your analysis is consistently right on. It can be frustrating to be a Roddick fan. In fact, one of my coworkers has given it up in favor of just writing him off. I have too much respect for the guy to do that. Your observation that he hangs his head after losing a big point is very insightful. The guy's got such a big serve and yet... he's human. Tennis is such a humbling game.


Am not expecting to see Monfils make it to the finals against some lefty from Mallorca.

Posted by pov 10/08/2010 at 09:55 PM

@petewho,

Monfils hair is in braids with extensions not dreads.

Posted by oli 10/08/2010 at 10:55 PM

Vas-y Gael, gagne le tournoi!~

Posted by ata08 10/08/2010 at 11:10 PM

your fan's notes are just as insightful and valuable as your pundit's notes.
love this one.

Posted by susan 10/09/2010 at 12:24 AM

You didn't mention his hair, which was one of the non-tennistic highlights of the match. Of five comments so far, two have been about hair... as it should be. :) On another note... .too bad that he isn't consistent and more highly ranked because he would bring in so, so many fans.

Posted by forma 10/09/2010 at 03:56 AM

ok, clown won over aging Rod who is nothing but a rod... tired of seeing that slice approach shot... have you A-rod nothing else in the bag... congrats to Gael for being able to stick to tennis in drag... that was even more entertaining...

Posted by A New York Nadalian 10/09/2010 at 04:17 AM

You have to realize that Roddick is not a young buck anymore, it's like he looks beat-up out there, yo even my wife said it, that's when you know something is not right.... My opinion is that he should focus more on his hot wife and maybe having some babies and forget about all these sweaty dudes from the ATP, especially that bad azz mallorcan who doesn't plan on letting anybody win any majors in the next 5 years (Sorry Roger Fed). Not sure if you guys agree with me or not

Posted by forma 10/09/2010 at 04:40 AM

ok, nadal is gonna undergo another drama (ala 2009) just when Fed is gonna consolidate his fading out... Who will come through? Surging Novak (yet frail), remember Andy Murray (yet lost) or the big hitter of the moment?

Posted by MindyM 10/09/2010 at 04:51 AM

Steve,

This is a blog that I truly enjoyed reading. It was a nice surprise. I thought that I was the only one who had those feelings watching Roddick and Monfils. I wasn't even going to watch the match, but I am really happy that I did. Sometimes players that you don't like or who drive you crazy or frustrate you, can really catch you off guard.

I had just about given up on Monfils. I find myself gritting my teeth when I watch him play. I never know which Monfils will show up - the one with the athletic and brilliant shotmaking or the clown. This time the former showed up to play and it was quite enjoyable. This guy has so much natural talent and it seems that he is intent on throwing it all away. I thought that his performance in the USO quarterfinal with Djokovic, was a low point. When, I found myself asking angrily, would he just show up and play, try to construct points, think out on court, have a strategy instead of just reacting? I didn't have an answer.

I would like to think that the real Monfils is the one who showed up to play against Roddick. I also found a real appreciation for Roddick, who has had one tough year. After that second round loss to Tipsy at the USO, I didn't know what to expect. I was hopeful that at least he was finally healthy and fully recovered from the mono. He showed some grit and toughness, some real fight and did manage to pull off some aggressive play. He competed, just like Monfils. That is all I ask of players when they take the court. Go out there and give it your best, make the effort, stay in the fight.

I think Monfils may always have these highs and lows in his level of play, but it's nice to see him taking his tennis more seriously. Roddick fought the good fight and gave himself chances to win. I hope this match will give him a good feeling and the will to keep on hanging in there.

I really enjoyed this match. In many ways, it once again reminded me of why I love the sport of tennis so very much. It's easier to watch when you are neutral and don't have a vested interest in who wins. Then you can just appreciate the tennis. When Rafa is playing, I am so emotionally invested that I usually have to go back and watch my recording again to really appreciate and enjoy his tennis.

This match was like a nice little present from two players who still have the ability to hold my interest and show me something.

Nice blog!

Posted by ozdog 10/09/2010 at 05:00 AM

ho hum, like roddick, another boring blog.

Posted by forma 10/09/2010 at 06:02 AM

yes... to ad up to boringness, another win for wozniaki... tennis is really, really boring these days.... i mean... hello, has anyone here seen wozniaki play... one super boring game... i'm on the verge of disgust.... and who cares that she won... anyone????

