Saturday, July 14, 2012

Hopes & Fears... David's Season So Far

In a way, it's the season David must've been dreaming of: For the first time since hip surgery, he has been able to play a normal schedule without injury pauses. In numbers: Until now, halfway through the current season, David has played 12 tournaments. Last year, he played 13 and the year before that 11 - in total.
At those 12 tournaments, he's had some good results, reaching the final at the Queen's Club, the semifinal at the Copa Claro and Belgrade and the quarterfinal at São Paulo and Indian Wells. And yet, it doesn't really seem like David is happy or content with how things have been going for him.
Here's an attempt at explaining why
I think that's the case.

After the last two seasons with their constant cycle of injury, recovery, playing, injury etc this time, from the start, it looked like everything was going to be different. For the first time in years, David was able to do a proper pre-season, and the former limitations to his fitness training no longer applied. Allowing him to think that he was entering this new season well-prepared and with a chance of finally doing what he had been wanting to do these last couple of years: going back to being the player he was before hip surgery.

That he was physically in much better shape already became obvious at the Australian Open, during his unfortunate second-round defeat against John Isner. At the same time, the "water-throwing incident" that followed perhaps not only showed how angry and frustrated David was after that match but also just how urgently he wanted to be successful again, especially on the big stage.
After that, David won two points for Argentina during the Davis Cup first-round tie against Germany in Bamberg and then went straight on to play what would become the second best Golden Swing he's had in his career (second only to 2008). The last two years, this part of the season ended with injuries, this time it ended with a quarterfinal and a semifinal - and what must've been the continued hope that great things were ahead.

Then came Indian Wells. David fought his way through the rounds and for the first time since Toronto 2010, he managed to beat a Top10 player. Two of them, that is, in Janko Tipsarevic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (after saving a match point).
David's run ended in the quarterfinal with his three-set loss to Rafa Nadal, after having once more come fairly close to beating him. Proving that he can still keep up with the top players. But with hindsight, I believe that David was after proving more than just that. After all, he always had his chances against Nadal, during the last two seasons, as well as when he was playing with his hip injury. This time, he was healthy, going into the match. And I believe that David was determined to prove that he can still beat a top player, the way he used to in the past. But although this time, his fitness didn't let him down and he fought until the very end, it was not enough to beat Nadal.

After David's exit at Miami, it was time for the Davis Cup quarterfinal tie against Croatia. During which Marin Cilic became only the second player to ever defeat David in singles at the Parque Roca. (The first was Nikolay Davydenko in the semifinal 2008 when David played on all three days despite his hip injury.) It was a difficult and somewhat chaotic match due to the blustery conditions. Still, what did strike me during it was that David didn't seem to have that special aura he usually has, playing Davis Cup, and even more so at home. A phenomenon I like to describe by distinguishing between "Davis Cup David" and "ATP David". In this particular match, however, David couldn't seem to find a way of summoning the confidence and the determination he usually has in Davis Cup.

The European clay-court swing began with Belgrade, the tournament that David must've seen as his big chance to win his first title since Washington 2010. In his semifinal match against Andreas Seppi, however, the first real test he faced during that week, he ran out of gas towards the end of the match and consequently ended up losing it.
Another three-set match David lost, though in very different fashion, was his loss to Andy Murray in the second round at Rome. After a horrible start, David played perhaps his best tennis of the season so far in sets two and three and just like against Nadal he came fairly close to winning. But also like against Nadal, in the end it was not enough to beat Murray.

Then there was the chaotic week Queen's Club, with the rain delays, the schedule changes, the point penalty David received in his third-round match - and the grand finale. Over the whole fuss that was being made about the incident with the linesman it gets easy to overlook what's probably the more important question - why did David lose it at that moment when he had just lost his serve but still had a good chance to win the match?

