Happy new year, fellow tennis geeks!
By chance, I found myself in Sao Paulo at the same time as the beginning of the first challenger of 2013. Plenty of challengers these days are streamed online, so if you really want to see these guys play, you can swing it, but there’s still some magic to watching the action live.
Ok, well, “magic” might be a little strong for the first round of a South American challenger. You know what I mean.
Before I dig into my notes on specific players, a couple of general issues:
Brazilian style. Brazil hasn’t had a major tennis star since the retirement of Gustavo Kuerten. Many of the highest-ranked Brazilians are in Sao Paulo this week–on hard courts. While Brazil, like the rest of South America, has traditionally been associated with clay courts, that is changing. The 2016 Olympics event will be held on a hard surface, and Sao Paulo has hosted the challenger tour finals on indoor hard courts.
In time, I wouldn’t be surprised to see hard-court specialists emerge from this country and make an impact at the top range of the ATP rankings. Many of the Brazilians kicking around the 100-200 range (Joao Souza, Rogerio Dutra Silva, Ricardo Hocevar) have an unworkable combination of hard-court games and clay-court tactics. These aren’t Argentinian-style dirtballers–they back up their booming serves with aggressive groundstrokes and are rarely spotted more than a few feet behind the baseline. But they still aren’t as aggressive as their games merit. While Thomaz Bellucci has had the most success of his generation, his game has some of the same limitations.
As we’ll see in a moment, the next generation of Brazilians might have more pure hard-court success. The additional hard-court exposure they are getting at home these days can’t hurt.
No-let serving. Finally, the ATP is following the lead of World Team Tennis and the NCAA … at least a little bit. For the first quarter of this year, Challenger tournaments will abandon the “let” rule on serves. If the ball lands in, it’s good, regardless of whether it made contact with the net.
In seven hours of tennis yesterday, I expected to see plenty of awkwardness around the no-let rule, since players haven’t had much time to adjust. But that wasn’t the case. Only once did a serve dribble over the net cord for an easy ace. One or two other times the server had a late reaction, hitting a weak defensive return that he might improve on in another few weeks. For the most part, the no-let rule didn’t raise an eyebrow.
The advantages are minor but very real. I don’t think any fans like to see players argue pointlessly with chair umpires, and lets (real and imagined) have always been a source of friction. No-let serving gives us smoother matches with fewer of those sorts of hiccups.
Now, on to the matches.
The future of Brazilian tennis got off to an early start this morning. Clezar, 20, was the top-ranked teenager in the world until his birthday yesterday. Monteiro, 18, is the third-ranked 18-year-old in the world.
Both players have monster games, with big serves and crushing groundstrokes. Monteiro, in particular, is capable of doing violence to the ball on his first offering. And in fact, frequently Monteiro looked like the superior player, comfortably running around forehands to hit winners on tight angles. But in this match, Clezar was the wily veteran, somehow breaking twice for the 6-4 6-4 win.
For all of Monteiro’s potential, he was erratic. His low service toss led to a few patches of missed first serves. He lost his temper and earned a ball abuse violation when failing to run down a drop shot on an unimportant point early in the second set.
By comparison, Clezar played the part of the wily veteran. The ball didn’t make quite as much noise off of his racquet, but he still hits awfully hard. While Monteiro is a pure hard-courter, Clezar comes closer to the mold I mentioned above, using hard-court weapons in an occasionally clay-court manner.
Clezar’s groundstrokes were surprisingly varied, often dropping two or three forehands in a row within inches of the baseball, then hitting a heavier topspin shot that dropped short. For all of his capabilities, though, he missed a lot of opportunities to follow up a strong serve with an equally aggressive second or third shot. In this match, it didn’t stop him; against better players, it’s a major area for improvement.
Clezar’s impressive ranking (for a just-turned 20-year-old) is no mirage–he has the highest ceiling of any player I saw yesterday. He has the raw tools for a Nicolas Almagro type of game; the next few years will show us whether he can be that good.
The 20-year-old Schwartzman had an epic season at the futures level last year, and finally made any impact at higher levels in winning the Buenos Aires Challenger late last year. Seeing him on a hard court, it’s tough to imagine him stringing those wins together.
