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An Inch of Daylight 08/31/2008 - 9:38 PM

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By Pete Bodo

Before we get to the meat of this post, I want to let y'all know that I had a terrific time at AmyLu and Juan Jose's wedding yesterday near Allentown, Pa. At one point during dinner at the reception, a few of the folks saw me furiously text-messaging, and one of the guests asked me if I had scores to report. I was mortified; it would have been awfully rude to be checking results in the middle of dinner, so I told the truth: "Actually, I'm getting text messages from a number of people at the US Open, but they're not conveying scores - they're asking how Amy looks, what Juan Jose's family is like, and how the wedding was."

I did the round trip yesterday,  so I was ready to hit the ground running today - the last day of the first week, which I dedicated to coverage of some of the lesser lights in the game. This wasn't easy, at times. Today, Roger Federer vs. Radek Stepanek was a pretty compelling match-up, for reasons familiar to all of you. But I bit the bullet, and it paid off when Gilles Muller shocked Nicolas Almagro on the court where I have spent so much time during Week 1 - the Grandstand. I tracked the match while taking care of some other business, in the media center, and went out to catch the last few games. It was a classic mid-tournament clash; deep enough into the tournament to really matter, on a day when the other matches - to that point - had been unremarkable.

Muller, you may remember, had racked up wins over Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon and Andy Roddick here at the US Open in previous Grand Slam appearances. But he was never able to capitalize long-term on those striking upsets. He's presently ranked no. 130, and has spent most of the year playing on the Challenger circuit in places like Izmir, Turkey, Lanzarote, Spain, and Wroclaw, Poland. At Istanbul a few weeks ago, he put the hammer down on Turkey's very own Marsel Ilhan, and then spanked the Czech Republic's Jaroslav Pospicil, before losing in the quarters to Frederico Gil of Portugal.

Let me interrupt this communique with a bulletin from the twilight zone: Gil made the cutoff for the US Open, and he ended up playing Jeremy Chardy of France in the first round - for the third consecutive time in a Grand Slam event this year. Jay Snyder, the US Open tournament director, believes that this is a record. But back to Muller. . .

The 25-year old lefty from Luxembourg arrived in New York on Sunday, and had all of one day to adjust before playing his first match in qualifying - a battle that he survived, 7-5 in the third. You know how it is with some guys - give them an inch of daylight, and they'll take a mile of limelight. And this was a guy who needed all the ambient light he could get: at times this year, he has seriously contemplated quitting the game. As he would say later, "There were even moments where I thought, 'Should I still keep playing'?  Because, I mean, if you're playing at the challenger level, because pretty much every week you're losing money because you have more expenses than you are earning."

Muller survived the qualifying and his first-rounder in the Big Show was against a wild card (Laurent Recouderc, of France). Muller played a smart, tight match to advance to a meeting with Tommy Haas. Muller lost the first two sets to Haas, but he managed to hang tough and slash his way to a five-set win - it was his first career comeback of that magnitude in a five-set match, but then they don't play five-setters in Izmir, or Humacao, Puerto Rico.

In Almagro (the person, not the place, if there is one of that name), Muller had an opponent who's been ranked as high as no. 11, but was playing in just his second tournament since he underwent surgery on his right (racket) hand in July. Almagro also prefers clay courts to the Deco-turf (hard courts) of this event. Still, Muller played with panache, against a high quality opponent, on a big stage. He wasted a match point at 5-4 in the fifth, but kept his composure in the subsequent games to piece together a neat upset.

Muller conforms to a familiar type: He knows how to extract the advantage of a lefty on his serve, he has a fine, slice backhand (those two factors add up to the formula that attained it's highest form of expression in the soft hands of John McEnroe - send the slider and charge the net, the rest will take care of itself!). And just to make sure you don't mistake his southpaw genetics, Muller also hits his forehand with an odd, restrained motion - as if were a dog that has to be kept on a tight leash. Why is it that so many lefthanders have trouble controlling the forehand?  And what does it tell us that one of the few who has no such impediment - Rafael Nadal - is not, naturally, a lefthander?

Muller's stock in trade this week has been playing with superior focus and confidence in the late going.  Today, he did it again, brushing aside two break points at 5-5 in the fifth set - after failing to convert that match point - to stay on serve. He broke Almagro in the next game with a nice backhand touch volley to end the match. In his presser, I asked him the obvious question: Why are you winning these matches?

He blinked and said, "Why?"

I shrugged. "Yeah."

Muller paused and then said, "That's a good question." After a moment of reflection, he went on. "I don't know. I guess everything is in the head. Everything is confidence. I guess I lost a lot of it through the last two, three years, because I was playing pretty good in '05 when I beat Nadal, and then Andy here in US Open. But then I had a tough time after that.  I mean, I wasn't confirming my results. I was dropping in the rankings.  I started to play challengers again and I was losing matches there. I lost a lot of confidence. . . So it was a rough time, but I'm glad I didn't stop."

