On-site Thoughts From the Serbian Open

By Mateja Vidakovic

From one of the nicer moments of weather. Photo: Mateja Vidakovic

I had the privilege of attending the Serbian Open this year – I went on day 1 and then for the quarters and the semis. Here are some of my thoughts:

The weather stole the show (not in a good way)

What was, in a way, the maiden Serbian Open — last year’s featured no crowds — was unfortunately mired by horrible, mercurial weather. I started watching Gasquet, on day one, and it was 12 degrees Celsius. By the time the next match rolled in, it was all of 1 degree Celsius, with the wind making it feel like it was even colder. The constantly shifting weather and persistent winds continued to plague most of the tournament: you could start the match in the wind, have the middle be in the strong sunshine, then have some rain and back to wind again… Fabio Fognini apologized after his match with Otte, saying “I am sorry, but what you saw was not tennis.”

It didn’t help that organizational issues led to incidents such as members of the crowd and press who were hoping to see Djokovic depart blocking the only entrance (and exit!) to the court. This prevented people from exiting, but more importantly, it prevented ticket holders from entering to see the next match on court. The crowd still lacks certain tennis etiquette and habits – and it showed, sometimes to entertaining results: sometimes the crowd would cheer at angry outbursts from players, other times they would leave the court at inopportune times. The announcer hilariously spoke to the crowd after the Djokovic semi to say “Fabio Fognini was asking if the crowd will stay for his match” – and then when they did, Fognini proceeded to get dismantled by Rublev.

All in all, the organization could have been better, sure, but the weather was something not even the younger Djokovic could control.

The twilight of Gasquet

Much is being said about the excessive praise Gasquet’s backhand and overall talent gets – yet seeing the Frenchman live I can sort of see it. Even when he is obviously deflated and uninspired, Gasquet has a characteristic game style – it might not be very effective, nor does he have a plan B… but it is definitely unique and pleasant to watch. Unfortunately, the Frenchman looked out of sorts and like he wanted to be outta there as soon as possible. I have a feeling we won’t be seeing many great runs from the original Baby Fed in the future…

The rise… and stumble… of Kecmanović

With Novak out of form and struggling to slowly build it during the tournament, and Kecmanović most definitely the in form player – I was convinced Kecmanović was going to beat him. Novak has a ‘soft spot’ for Serbian players in the sense that (I think) he doesn’t mind so much losing to them – and Kecmanović was hungry for a big scalp to highlight the tear he is on at the moment. Unfortunately, it was not to be – Kecmanović, like so many before him, eventually wilted psychologically under the Novak onslaught. Say what you will about losing some of that “invulnerability” in the locker room, but the Big 3 still hold their throne as mental behemoths compared to the rest of the tour… especially when playing against players of the same nationality.

A level above

A couple of notes on watching the greatest player of all time, Novak Djokovic:

  • In the flesh, Novak doesn’t seem at all frail and skinny, and even less so when he is on court. Just the opposite – he exudes a kind of power only the supremely confident do. It affects one’s perception of his build and stature, making him look bigger and stronger.
  • Novak’s backhand is truly something else. While his forehand is his more underrated weapon, with all the focus on his backhand, watching the other players revealed to me just how different that backhand stroke is for Djokovic compared to the rest. Players like Khachanov, Rublev and even Kecmanović have a very utilitarian-looking backhand. Even when they are blasting winners from that wing, it looks more laborious than the resulting winner… it’s a necessity, a weapon to be used at the opportune moment. Novak’s backhand, however, looks like second nature, and it’s clean to the point of seeming effortless. Paradoxically, it reminded me of Federer’s game in full flight, where Federer masks the actual difficulty of the strokes and the movement with his grace, making it look easy. Novak makes other backhands look like they are a chore. His own is as inevitable and natural as breathing.
Just look at those backhands. Look at them.
  • Novak’s now infamous momentum shifts (people are even saying he loses the first set on purpose) are almost palpable when experienced live. The crowd is with him every step of the way, so it’s not like it’s the crowd that lifts him up when he needs a boost. During the first set against Khachanov it looked as if Novak was out of gas and done for… I knew what to watch out for, so it was almost like a light in a theater slowly getting brighter: Novak started playing cleaner, and cleaner, and cleaner, and then… pop! It was like another level was unlocked. The whole thing was predictable, yet no less intimidating and interesting to behold – what do you do when someone can just press the ON button and finish it in one fell swoop? Djokovic beat Khachanov like he was a junior in the last two sets.

Khachanov and Rublev

Khachanov also looks way more imposing on court than on TV. Moreover, his game is very aesthetically pleasing; his forehand – with his extreme grip – is actually a thing of beauty. He moves quite well for his size, and hits the above-mentioned utilitarian backhand with gusto. One wonders why his game is not appreciated more; perhaps it’s the lack of Gasquet-like visual flair? All I know is I wanted to see more of Khachanov live, “artistic backhand” or not.

Here he is, winding up for a forehand. Photo: Mateja Vidakovic

Rublev, on the other hand, actually seems less imposing in person than on the screen. His famous BWEH! is not amplified by the mics surrounding him, his eyes look haunted even when he is winning, and – somehow – he looks more slightly built than Djokovic even though he is taller. What is not the least bit questionable is his fighting spirit – Rublev seems to put himself fully into every point and, as a consequence, is bitterly disappointed when it doesn’t work out. When it does, though, he is a sight to behold – like Khachanov, his wicked forehead weapon is complemented by a forceful, albeit workman-like, backhand… and his intentions turned into reality eventually become overbearing to a large group of players. It is seriously hard to bagel Djokovic, even when he’s struggling physically — I’m not sure it would have been possible without Rublev’s perfectionist mindset. Bonus points go to Andrey for two more things:

  • After winning in the semis, Rublev stayed on court for a full half hour more, signing balls and taking selfies with fans, even though most of the stadium was cleared by then. It was a genuine, and very cool move from the Russian, especially since most of the people there were cheering for his opponent (Fognini).
  • He likes Iron Maiden.

Fabulous Fabio

If the weather was the star of the show, Fabio was certainly the marketing team of this movie. Supported vociferously during every match, Fabio somehow managed to autopilot his way all the way to the semis (where he was unceremoniously dismissed by Rublev) – ranting and raving all the way through, having fun and not-so-much fun, entertaining himself and others. 

Out of everyone mentioned here, Fabio’s game is the one most closely and accurately transposed from the screen onto court – he plays almost exactly as you’d think he would. The ‘casual’ attitude towards on-court movement, the almost off-handed way he can blast winners, the errors that suddenly bubble forward from nowhere, and the quippy rants and speeches he gives himself and his team. What was highlighted yet again, for me, was something you get a sense of while watching the man play on TV: when he is on, his strokes are surgically clean and almost impossible to play against. He feels unplayable in a similar way to a peaking Nishikori or Davydenko, but even more so because of the blasé way he pulls some of these shots off – it really looks like he’s doing it without any effort at all, like he he’s playing a game.

Then he complained about the weather (rightly), asked for the crowd to stay and support him (they did) and then promptly laid an egg against Rublev.

In a way, Fabio was a microcosm of the whole tournament – Entertaining, erratic, and eventually deflating. I hope he comes back next year.

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