The Argentine is short–5’6″ on the high side. And while he does a lot with the limited tools he’s been given, he has a long way to go to get to the level of a once-in-a-generation talent like Olivier Rochus. Schwartzman has the weakest serve I’ve ever seen in professional tennis, not putting much on first serves, but still frequently missing them. He doesn’t even use a great deal of spin.
Demoliner, a big Brazilian who looks a bit like Juan Martin Del Potro, is hardly a top talent, but he didn’t have any trouble putting Schwartzman away. To his credit, as the match progressed, he took a bit of gas off the serve and went for angles and spin, often leaving the Argentine to swing (and occasionally miss) at balls above his head.
The best comp for Schwartzman is probably Juan Ignacio Chela … with the caveat that Chela is tall. Given the opportunity, I would imagine DSS sits back as far as he can go and outlasts his opponents. It was clear yesterday that he’s very steady on the ground and is mentally strong for a 20-year-old, staying relatively focused under an attack he’s wasn’t going to overcome. On slow clay, that’s a recipe for success, at least in challengers. On any hard court, it’s barely worth showing up. Indeed, it was only his fourth career pro match on hard, moving his record to 0-4.
Despite winning this match, Demoliner didn’t do much to impress. As noted, he served intelligently, and often looked good coming forward, but he needed to be dragged to the net. Again, we see a Brazilian with a big game who is reluctant to use it.
In pushing his ranking up to a career-high 119 last year, Alund played only two matches off of clay–first-round losses Wimbledon and US Open qualies. For all that, he seemed surprisingly comfortable on hard courts.
That isn’t to say he was any more aggressive than the battalion of Brazilians I’ve commented on so far. He has some of the tools for it, especially a big serve that he is able to effortlessly place in the wide corner. His biggest advantage yesterday, though, was an opponent even less well-suited for the surface than he was.
De Paula occasionally looked great, stepping inside the baseline to hit one-handed backhand winners, and mixing in some impressive serving of his own. More typically, you could see him four feet behind the baseline wondering what to do next. Despite Alund’s passivity, De Paula proved he could play even more conservative tennis, squandering opportunities and trying to win 15-shot rallies that tended to end with an error on the 7th shot.
Alund, at 27, is unlikely to advance much further in the rankings, though he could easily hang around his current ranking by continuing his success in South American challengers. De Paula has yet to break into the top 200, and he will need a new game plan if he’s going to help out his ranking with his hard-court performance.
After watching so many players squander their firepower with poor tactics on Sao Paulo’s fast courts, it was refreshing to watch Trungelliti, a classic dirtballer who seemed happily unaware that he wasn’t playing on dirt. Ultimately, he fell to Sousa in three sets, but by simply playing his game–unsuitable as it was–he looked more assured on the surface than the majority of others in the draw.
Sousa wasn’t comfortable at all. He hit great shots, especially forehand winners from every position in every direction. In trying, he sent balls sailing in every direction outside of the lines, as well. He gave every evidence of mental instability as well, incessantly chattering at himself, and once standing at the net for 30 seconds trying to hit a ball to a ballboy with the grip of his racquet.
Both players, but especially Sousa, looked great when hitting groundstrokes in their strike zone; in less natural contact points, the results were less predictable. Sousa’s forehand and Trungelliti’s two-hander could be particularly impressive.
One final note, on a qualifying match that kicked off the day. Three and a half years ago, I saw Krajicek in his first professional match, at US Open qualifying. I left with a negative impression of an immature teenager with nothing like the game it would take to compete professionally, but then again, he was 18.
After a few years at Texas A&M, Krajicek is more mature, and has a few weapons that make him competitive at the challenger level. But his game still seems awfully small for contemporary pro tennis. Some first serves were strong, yet every second serve was weakly spun in. He crushed some forehands, but almost every backhand was a defensive slice. In a first-set tiebreak, he came to the net four times … only once behind a sufficiently good approach.
At 22, Krajicek has more time to develop, but for now, he’s far down the list of young Americans to watch.