It's a funny thing, this "confidence." Obviously, you can't just call it up at will. It's less like hitting a $5 payout on a scratch-off lottery ticket than cultivating a tomato plant through the dog days of August. The bluebloods of the game seem have that confidence, though, almost as a matter of entitlement. But even that aura is deceptive; they earned it far from public eye, through long years of excellence at the junior level.

Even those anointed ones can lose it, as we've seen time and again - which is why recapturing it is the kind of trial by fire that every aspiring champion usually has to undergo at some stage. If you think it's tough never to have possessed confidence as if it were a God-given gift, imagine what it's like to have had it as a part of your basic nature, only to wake up one morning to find it gone. And in tennis, the one thing you can't fake is confidence; if you try, you risk looking like a fool because the degree to which you may appear confident is dictated by the immutable truth of the scorelines.

The only thing I feel, well, confident saying on this subject is that confidence is not something that comes and goes on a daily basis. Mostly, it seems to be something lost and gained on a great, fairly flat arc. It takes a pretty long time for you to exhaust what confidence capital you've accumulated, and just as long to build it back up once you've lost it. That's why an isolated, great result should never be taken too seriously; a guy can play lights-out tennis and win a match he's supposed to lose - especially if he has a lot of offense in his game. But in order to build confidence, he needs to string together wins, and he needs to beat those players whom he's supposed to beat. We all walk down the street with confidence; we wouldn't, though, if we had a history of taking three steps and then tripping over own feet.

Sometimes, though, you can generate a measure of confidence simply by being fed up - by realizing that worrying about how much you have to lose is a pretty good way of forgetting how much you have to gain. Here's something about confident players: They know deep down that they have nothing to lose; that the game is, ultimately, fair. Make the shots and you win. Miss the shots and you lose. Where's the room for debate? Making the shots just makes life easier and smoother. Muller had a revelation of that order in his match with Haas. As he said:

"I'm playing Tommy Haas. I mean, he's a great player. I mean, I went on court and I played terrible the first two sets. I said, 'Come on, Man.  You have nothing to lose. Why are you playing so tight?'  Then I started playing better.  Now I know I can turn around matches. That gave me a lot of confidence, and I can beat those guys."

There's this funny thing about winning. As much of a struggle as it may be to win, it leads to a place where things are far simpler than when you're losing. One of the main reasons why some players with a talent for winning just keep doing it is because they get accustomed to living their professional life in simple terms. Winning protects you from things that go bump in the night. Confidence simplifies life and brings clarity to it.

At Grand Slam events, a player in search of confidence can get a lot of help clearing the final hurdles.  I suppose I should go look up some stats on this, but the crowd at New York is especially good at doing this. And the Grandstand crowed at Flushing Meadow seems to raise support for the underdog to an art form. Muller said of them:

"When I had my first match point today, I got goosebumps before I was returning the serve there. Yeah, it's amazing, especially here. I got the feeling that American people are not really supporting one player, but they just want a big show. I think that's why both of us, Nicolas and me today, that's what we did. We played a long match. I think level was pretty high, so I guess that's what they like."

Muller left out of this equation the role the crowd played in inspiring him to find the confidence to win, not just to play the proverbial great match. He's been a player in need of an infusion of confidence, and the crowd today was like his personal IV drip of Yes I Can!

The US Open crowd has no lock on this kind of thing; the British are also quite good at it, although there's a nervous-making vein of pity and condescension in their enthusiasm. And if you have a "pretty" game, the French will open their hearts to you, pleasantly indifferent to the fact that you might end up breaking them. They'll just sigh and forgive you, never punishing themselves for love spent on a lousy cause, because it's feeling that love that counts, right?

I think Muller is right - the US crowd wants a "big show", and maybe asking that - and not more - is why a player may be able to keep more of the fruits of his effort for him or herself. Today, Muller walked out with a racket bag stuffed with wet shirts, stinky socks, and confidence that seemed hopelessly beyond his reach just a few days ago.


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Posted by Onion 08/31/2008 at 09:52 PM

First

Posted by Codge 08/31/2008 at 09:57 PM

I'll be routing for him...good profile, thanks for this.

Posted by Asad Raza 08/31/2008 at 10:47 PM

Packed with insights, this piece really satisfied. In addition to your observations on confidence, which I thought were excellent, the little point you make about lefty forehands is a mystery I've been wondering about for ages.

I have a theory that the 'lefty chicken wing,' as they call it, has something to do with the asymmetrical nature of human brains. It seems like something that deep.