Posted by petewho 10/09/2010 at 06:11 AM

pov,

Yes, I actually realised it couldnt of been dreadlocks but my thinking mode was still in reverse so the only thing i could think of was dreadlocks - which of course isnt possible unless his hair grows an inch a week

Monfils can do what he likes , if he can make it more fun to watch then thats find by me.

The odd thing is , hes actually apparently a very good poker player , so you think hed have more of a mental game ( no pun intend ) when it came to winning points .

I dunno

Perhaps Tennis his is way of cooling off ??

Not sure about the hair , dradlocks would work far better , his extensions look odd to me , but better than the blondish emo thing i saw with last year .

I think ATP should inforce an image change rule to freshen the game up ( the players who are loosing should be required not to shave or at least loook more weary )

It would help the Fans identifiy with the players more and who was going through a rough time..

While the once , but now- not so great , should always come in 2nd and leave first after winning matches.

Posted by jewell 10/09/2010 at 07:25 AM

Particularly loved the 5th & 6th paragraphs (too much to copy). :) Match calls can be so negative sometimes - can destroy the pleasure in the match & the appreciation of great shots mixed in with bad misses. Because the reactions are all happening at once, & not after the match, they're all a bit magnified, I guess; and what is probably actually constructive criticism tends to look more like unrelenting negativity.

Gael's hair, though...not sure about that. I'll have to look at it a bit more & maybe I can persuade myself to like it. :)

Posted by adman 10/09/2010 at 07:40 AM

I was only able to watch the highlights, and it looked like a very typical monfils-roddick match. Roddick continually comes in on Monfil's short balls (but not with any authority) and voila, passing shot winner from Monfils. And in turn Monfils continually plays ridiculously erratic. Thus every match they play has been close.

Love the little part about Roddick putting his head down. It is really frustrating to watch, because each time he does it at the exact same time his opponent hits the shot. Its like you said he already knows he is going to lose. A lot of times he has the opportunity to hit a volley, but he already has his head down. Roddick WHERE is your forehand?!

Posted by espnalanaldo 10/09/2010 at 09:22 AM

It is really a different kind of watching after reading a related article by Perotta,

Report Card: Grading the Pros on September
By Tom Perrotta - Wednesday, October 6, 2010

... to include the loss of Nadal to Garcia-Lopez that happened in October to grade pro plays in September. What a head-case, no?

What is the motivation to include that loss in that column, Perotta?

I'd call that pathetic writing, just for the sake of jabbing that loss in.

An October event for September. DUH!

Meanwhile, Monfils I think will self-destruct tomorrow because he thinks he is that good. He is not.

He will try to clown his way in the final in an effort to impress the fans that he is a Grand-Slam caliber player. He is not. Junior Slams, yes, absolutely!

See, it does not always translate ... juniors into seniors. Remember that other German guy who won most Junior Slams? What is his name again?

Exactly.

But if we slap Monfils silly now then probably he will have a chance against Nadal. And Nadal might just lose as a prep for Shanghai, just like he did in Cincinnati prior to the US Open.

In any case, I just hope that Gael will not make himself look silly tomorrow. With that French coif, he already is.

Posted by Clay 10/09/2010 at 09:46 AM

This is just about right for Monfils, bringing his A game (so to speak) deep into a 500 in the Fall. Unfortunately nothing will come of it, momentum-wise.

I say that with love, le Monf is so great to watch, and actually a top notch player at times. I'm just looking at it pragmatically.

Posted by KHODI-KUBA BENNU 10/09/2010 at 10:22 AM

Monfils Is .... I Don't Know What Too Even Say, But I Do Know About Unused Or Wasted Potential, Some Have That In Spades,Eventually Some Get It Together, While There Is Still Time, Maybe Monfils Has Time On His Side, Who Knows?

Posted by Steve 10/09/2010 at 11:49 AM

There are the good words, Mindy! Thank you very much.

should be a good one between rafa and monfils

Posted by AB 10/09/2010 at 01:21 PM

Thanks for this piece, Steve. I did watch the match and (to my surprise) found myself enjoying it.

It's true, you really can't enjoy the whole when you focus on dissecting the various parts.

