“Long live the marks” would be the translation of the heading above. And after it should be written sur la terre battue (on red clay).

One of the beauties of tennis is the different surfaces and different possibilities on those surfaces.

Clay courts provide a unique timeline of matches. A player makes a long slide chasing a drop shot near the net and that elongated swatch of clay remains a record of that particular moment and movement until the court is eventually swept clean.

It stays there as succeeding points are played, a reminder of the action on court in a way that just doesn’t happen on hard courts or grass. In fact all the landings of balls and shuffling of shoes on the clay leaves a kind of hieroglyphics of the match storyline.

The marks themselves create all kinds of possibilities for dispute, controversy and theatre. The umpire climbing down from the chair, the player and he or she disagreeing on whether a mark is in or out or whether the mark is actually the correct one.

During Milos Raonic’s first-round on Monday against Marco Cecchinato at the Italian Open, the world No. 10 served a second serve that was a let, the ball called good because the linesperson and umpire Fergus Murphy saw it on the sideline. Cecchinato asked Murphy (finger pointing at top here) to come down from the chair and they had an interesting discussion. “It landed in this area,” Murphy said to Cecchinato while the No. 119-ranked Italian reacted with “the area is very large.” He asked Murphy to show him the mark but the Irishman responded that because there was no mark the ball had to be on the line.


Cecchinato was not convinced and the camera replay above appears to clearly show that the ball landed out. Murphy’s ruling at 1-0 Cecchinato and 30-15 on Raonic’s serve in the second set probably didn’t affect the outcome of Raonic’s 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 victory. That’s especially so because Raonic missed a forehand on the replayed second serve point and then Cecchinato went on to break serve and lead 2-0.

Controversy about ball marks and the processions of umpires down from their chairs is a rite of spring in European tennis. The crowds in Rome and Paris love to get involved with the charade of players and umpires and linespersons examining marks. A whistle here, a jeer there and bursts of rhythmic clapping are outlets for fans, a chance to be a little mischievous. Baseball managers have their ritual nose-to-nose confrontations with umpires, and spectators at continental clay-court matches can contribute their two cents from the stands. 


During Stan Wawrinka’s second-round match with Nick Kyrgios last week in Madrid, Kyrgios hit a second serve and then had a heated discussion with umpire Mohamed Lahyani. He thought the ball had touched the line while Lahyani – see mark above – insisted it did not. Even looking at the picture of it now is not conclusive.


In the Novak Djokovic – Milos Raonic quarter-final in Madrid, Raonic hit a serve that Djokovic thought was out. Umpire Carlos Bernardes came down from the chair and confirmed that the serve was out. But Hawk-Eye, which had been uncannily accurate all week being used for TV purposes only, showed that the serve was partly on the line as the picture above illustrates.

Oddly enough, the TV commentators did not react to the Hawk-Eye image contradicting the ruling made by Bernardes.

It’s highly unlikely that Hawk-Eye will any time soon be used as the ultimate arbiter of line calls on clay. But it is always useful to have it around to have another view to keep players and umpires accountable.

Much as Hawk-Eye is neat and efficient in ruling on line calls on hard courts and grass, having some ambivalence about marks on clay adds to the spectacle, brings the human element into play and, ultimately, adds to the entertainment value of the event. If Hawk-Eye ever became the final decision-maker on clay, the theatrical improv of the mark examination pantomime would be sadly missed.


Aside from the usual charades related to checking marks on the clay, there has been one other noticeable trend over the past few weeks. Umpires are giving time warnings at crucial junctures in matches – and they are doing it to the big names such as Djokovic, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal.

It happened in the seventh game of the third set of Sunday’s Madrid final between Djokovic and Murray. There was a long, lung-busting rally before umpire Lahyani intoned as the players were about to begin the next point, “time violation, warning Mr. Djokovic.” Murray reacted by addressing Lahyani. “I was the one that was keeping him waiting,” Murray said. “He was at the line about five seconds before me.”

That didn’t deter Lahyani and Djokovic just smiled as can be seen above.

It was mentioned in this space a few weeks ago that there should be stricter time restraints for players getting out for the coin toss after they first arrive at their chairs on court. If 60 seconds could be saved at that moment then maybe umpires could be more forgiving when there’s a few seconds extra between points particularly at critical moments. Players basically sense how to play to the time rhythms of a match and umpires shouldn’t butt in unless the violation is flagrant – especially at the end of sets and matches.

A final word on court surfaces: it’s nice to see Tim Henman, a potential future chairman of the All England Club, in his gear this week for the opening of the grass courts at Wimbledon. Those courts look great…until they get played on. Except for grass when it’s pristine and not worn out, nothing in tennis looks as good as a freshly swept and watered red clay court – and that tableau is re-created time after time over the curse of a tournament.


Bouchard onward in Rome

Photo: @tennis_shots

Genie Bouchard stayed the course to outplay Jelena Jankovic 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 on Tuesday in an opening round match at the Italian Open.

In windy conditions, with both players taking breaks to get the red dust out of their eyes, Bouchard re-grouped after a poor second set, taking a 3-0 lead in the third that she never relinquished.

It was not the tidiest of matches in the difficult conditions but Bouchard’s numbers – 29 winners and 32 unforced errors – were superior to 21 and 38 respectively for the 31-year-old Jankovic.