Posted by Sophia 08/31/2008 at 11:37 PM

Gilles Muller. For a relatively low-key player, he sure has been a part in many huge stories over the years.

That win over Nadal at Wimbledon was back in the days when Rafa really wasn't a grass player and would never, ever, come close to winning Wimbledon. He went on to make the next three finals, winning one of them. Thinking of Rafa's play in that Muller match makes me even more amazed about Nadal's rapid improvement and desire for improvement on the surface.

Then you have the Roddick match which went hand in the hand with the disastrous "Where's Andy's Mojo?" campaign, which would become a painfully important question from that match onwards as Roddick's form took a dramatic nose dive. You could see it coming in the presser Roddick gave that day.

The biggest Muller match for me though, was when he played Agassi at what would become his last Roland Garros. I was almost in tears as I watched Andre, full of cortisone, finish the match despite being unable to even walk properly. He barely even took a medical time-out. At a time where players were increasingly calling trainers for a split nail, the match delivered a lot of perspective about the game and the man himself. A man who was rapidily falling apart, but just didn't want to stop playing. A man who loved the game so much that he would rather risk harming himself further than do the game, his opponent or it's fans what he considered a disservice. I miss that guy!

So what story will Muller end up being a part of this time? There are already rumours in the German press that his match with Haas might tip the German into retirement. He plays Davydenko next who seems on the brink of either getting his game together agan or falling apart. Perhaps Almagro will go on to do a calendar slam next year? ;) I think it would be nice if Muller could keep on playing well and create a story for himself though.

Posted by ILR 08/31/2008 at 11:42 PM

That lefty forehand point is truly intriguing. Off the top of my head, I can only think of Massu who has based his game around a left-handed FH. Gonzalez-Nieminen ended just a while ago, another one of these awkward loopy strokes was on display there, although Nieminen got his fair share of winners from that side over the course of the match.

Müller froze badly in that first matchpoint, sending a routine sliced backhand clearly wide after a rally of 10 or so strokes. When he faced breakpoints in the next game it was very impressive to see him serve his way out of trouble and then immediately apply more pressure on Almagro's final service game.

Taking out Davydenko is too tall a task, but he's got another springboard for his career set up quite nicely at this point. The guy might just become a top 50 staple for the rest of his 20s.

Posted by Vishal 09/01/2008 at 12:49 AM

A very good post Pete.... the talk about confidence and how so many situations/faces come to my mind including myown....

Dear Pete i am wondering if i could get a link to one of the post doen by you in the past (i have forgeotten when) where you have talked about different ways of reaching the top ....e.g. either by natural talent (like Federer) or by hard work (like Nadal & others) and why each of these ways and people who practice them are special (and required). I found a great philosophy of life in this argument and i sincerely wish i could see again that post (the best till date in my opinion) by you.
regards,
Vishal

Posted by crazyone 09/01/2008 at 01:08 AM

I thought that Gilles Muller was going to upset Almagro and was a bit disappointed to find him two sets to love down to Almagro...but what I expected to happen in the end happened.

Muller knows how to handle the tight situations (beating Roddick 7-6, 7-6, 7-6 in 2005 in NYC is quite an achievement, if you think about it). I suspect it's the bread and butter that he has difficulties with. Given that Davydenko has been quietly rolling through opponents, I expect Davydenko to put an end to Muller's run but if the "I am tired of tennis" Kolya comes to play, even for a little bit, Muller may make him pay.

Posted by Tony 09/01/2008 at 02:42 AM

There is a quarter named "Almagro" in Madrid, and it is perhaps just a bit of coincidence that the tennis player Almagro is from Madrid, not from your usual Barcelona or Mallorca... I was just wondering though: who among the top ten or top twenty in the game, men's or women's, actually contemplated putting an early end to their tennis careers?

Posted by felizjulianidad 09/01/2008 at 06:06 AM

Tony, that is a little misinformed: Almagro is from Murcia. The name is another vestige of the Arab presence in Spain from 711 to 1492. None of the major Spanish tennis players are from Barcelona: Nadal (Manacor), Ferrer (Xàvia, resident in Valencia), Verdasco (Madrid), Robredo (Hostalric, although a resident in BCN, I believe), Moyà (Palma, resident in Geneva), Ferrero (Onteniente, resident in Villena), Feliciano López (Toledo)... you have to go down to Albert Montañés, Óscar Hernández and Marcel Granollers-Pujol for the Barcelona city and metropolitan area tennis players. Now, in terms of TRAINING, Moyà and Ferrer are both known to have spent a significant amount of time living in Barcelona and training there.

Almagro is an interesting case. Has one of the best serves amongst Spaniards (lacks Feliciano's sheer power, but has very good placement) and has a one-handed backhand, but is significantly more comfortable on clay. Nevertheless, he is capable of good tennis on hard courts; he troubled Federer last year in the summer US hardcourts tour in a match that surprised many (6-2, 2-6, 6-2). Most people say his mind is the problem, although recently, he's improved in that area. His loss to Müller has more to do with not being in his best tennis form, as of late.

