Almugro, Prince of Mugs
- From: grif <griffin_230@xxxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Wed, 06 Jun 2012 18:04:38 +0100
by Pete Bodo
Going into their fourth-round meeting today at Roland Garros, Janko Tipsarevic (seeded No. 8) and Nicolas Almagro (No. 12), both on the far side of age 25, had yet to meet in an official ATP match. Tipsarevic could not have known too much about Almagro, and that seems almost symbolic. Even in this media-saturated environment, with 24/7 sports channels and streaming tennis from every corner of the globe, Almagro probably can lay claim to the title "least familiar face" on the ATP tour.
Heck, even Tipsarevic, with those tattoos and wrap-around superhero sunglasses, is more well-known, and not just because he's been able to draft behind Serbian countryman and pal, world No. 1 Novak Djokovic. Tipsarevic has a certain measure of flair; by comparison, Almagro seems almost withdrawn. He also has the misfortune (if that's the right word) to be a Spanish tennis player and a clay-court expert in the era of countryman and dirt deity Rafael Nadal—a fella never accused of lacking charisma. To complicate his problem, Almagro isn't even the second best Spanish player—that honor goes to David Ferrer.
We love David Ferrer. He's got that Jack Russell terrier game and the gnomish look of a drummer in a rock-and-roll band, what with all that long stringy hair and occasional stubble on his chin. Ferrer is "tennis pro" casual, the kind of guy you suspect might show up at his sister's wedding dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. Ferrer also is a take-it-to-the-bank No. 5 or 6, and has been for some time, even if he's never quite punched through to a Grand Slam final. So you tend not too look much farther down the Spanish depth chart, on which Almagro, who's been as high as world No. 9, occupies the third spot.
Catching a glimpse of Almagro on television doesn't do much to promote his cause. He looks like he could be 14 years old. His curly black hair is neatly trimmed; It's just there, and clearly not something with which to experiment, or try to attract the leftovers cast been cast aside by hair obsessive Fernando Verdasco or doe-eyed Feliciano Lopez. These days, Almagro is wearing a plain, bright, banana yellow shirt and unadorned white shorts. Stuff that makes sense. Conservative work clothes. I have no idea why, but is there a less "tennisy" color than yellow?
Like the rest of us, Tipsarevic probably did not know very much about Almagro before today, but he does now. Almagro buried him in a blizzard of smoking hot groundstrokes and big, booming serves, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4, to advance to the French Open quarterfinals for the third time, and the second time in three years.
The match was played under chilly skies that leaked rain now and then, if never quite enough to halt the action. The conditions made the court so slow and the ball so heavy that in the seventh game, Almagro felt obliged to apologize for a desperate, backhand sliced service-return drop shot winner that Tipsarevic could not dig up—for the simple reason that the ball didn't appear to bounce.
That turned out to be a critical point, too. It put Tipsarevic down 15-40 and led to the first break of the match—one which Almagro the consolidated from deuce, with a prodigous ace followed by an atomic inside-out forehand that forced a backhand error out of Tipsarevic. Although Tipsarevic held the next game for 4-5, Almagro served out the set with aplomb, punctuating the ace he hit at set point with a bellow that echoed in the stadium.
"That's a good scream," commentator Brad Gilbert, a connoisseur of such things, remarked.
One of the reasons I'm fond of Gilbert is that his eyes and mind are truly ubiquitous. He's the kind of guy who can appreciate and embrace a talent like Almagro and not just because punditry is his job; it's because he sees beyond the stock narratives in the game. I've heard him praise Almagro before; today, Gilbert said he has "the biggest one-handed backhand in the game." I agree with that, even if Roger Federer's backhand is a far more versatile tool.
When it comes to the fine art of just hitting the crap out of the backhand, Almagro has no peer. His stroke is extremely clean, more so than the backhand of that highly stylized Frenchman, Richard Gasquet. At its best, the hard-hit one-hander just reeks of letting go, of abandoning yourself to this great, explosive act of, well, opening yourself up—understanding the psychological implications of that for the fan or viewer probably goes some way toward explaining why so many are fascinated by the one-handed backhand. By contrast, the two-hander is guarded, conservative, risk-averse.
What it adds up to is that, given a chance, Almagro can seduce you with that one-handed backhand.
Gilbert also has high praise for Almagro's serve, to the point of sounding wonder-struck when describing how he almost always tosses the ball to his left (and relatively low, which makes it very hard to read), as if were about to hit the kick serve, but he can drive down the hard, flat one if he so chooses. It's quite a talent, and it helps explain why Almagro is in the top spot in the ATP's module that tracks clay-court aces.
Going into this tournament, Almagro had hit 192 aces in 31 matches—an average of 6.2 aces per match. Granted, John Isner (third on the list) collected his 113 aces in fewer than half that amount of matches, but his average of 8.1 isn't that much better in real-life terms.
Almagro has won two clay-court titles already this year; he's one of four men to have done so. The other three are Juan Monaco, Nadal, and Ferrer (see what I mean about being the no. 3 guy in Spain?). It's just something else that makes you wonder why Almagro remains so far under the radar.
One other reason may be that he has yet to make a big impression at a Grand Slam, or even a Masters 1000. Almagro has only been as far as the semis once at a Masters event, Madrid in 2010 (where he lost to Nadal).The head-to-heads with his countrymen are even more damaging to Almagro's cause, and they seem almost inexplicable. Almagro has been utterly dominated by Nadal, against whom he's 0-7. That part is understandable, but Almagro is a disappointing 0-10 against Ferrer. Although Nico is making progress—in their last meeting, a few weeks ago on clay in Madrid, Ferrer had to go to 7-6 (8) in the third to quell the insurrection.
The evidence suggests that Almagro has a self-image problem. He may see himself more as the guy wiping down the bar in Murcia than the one holding up the hardware at a major event on a Sunday afternoon, especially when it comes to challenging his countrymen—the men, regrettably, he almost certainly would have to beat to take that next big step.
So for now, Almagro remains a good clean-up guy, scooping up titles when the big predators are occupied elsewhere. The titles he won this year were at Sao Paolo, Brazil, and Nice, France—both of them ATP 250s. He's also captured some ATP 500s in the past (in 2008 and 2009 he was the scourge of Acapulco, winning back-to-back titles), and at the age of 26 has a year or two to improve his sense of entitlement. Whether he gets over the hump or not, he's always fun to watch.
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