(Andrew Yates/AFP/Getty Images)
Three years ago, while doing rehabilitation after hip surgery, David said that back on the Tour, he'd "fight to be among the Top5 again" (source). Which was rather too optimistic. Still, what must've kept David going during the last two, injury-riddled seasons was thinking that he could go back to being the player he was before hip surgery - if only he found a a way of staying healthy and playing regularly again. Or in David's words: "With continuity, the rest will take of itself." (Source.)
At this point, halfway through the current season, it's safe to say that the continuity is finally there. But if David's hope indeed was that this year, he could finally go back to being the player he was, winning titles, going deeper at the big events and able to beat anyone - then it hasn't really come true so far.
Since Indian Wells, which with hindsight seems to have been the turning point, David has reportedly been "very angry, talking back again, upset and nervous" (source). I believe that's because he's fighting what to him apparently seems like an increasingly uphill battle. Not just against his opponents but also against umpires and their decisions, tricky weather conditions and schedule changes, physical problems of the unforeseen kind (Roland Garros), and bad luck with the draws.
In the end, though, I think all of this shows that David had different expectations for this season. And that he has grown more and more frustrated with the way things have been going. Frustrated enough to blow his top during the Queen's Club final, where there was a lot at stake for him, also at 7-6 and 3-4, namely the hard work he put in that week and proving that he's still able to win a title - all of which he ended up ruining for himself.
It's not that, objectively speaking, his results have been all that bad. And it's also not like in the past, also before hip surgery, David never had even longer periods where he was less successful. Still, I think that most of all David is struggling to come to terms with the realisation that he cannot turn back time and be the David of old again.
With the Olympics, the US hardcourt events, the Davis Cup semifinal and the indoor swing still to come, I don't think he has given up his hopes for this season just yet. But unless he wins a title, goes deeper at the big events, or manages to beat one of the top players, I think that retirement at the end of the season will become an increasingly likely possibility.


  1. I am sure you would agree that David is rather more impulsive and emotional than most of the Top Ten players. That fits in with his perhaps expecting a little too much in the first year of his comeback. In fact, he has played very much as might have been anticipated from a sober analysis: brilliant games and even sets, punctuated by relapses into error and tiredness.

    We have seen that David can once more give anyone in the world a bad time over a few games. He made Murray look very ordinary indeed while he was "on song". But, as you said, Julia, he tends to run out of gas. That, and he is not quite consistent enough yet to beat the Top Ten regularly. But that is normal after several years of not playing a full season!

    David is on the horns of a dilemma. To get back to Top Five form, he needs another year or two of regular play in the leading tournaments. But his age is beginning to count against him. So if he really wants to get back to Top Five form, I think he needs to undergo the kind of severe physical training that Andre Agassi, for example, accepted in order to prolong his career into his 30s and make a comeback.

  2. The difference being that Andre Agassi never had hip surgery. If you look at those players who had the same injury/surgery as David, then none of them ever went back to having a similar ranking as they did before. And as far as I know, none of them ever made it back inside the Top10. So if I say that David was rather too optimistic, talking about trying to get inside the Top5 again then I don't just mean his comeback season but - in general.

    Apart from that he doesn't want to prolong his career into his 30s. The only time he said something to that effect was after winning Washington. Something he pulled off basically out of nowhere and that must've strengthened his belief that he could go back to being his "old self". Only that he hasn't really been able to play on that kind of level ever since, at least not for several matches in a row.
    For a while now, the question has been whether he'll retire at the end of this year or whether he'll play one more season. I think he still has it in him to win a title, to go deeper at the big events and pull off upsets, perhaps even against Rafa or Murray (though I'm not so sure about Fed or Nole). But if, for whatever reason, he won't then I doubt that he'll play another season.

  3. Good perspective on the whys and how comes of the 2012 season. I don't know if I just didn't notice it before or not, but I definitely think David has been more tempestuous this year. And that isn't just because of Queen's Club. Seems like a lot more racket throwing, self deprecation and irritability. And that I think comes from, like you say, Julia, expecting more. Still, he's had a pretty good year. I bet if we could query David, he'd probably tell us his most frustrating matches have been Cilic (DC), Seppi, maybe Raonic, definitely Ungur and then the Cilic match at Queen's. David could very well have two titles this year. I suppose it's a bit of a coin flip whether he retires or not after this year, but I think unless he has a spectacular rest of the year, he'll be back next season.

  4. I'd say it's the other way around and that a spectacular rest of the season would probably motivate him to go on playing.
    To the list of the most frustrating matches I'd add Isner at the AO. And also the ones against Rafa and Murray - for the reasons I've given my post.
    But yeah, I'd agree he's been more irritable than usual this year. Fighting his uphill battle...

  5. Oops, yeah Isner. Oh, that Kaider Nouini. Reread your remarks on Nadal and Murray, and I'd agree. He could have won, rather than should have won. Well, I hope he has a spectacular rest of the season and plays next year, too. Just thought that if he does really well, he might want to go out with a bang.

  6. Geez, sticky finger on the i. Kader Nouni.

  7. If it's a second half of the season that ends with Argentina winning DC then he might decide he wants to go out with what for him would be the biggest possible bang.
    But right now, I think the biggest danger is David, getting more and more frustrated and thinking that it might no longer be worth all the work and the travelling.

    1. I couldn't agree more!
      I simply hope for some great matches... And the rest, we will see.

    2. Yeah, we will see. All is not lost yet. :)

  8. Yes Julia, definitely I would include Murray, Nadal and Isner matches on the list.