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Tactics Tuesday: Of Upsets and Upset in Wuhan and Beijing

“One upset at a time”

Wuhan 2R: Garbiñe Muguruza def. Simona Halep 2-6, 6-2, 6-3

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In her first match since suffering a shock exit at the hands of qualifier Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in Flushing, Simona Halep faced a tricky task. The Wuhan draw pitted her against steadily-improving Garbiñe Muguruza; the Spaniard herself had regrouped from a disappointing first round loss in New York  – also to Lucic-Baroni, interestingly enough – by reaching the Tokyo semifinals. If Halep was looking for a match to regain her rhythm and confidence, she undoubtedly found herself short-changed.

In the first set, however, the World No. 2 was fairly untroubled. She put enough well-placed 1st serves to begin points that she was rewarded with a number of errors and easy points as Muguruza struggled to find her range on the return. Halep broke twice, once early and then again to wrap up the set 6-2.

Despite some big winners, the young Spaniard wasn’t consistent enough with her powerful groundstrokes to put Halep into a spot of bother. The set was likely decided by game two. In what should have been an easy hold in her first service game, Muguruza came into the net twice after poorly placed approach shots and was quickly punished. The French Open finalist enjoys picking targets and she was given several opportunities to pass her in that game alone.

The second and third sets would tell a different story, though. Halep quickly found herself down 0-4 and was only able to hold serve once in the second. Muguruza mirrored the Romanian to win it 6-2 and force a decider. In its initial stages, the third set was the most competitive part of the entire match with both women exchanging early service breaks. But from *2-3 down, the No. 22 finished strong and reeled off the last 4 games, leaving her much higher ranked opponent in the dust.

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What did Muguruza do differently in the last two sets, and where did Halep go wrong?

After a phase of trial and error in the opening set, Muguruza began finding her range on her groundstrokes and, subsequently, her return of serve. But perhaps most importantly, she began to employ an approach similar to when she shocked Serena Williams at Roland Garros this year: return almost exclusively flat and deep down the middle. Not only did she jam the Romanian, but she also denied her opponent the opportunity to create angles and use the width of the court. Conversely, Halep’s own serve began to deteriorate significantly as the match went on, giving Muguruza countless looks at second serves and allowing her to break six times in nine service games.

Step 1: Flat, deep grounstroke down the middle of the court Step 2:

Step 1: Flat, deep Muguruza groundstroke down the middle of the court
Step 2: Shorter reply from Halep, sitting up in the middle of the court
Step 3: Chance for Muguruza to finish the point down the line or cross court.

Even without serving well, Halep failed to adjust her game and drag Muguruza from her comfort zone. Halep plays down the line more frequently than other players but in Wuhan, she was confronted with a lot of depth and speed across the net. Under such circumstances, she struggled to put weight behind the ball and her down-the-line shots didn’t move through the court as they usually would. As a result, the Spaniard’s otherwise average lateral movement wasn’t exposed, and she was only forced out of the tramlines on very few occasions. There was an obvious lack of cross-court rallying through the duration of the match, which resulted from a combination of one player hitting aggressively through the middle and the other other preferring to play down the line. Muguruza benefited from those patterns and was able to exert even more pressure when a Halep shot sat up short.

A special mention has to be made regarding the bravery the Spaniard displayed in the closing stages of the match. From 2-3 in the deciding set, she hit several outrageous winners – and a few wild misses – and fought for every point. Halep started to look unsettled by how consistently Muguruza was firing towards the end and began offering several uncharacteristic unforced errors of her own.  After two hours and a backhand down the line that only found the tramlines, the French Open quarterfinalist was able to add another big scalp to her impressive 2014 resume.

“Well, it’s all in your mind…”

ATP Beijing 2R: Ernests Gulbis def. Fabio Fognini 6-3 6-4.

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Tuesday’s Center Court action in Beijing was packed with all the big names. The winners of the first four matches amass a total of 44 slam titles between them and we bade farewell to 2-time Grand Slam champion Li Na. And then there was Fabio Fognini and Ernests Gulbis, stepping out on court for a match made in comedy heaven. For worse, both men can be found next to the dictionary entry for “cartoon character;” for better, both are, at their best, capable of bringing far more to the court than mere personality.

One break of serve was enough for the French-Open semifinalist and he clinched the opening set, 6-3. The second set followed along similar lines as the Italian found himself broken in a famed seventh game and Gulbis served things out, 6-3 6-4.

Gulbis' serve direction in set 1 (@ Sky Sports)

Gulbis’ serve direction in set 1 (via SuperTennis)

The scoreline is almost shockingly straight-forward, but there is one simple, very important reason for that: The No. 13 served far better than the No. 18. Throughout the first set, the Italian’s first serve percentage meandered about the low 40s and was lucky Gulbis could only took advantage of 1/7 break points. By contrast, the Latvian never allowed a single break chance throughout the entire match, winning a strong 90% points behind his first serve.

Even when Fognini had a look at a second serve or when he was serving himself, he was all too happy to trade cross-court backhand  exchanges with his opponent. Gulbis’ forehand is one of the most eccentric shots on Tour but fairly effective if he has time to set up that albatross-like preparation. Unlike his more technically sound backhand, the forehand is more likely to brittle under pressure. The Italian never exploited this aspect and found himself on the losing end of longer baseline rallies. Gulbis remained solid and focused, even when he was down 0-30 in the final game of the match, responding with 95mph backhand winners down the line.

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Fognini’s game is well-rounded but something tells me that he could have gone into today’s match with the most brilliant gameplan or strategy and still lost. While Gulbis seems to have begun finding a balance between his own antics between points and reacquitting his mind to what’s important, the Italian is still far way from coming of age. Though playing solid tennis to start, his mind began to wander after a verbal tussle with the French Open semifinalist.  Fognini began engaging in further conversation with his opponent, the umpire, and continued muttering to himself in a familiar manner, even if the great dramatic gestures of his Wimbledon matches were absent.

As much as one can say about the Italian’s evidently inherent lack of calm, there’s also a distinct possibility that Gulbis knew what it took to light a fire beneath a hothead an “introvert” like Fognini. For all his racquet breaking and occasional outbursts, the Latvian is crafty. By engaging in some light trash talk from the get-go, he probably exploited the biggest weakness the man from Liguria has to offer: his ever-wavering focus.

About René Denfeld (202 Articles)
Weather is my business. Tennis is my playground. Born in the year of the Golden Slam. Just give me all the bacon and eggs you have.

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