Posted by skip1515 09/01/2008 at 06:21 AM

"Yup," to all of it.

I'm not the first to say that winning, like losing, is a habit. Robin Pratt says it's important to remember there are no scripts pre-written for the next point, or the rest of the match. This is very important to remember when you're on the brink of losing.

On the other hand, when you're brimming with confidence, it appears ordained that you will triumph, regardless of the score at any one moment.

A view of the same match from another perspective and voila!, there *is* a script that matters.

Belief in fate is a funny thing.

Posted by marie j vamos rafa en new york ! 09/01/2008 at 07:27 AM

hi pete, couldn't post anything last night on your post... couldn't think very clear after 2am ;)
right now, i think muller julie coin and groenefeld share that little inch of day light at this uso, probably for different reasons.
at some point when you think of giving up or there is allways something that makes you think, ok, let's try it one more time. you need to have true caracter and mental strengh to go down on your game and rankings and then step up and come back, going to boring places like you say, even if there are some nice places to play those challengers specially in europe...
it makes me think of those poor girls from spain trapped in lebanon for 10 days with bombings a few weeks before RG...
we allays tend to think that only the super stars of the game are the best at handling the gruelling traveling... when you do it only for a handfull of dollars it requires more than commitment and selfbelief, it's about passion for what you do.
muller is equally passionate for the game as fed or rafa, he just don't have the results.

did i say that to you that you are my favorite english writer with el jon, and neil harman ? it's hard to find anyone else that writes so good on tennis in french or even spanish... for italian, your friend ubaldo does it right too ;)

Posted by Fudoshin 09/01/2008 at 07:48 AM

Thanks Pete for your incisive insight on confidence. It applies to life across the board, not just tennis.

Posted by fedfan 09/01/2008 at 10:21 AM

Great post. Sophia's remarks very nice, too.

Posted by GVGirl- Madrid here I come! 09/01/2008 at 11:11 AM

Nice Pete.

Speaking of weddings, let me make a confession. During my wedding reception a few years ago during the baseball playoffs I kept checking scores as my Yankees were playing during my reception. Of course my family knew what I was doing and just laughed. My husband the Mets fan, although not amused understood, bless him.

Back to the US Open.....

Posted by Markic 09/01/2008 at 01:57 PM

Great article Pete - thing is, Muller *had* the years of excellence as a junior - he was number 1 in the world. I read that the problems started when he moved back to Luxembourg from Spain (he trained at the same place as Murray I think). Perhaps the lesson is, then, that confidence can be won or lost away from the tennis court - think of those players who have a bad breakup and then go into the doldrums (see: Penetta, Flavia and Moya, Carlos), or the opposite - dare I speculate Dinara Safina might be one such?

Posted by mick1303 09/01/2008 at 03:57 PM

ILR - 11.42. Massu is right-handed.

Posted by Tony 09/03/2008 at 11:56 AM

Is there a school of etiquette for tennis commentators? Why do I ask? Because the US Open tennis commentators are the absolute worst!!! There's this Jimmy Arias who keeps on yakking away when the ball is already in play, and worse he talks about himself and the time when he was still playing competitive professional tennis! Really. As if people are interested in his game and not the one being played out on the court. What is it with these commentators? Do they think they're cute? They are absolute turn-offs. There's just no respite from these stupid morons who think that tennis tv is all about them and not about the game!!!

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 09/03/2008 at 12:58 PM

Pete, this one really soars. You've nailed this confidence thing down nicely, if that can be done. The old adage that "You learn more from your losses than your wins" may be true in one sense (as in, showing you where there is still room to improve), but winning instills confidence, making continued winning more likely. And you are so right that it cannot be gained by simply winning one or two big matches or upsets. It is a cumulative process, and must be cultivated carefully.

Also, as per yours and Asad's observations about lefty forehands, I think mysteries such as this have more to do with the asymmetry of the human BODY, not the brain. Just look at here the heart sits, slight left of center, or the liver and stomach, etc. These things throw us slightly out of whack, for which we owe our inner ears a great debt. But in fashioning a stroke, these axial asymmetries may play a role.

Allez, Gilles!

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 09/03/2008 at 02:12 PM

Sophia,

Nice thoughts, well expressed. I agree that Agassi showed what a true champion he was in that final match at Roland Garros.

Posted by k_ram 09/03/2008 at 03:40 PM

I hope Muller beats Fed's ass in Qf

Fed is such an arrogant player...whne takesn to 5 sets in 4th rd...he says 5 sets is fun

Give the opponent his due man


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