At the end of the second set Jankovic said to her coach Ricardo Sanchez about Bouchard, “she misses a lot.” Immediately at the start of the third set Bouchard played a sharp, aggressive game to take a 1-0 lead and Jankovic responded with four dreadful unforced errors in the next game to fall behind 2-0.

There seemed to be a lighter mood about Bouchard during the match. She laughed with coach Cyril Saulnier when he came out on court when she trailed 4-1 in the second set, saying to him, “(I know) I’ve got to be more aggressive.”

And several times during the match when things had not gone her way she smiled, seeming to take the approach of not being too hard on herself.

A year ago, when she was in a slump, one of the only matches she won was over Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan in Rome. So she has defended those points in terms of her ranking.

On Wednesday she will face No. 2 seed Angelique Kerber. The current Australian Open champion, Kerber enters the match off an opening-round loss in Madrid last week to Barbora Strycova. But, two weeks earlier, she won the WTA Premier event in Stuttgart on indoor clay.

Bouchard has a 2-1 head-to-head advantage over Kerber – with both wins coming over a short span in 2014 at the French Open and at Wimbledon. Kerber’s victory was at the 2013 US Open.

With the exception of a 6-4, 6-2 loss to then-No. 2 Agnieszka Radwanska at the Australian Open in January, the No. 2-ranked Kerber will be the only Top 15 player Bouchard has faced since losing to No. 10 Carla Suarez Navarro 6-7(2), 7-5, 7-6(7) exactly 12 months ago in Rome after holding a match point (a double fault) at 7-6 in the final set tiebreak.

Raonic – Kyrgios Round 5


Milos Raonic and Nick Kyrgios will be meeting for the fifth time when they face each other in the second round of the Italian Open on Wednesday.

To set up that clash Raonic beat No. 119-ranked Marco Cecchinato on Monday by a 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 score. It was not a thing of beauty for the No. 10-ranked Raonic, more of a character win against a dangerous opponent. He had defeated Cecchinato 6-3, 7-5 in the opening round of Monte Carlo three weeks ago but this time he was playing the feisty Italian in front of his home crowd. There were many tricky moments for Raonic but he held firm and prevailed in two hours and eight minutes. Even Roger Federer has lost to an Italian at the Foro Italico – to Filippo Volandri in 2007. Of course the next day he announced a split with coach Tony Roche so maybe he had other things on his mind.        

Kyrgios cruised into the second round in barely an hour on Monday – outclassing Italian wild card Salvatore Caruso 6-1, 6-2.

In his most recent meetings with Raonic, Kyrgios has prevailed 7-6(3), 6-3 (one service break) in Miami in March when Raonic was at the end of a run that saw him win Brisbane and then reach the semifinals of the Aussie Open and the final of Indian Wells. At Wimbledon last year, Raonic was diminished by various ailments related to his foot surgery in May and lost 5-7, 7-5, 7-6(3), 6-3 to Kyrgios in the third round.

He won his two previous meetings with the newly-turned 21-year-old Aussie, in the Wimbledon quarter-finals in 2014 and in the first round of Roland Garros that same year. 

Kyrgios is the more varied and unpredictable shot-maker while Raonic has superior brute power.

“I’m confident going forward,” Kyrgios said, “but at the same time Raonic’s got one of the best serves in the world. If he’s having a lights-out day when he does everything, you can’t really do too much. I’m going to go out there and do what I have been doing and just compete. If I happen to win, I win.”

Raonic was a bit more specific when it came to looking ahead to the match-up, saying, “he has a lot of firepower. He can do a lot of different things. It’s about sort of getting ahead in the points before he does, because that’s where I’d say both of our games excel at – aggressive tennis. It’s about who can take control of the points first.”

The winner will get a day off and then likely play No. 5 seed Rafael Nadal in the round-of-16. That would be a fascinating encounter for Raonic. Though he trails the Spaniard 6-1 head-to-head, they split their most recent meetings in 2015 – Raonic winning 4-6, 7-6(10), 7-5 in Indian Wells and Nadal getting revenge 6-3, 7-6(3) in Shanghai. One thing is certain – Nadal does not return serve as well as Novak Djokovic, who Raonic lost to 6-3, 6-4 in the Madrid quarter-finals last week.

Unfortunately Raonic’s fellow Canadian Vasek Pospisil has not joined him in the second round. Pospisil, despite a 5-2 lead in the first-set tiebreak, was beaten 7-6(5), 7-6(2) by Italian veteran Andreas Seppi on Monday.

Not rooting for the Raptors


Following his 6-1, 6-4 win over Grigor Dimitrov in Rome on Monday, Alexander Zverev signed the camera glass with the above message. Just turned 19 years old, the No. 44-ranked German is obviously not going to ingratiate himself to his Toronto fan base as the Raptors face the Miami Heat, winners on Monday night, in their NBA Playoff series currently tied at 2-2.

BTW – Zverev has his first meeting with Roger Federer on Wednesday, if the 34-year-old Swiss is fit and chooses to play. Federer has twice beaten Alexander’s 28-year-old, No. 139-ranked brother Mischa – in Halle in 2013 and in Rome in 2009.

Ya gotta see this

Gael Monfils is indisputably the most incredible athlete in tennis. This is just another example of what an extreme sportsman he is.