On a big court with plenty of crowd presence and support, the ‘energy’ of a match can go a long way in determining the result. And the top players know how to ride that energy. In fact, on some occasions, it seems that match's energy is the only thing they’ve got going for them.
Feliciano Lopez is not exactly a ‘top’ player, but he almost used the match energy to take Karen Khachanov the distance in their second-round encounter at Wimbledon on Wednesday. That he ultimately fell short was as much a reflection of him as his opponent; the fighting display, however, was enough to convince the Spaniard that he needs to postpone his retirement by at least a year.
At the start of the match, my first question — like it always is when I watch Lopez’s matches (often on hardcourt) — was: How does this guy win anything at all? Lopez looks like a lightweight player when he engages in groundstroke rallies, and against Khachanov he looked particularly underpowered.
But there’s a big difference between Lopez on hardcourt and Lopez on grass, and that became starkly evident after just a couple of games. On the slick lawns of Wimbledon, Lopez’s slice hisses and bites, asking questions of his opponent that no amount of raw muscle can; his volleys are daring and deadly, often turning a full-blooded pass into a stone cold drop winner; and most importantly, his serve is wickedly effective, curling away from the opponent like it has a mind of its own.
In those first few games, Lopez was so dominant with his serve and net attacks that it was his opponent who looked like a lightweight player. Khachanov swung hard and fast, but couldn’t make much of an impression; he won a grand total of two points on the Lopez serve in the first set.
The crowd at the imposing Court 1, which was behind Lopez from the start, couldn’t help but show their appreciation for the 37-year-old’s mastery. They cheered exuberantly for every one of Lopez’s seemingly effortless winners, and only clapped out of politeness if Khachanov’s labor-intensive tennis ever won him a point.
The second set started in much the same fashion as the first, and Khachanov seemed to be facing an uphill battle — against not just his opponent, but also the surface and the crowd. He repeatedly fell behind in his service games, and even though he avoided getting broken, it seemed like a matter of time before he succumbed to Lopez’s grasscourt panache. How could he not, when the entire arena seemed to be against him?
The answer, as it so often does, lay in the one thing that can counter any amount of negative energy: Persistence. Khachanov kept hammering away at his groundstrokes despite getting precious few results out of them, and kept trusting his serve and edge in firepower to bail him out of trouble. That attitude eventually paid off, and at the most opportune moments too.
Khachanov’s spin-heavy forehand doesn’t look like it will ever work well on grass, but by the middle of the second set, he started hitting it with such depth and precision that it pushed Lopez into uncomfortable spots. And his backhand, a more flat and penetrating shot that suits the low-bouncing surface better, started producing just enough width to make Lopez miss a few volleys — or even get passed outright.
The Russian, serving ahead in each of the last three sets, did everything he could to stay afloat on his own serve, and made his move every time Lopez served to stay in the set. The Spaniard netted just a couple of extra forehands and volleys when the pressure was at its highest; the nature of grasscourt tennis, however, meant that that was enough to cede control of the match to Khachanov.
“I got broken two, three times at the end of the sets, and it’s not very useful when I play. You know, I think that was the most important thing today, to get broken there. I mean, it was unexpected for me,” Lopez said after the match, ruing his stumbles at the crucial stages of the encounter.
By the fourth set, Khachanov was on a roll, getting to nearly every Lopez volley and breaking him for a 4-2 lead. When he stepped up to serve for the match at 5-3, the match seemed like a foregone conclusion; all he had to do was get a few first serves in, and the job would be done.
But Khachanov didn’t get those first serves in, and now it was Lopez’s turn to strike an opportunistic blow. He broke Khachanov through a series of breathtaking winners, and in a matter of seconds, he had restored the atmospheric energy that was prevalent in the first set. Chants of “Vamos Feli!” started ringing around the stadium, and once again Khachanov looked like a frustrated and clueless soul whom everyone seemed to be conspiring against.
And yet nobody could have anticipated what was to come in the next game. Serving to stay in the match, Lopez seemed determined to bring all of his experience to bear and ensure that he extended the contest. On the other hand, perhaps liberated by his incensed throwing around of racquets and towels at the changeover, Khachanov looked hell-bent at snuffing out the threat of a Lopez comeback before it got too hot to handle.
The result? 15 minutes of pure drama that had everyone at the edge of their seats.
The Spaniard went down two match points at 15-40 through a combination of his errors and Khachanov’s dogged defence. But he saved them both — the first with a jaw-dropping pickup at the net that would have made even Roger Federer proud — to rekindle the hopes among his horde of supporters.
Then the two men went back and forth for what seemed like an eternity, with neither being able to string two good points together.
Lopez would make a terrific volley, and then miss a regulation forehand. Khachanov would hit an inch-perfect backhand, and then dump a return wide. The tension in the stadium went through the (newly installed) roof, and everyone seemed desperate for a fifth set.
But it was not to be; Khachanov connected well on one final backhand pass which went through Lopez’s outstretched hand, bringing the match to a close. The Russian immediately apologised before raising his arms in celebration, and even the partisan crowd had to give him his due; this was a hard-earned triumph, and a perfect example of how valuable a trait persistence can be.
“To finish the match after, you know, making that break, playing great, saving match points at the last game, and then I don’t know,” Lopez trailed off in his presser, seemingly at a loss as to how he could have got broken yet again at the tail end of a set after doing all the hard work before it.
That’s pretty much been the story of Lopez’s career. He has always had the penchant for the spectacular, pushing the top players to their limit with his vast repertoire of skills, but has somehow kept failing to do the mundane stuff efficiently enough. If he hadn’t faltered on his numerous chances to win big matches at the Grand Slam level, he would have had a much more decorated career. And if he hadn’t made those routine forehand errors at the end of each set yesterday, he may well have been in the Wimbledon third round – with a shot at going much further.
That said, Lopez has still had a great couple of weeks, having won the singles and doubles titles at Queen’s before producing this gutsy performance against Khachanov. He is so happy with his showings that he is now confident he can keep performing at a high level for a sustained period of time.
“You know, I won a tournament that I didn’t expect it. So I have to be happy for that, of course. Gives me a lot of confidence, you know, to play the rest of the season and probably next year also,” he said.
If the crowd energy on Court 1 was any indication, this decision will be welcomed by the entire tennis world. Getting to watch Lopez do his thing on grass again next year would be a thoroughly rewarding experience for fans everywhere; “Vamos Feli!” could become a global chant, not just a Spanish one.
Updated Date: Jul 04, 2019 12:52:52 IST