Monte Carlo Masters: Maturity the key to success in openers
As the seeds open their campaigns in the first clay Masters of 2011, it is maturity of all ages that shines
Is Monte Carlo the most civilised Masters on the tour? If the scheduling is anything to go by, the players and spectators must think they’ve died and gone to heaven.
Play on the two show courts, just a hair-pin bend down the coast from the Monaco border, begins at 10.30 and fits two matches before lunchtime. The afternoon gets under way at around 1.30pm and the day’s work is over by teatime.
Four matches, eight hours, and the day’s play is over in time for Martinis on the patio before dinner.
Some of the players don’t even leave home for breakfast. Those who live in Monte Carlo -as Ivan Ljubicic happily explained -can relax at home with the family. No wonder he looked so chilled.
The sun may have disappeared before the players when some inconsiderate clouds gusted in from the Med at around 4pm but, by then, the big crowd on Court Central had already soaked up two seeds strutting their stuff in some style.
Gilles Simon, who missed most of last year’s clay swing with knee injury, got off to a sprightly hour-and-a-half dismissal of the Brazilian Thomaz Bellucci for the loss of just five games.
The quick Frenchman has boundless energy and metronome accuracy, and he found some surprising pace from the back of the court on his much improved down-the-line drives on both wings. It was a confident performance.
Simon was followed by Roger Federer, who took a mere 50 minutes to beat the German Philipp Kohlschreiber 6-2 6-1.
Federer came straight to Monte Carlo after his Miami semi-final loss in order to work on his clay preparation. And it showed in a crisp, workmanlike performance against a man who seemed to be carrying the weight of his opening two-and-a-half-hour match in his legs.
It was, though, the afternoon schedule, featuring players from both ends of the age spectrum, which provided the day’s greater interest.
The first match involved the 32-year-old Ljubicic, whose poor hard court season comprising just one win from his last four tournaments has seen him drop from 14 in the rankings to his current 40.
He began to turn that record around with a 6-1 6-2 win over Jeremy Chardy in the first round here, but now he faced the charismatic Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a finalist in Rotterdam but also an early loser at the North American Masters.
Tsonga had already won a long and testing three-set opening-round match against the demanding clay-court expert, Juan Monaco, so when it took him over 10 minutes to win his opening service game, it was clear that this match too would be tough for the Frenchman.
Indeed it soon turned into a gripping contest between two big men playing their own particular brand of big tennis: heavy ground strokes, attacking net approaches, deft volleys and testing drop shots.
Ljubicic eventually won the opening set tie-break but then he, too, had to fight a full 15 minutes in his second service game.
Tsonga broke but, over-eager to press home his advantage, he followed it with a horror of a fifth game. He immediately handed the break back with three successive volley errors.
The Frenchman promptly vanished for a comfort break -presumably in an attempt to regain his composure -but the pause seemed to give a super-calm Ljubicic even greater focus and the Croat hit a truly purple patch.
He broke Tsonga again and finished off the set, appropriately enough, with a love game sealed by his signature wide serve finished by a cross-court volley: 6-4.
This is Ljubicic’s 12th Monte Carlo tournament and that experience, combined with living at home, makes this the favourite stop on the tour for the likeable and popular veteran. And he aims to carry on playing for as long as he stays pain free and enjoys his tennis, so expect still more wins on his 409 tally. Long may it continue.
Maturity of an entirely different kind concluded the day’s play in Monte Carlo. It came in the form of the youngest man in the draw, the preciously assured Milos Raonic.
This time last year, the Canadian was still playing the Futures and Challenger tours and was ranked outside the top 400. Thus far in 2011, he has won San Jose, reached the final in Memphis and stands at 34 in the rankings.
In this, his first ever clay court Masters, he was playing a man just four places higher in the rankings and only two years his elder, Ernests Gulbis. In play and in personality, though, they are as chalk and cheese.
Both are independent characters, but where Raonic has developed within the discipline of a coach who will brook neither bad behaviour nor disagreement on court, Gulbis has had few such constraints.
He blows hot and cold where Raonic plays power and percentage, and the contrast was writ large over one particular incident in the opening set.
Gulbis was wrongly penalised by the umpire for a perceived double bounce. He lost focus entirely, his serve was broken and his calm opponent took the set as though nothing had happened.
The second set was a closer affair and the full gamut of Gulbis’s skills had a chance to shine, particularly his varied and damaging backhand crosscourt drive. However, Raonic settled into a good serve-and-volley rhythm and played accurate, unhurried, mature tennis.
He was rewarded with a break in the ninth game and finally served out to love for the match, 7-5. It left Gulbis with time to ponder on what lost him this match.
The Latvian has charm and intelligence, he has speed, talent in spades and shot-making power all round the court. He also wants to be No1 in the world. This time last year, he made some deep runs on the clay to break into the top 30 for the first time but failed to build on that momentum.
So, in pondering on this loss, he could do worse than take a leaf out of his opponent’s book: the one entitled Ã¢â‚¬Ëœstaying calm in adversity’.