It helped that I didn't care who won, but I'm always susceptible to getting critical when players exhibit parts of their personality or game that I think is negative or detrimental to a "winning" mentality.

Neveah's fandom of Gael did open my eyes to just accepting and appreciating him for what he is, an athletic goof-ball who plays pro tennis. Hey, he seems happy so why should I get in a lather?

As for RAndy, I hope he takes some heart from this match. He did not play poorly and he stuck more approach shots and volleys than I remember him doing in the past. I still mourn the loss of his put-away FH. Where did it go? He really needs it to stay at the top.

Posted by Syd 10/09/2010 at 02:20 PM

Nice read Steve.

Particularly like your insight re Monfil: "As always, he huffed and puffed and flexed and rapped to himself and made his eyes bulge and bellowed “Allez!” And as always, when it came down to winning the crucial points, he was more lamb than lion. "

Here's a guy who possesses all the tools to BE a multiple slam winner, except the most crucial one above the ears. Still, can't help but like the guy.

Posted by Syd 10/09/2010 at 02:20 PM

er, "Monfils"

Posted by petewho 10/10/2010 at 02:36 AM

If I were Monfils I take every oppourtunity to beat Rafa at Poker in the lockerroom , cos it sure as hell aint happening on the court.

Rafa - unless injuired - is the worst matchup for Monfils .

I dont find Monfils strokes or game that attractive , but more irratating to watch - as though hes bought into his own archetype of being a clown.

Anyhoos .. I suppose one fluke cant hurt the morale, or more poker...

Posted by jackson 10/10/2010 at 05:46 AM

Rafa - unless injured - is a bad matchup for pretty much everyone. ;)

Posted by petewho 10/10/2010 at 08:57 AM

Aye Jackson ,

That maybe true now hes getting' em bionic bloody shots in his knees, arse and wherever else it goes.

But one day - mark my words..

A Tennis player will rise from the ranks and use the power of the mat...

- woops wrong channel

Any way, you know what they say ..

" To be the man , you gotta beat the man "

So until someone can do that on reg basis , Rafa and his bionic knees will rule house , until some other wolfy comes and blows his knees out ( hah sorry bad joke )

Posted by petewho 10/10/2010 at 09:02 AM

BTW Wouldnt Murray look great with those braids ?

You know he could put beads in like Venus had , to colour co-ordinate with the blue n white of adidas outfit , and a'cerse homeland .

Give the fans something to remember his by , other than his popeye impressions , dour mood and wonky teeth.

Posted by smeagol 10/11/2010 at 12:44 AM

Congratulations to Rafa for winning Beijing. It's hard to understand why he would play two tournaments in a row heading into Shanghai knowing his tendency to get hurt from overplaying.

Posted by jackson 10/11/2010 at 04:15 AM

I really don't understand why so many people are wound up about Rafa playing two tournaments before Shanghai. In each of them, only one match tested him while the others were glorified practice sessions that gave him valuable experience on hard courts. He would have been working out very hard anyway and I'm sure competitive matches are more fun than repetitive practices. He's a professional athlete in magnificent shape. He can handle it.

Posted by petewho 10/11/2010 at 09:43 AM

Rafa doesnt get hurt any more , he just gets shots.

Posted by cami 10/11/2010 at 02:19 PM

such a great article! my favorite quotes: "In Monfils’ case, start by remembering, and being thankful, that you’re not his coach." Amen to that :))

and the one that reminded me that everything you need to know about life can be found in a tennis match: "Expecting perfection from people is a recipe for having no friends at all"

Posted by Grace 10/13/2010 at 01:28 PM

pov, Monfils hair is in braids but he does not have extensions!

Posted by Momsy for Rafa 10/18/2010 at 09:08 PM

Thank you Steve for the post, I should have read this one much sooner.
I was a lucky one to watch the match in person in Ariake, and it was by far the best one I watched all during the week in Tokyo up to that point (well save for the SF Rafa v Troicki).

Your lucid description of how Andy and Gael reacted to each critical point brings me back to the stadium right there and then. It was fantastic!

I saw Gael in person up close for the first time when he was out on a practce court; he was in an amazing physical shape, I had to admid that even more so than was Rafa, and he was so cute in his braids and/or extensions!


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