As Wimbledon 2016 approaches, we take a look at Monday’s action at Nottingham’s Aegon Open, particular the British players
World #177 James Ward came up against Malek Jaziri of Tunisia. The Brit has suffered an underwhelming year following the promises of 2015, namely his valiant displays in GB’s Davis Cup campaign. His recent poor form proved to be apparent in this match-up.
In recent years, Ward’s ranking has always enjoyed a lift during the grass court season. With his ranking having sat outside the world’s top 150 for over six months, the Brit seemed to feel a weight of expectation to deliver in Nottingham. The Wild Card entrant delivered three double faults in his opening service game, allowing Jaziri to race into a 3-0 lead. The Tunisian, who had already tasted the grass at Halle, looked instantly assured on the Centre Court turf. Ward’s early aggression was answered with relative ease; Jaziri swept the home favourite aside 6-1. Incidentally, the only game Ward won epitomized the issues of his approach. A string of stunning ground stroke winners got Ward onto the scoreboard. Yet as each winner kissed the side lines, sending up a puff of chalk, the minuscule margin for error in Ward’s game was clear.
Yet Ward increased his aggression on both flanks to good effect in the second set. Crucially, the Briton began to press the Jaziri second serve, which had been straddling in the 80 to 90 mph range throughout the first set. The Tunisian sunk into passivity, inviting Ward to push further up the court. At 5-2 down, Jaziri finally introduced some more ambitious play and pushed towards the net to hold to love. But it was too little too late; Ward comfortably held in the following game, securing the set on a clinical backhand passing shot off a Jaziri slice.
To the delight of the Nottingham crowd, Ward immediately broke serve in the deciding set. The world #177 then had to battle hard to consolidate his advantage, with first serve consistency beginning to plummet as the wind played havoc with his ball toss. At 1-3, though, Jaziri cut a dejected figure. Subverting his usually steady, methodical routine, the 32-year-old began to rush. Ward broke, taking advantage of his opponent’s rapidly deteriorating confidence.
Now, however, was when Ward’s lack of match success began to show; the momentum crucially swung. Ward suddenly transformed from free-hitting tennis artiste to careless error machine. The Londoner’s nonchalant hitting style off both flanks grew ever more languid, skewing two comfortable backhands long to allow Jaziri to complete his comeback. Jaziri now had the momentum, and although it had proved highly interchangeable in this clash, it would now firmly settle on the Tunisian’s side.
His opponent having held to love, Ward now teetered over the precipice at 4-5. The crowd willed the Brit on, but he was unable to halt this seemingly interminable and inexplicable slump. A wild Ward forehand sealed Jaziri’s victory, 6-4 in the final set. Dark clouds had hovered over Nottingham Centre Court at the start of the match. Over an hour and a half later, they had scuttled off into the horizon; yet after a buoyant 2015, James Ward still faces some very sombre storm clouds indeed.
But the disappointment amongst the Centre Court crowd soon dissipated. Kyle Edmund faced Lukas Rosol off the back of a quarterfinals appearance at Queens and just his second ATP tour level win on grass. The 21-year-old therefore entered Nottingham at a career high ranking of 68 and with ample reason to be cheerful. Yet he still recognized the danger of his opponent.
“I played him earlier this year on the clay, so I knew what his game style was. But the clay to the grass is very different,” Edmund conceded after the match. “You can just see how well he plays on grass when you think back to how he played Rafa.” The Pole’s flat groundstrokes certainly presented a whole different proposition. The opening games of the match proved to be closely fought affairs; remaining on serve until 4-5, when Edmund finally made the crucial breakthrough. “His serve is probably the strongest part of his game,” Edmund said. “At the start of the match I was a bit inconsistent [with my returns] and not putting enough pressure on. I did well to break him at 4-5.”
There was little sign of dissatisfaction from Edmund on his returning in the second set however. The young Brit maintained great consistency, skillfully parrying the crushing serves of his opponent. The fashion with which Edmund dealt with Rosol’s power will indeed be a point of great positivity, particularly as many have questioned how serious a threat Edmund can be on grass when given less time on that large forehand backswing.
Rosol brought some of his habitual antics to proceedings, challenging the umpire on two calls at 1-1 on the Edmund serve. “I have no words,” he said, after Edmund sent a shot skidding off the side line. At 2-1, Edmund broke once again. After a gruelingly long deuce game, Rosol succumbed to the continued pressure from his opponent with a double fault.
Edmund’s advantage was immediately threatened though, with his subsequent service game also subject to multiple deuces. The response was some of the world #68’s finest tennis. Edmund mercilessly dictated play, pushing Rosol into his backhand corner with the inside out forehand, before switching the play and delivering the lethal blow with the inside in. The benefit of his experience at Queen’s was clear. “Getting matches on a court helps you with confidence and match tightness,” Edmund said post-match. “When you’re match tight you know in situations when you need to be tough and when you can go for your shots a bit more.”
Despite Rosol suffering little further pressure on serve, he was unable to make inroads into Edmund’s service games. With two holds – and the concession of just one point across both – Edmund sealed victory. The difference between Edmund and Rosol was simply a matter of precision against power. Whether Edmund will be able to bring such precision to tennis’ biggest stage is another matter entirely though; it will be severely tested against the unorthodox Dolgopolov on Tuesday. The young Yorkshireman remained undeterred though. “It’ll be a tough match. He’s a very tricky player, not someone who you play regularly in terms of his shot making,” he said. “It’ll be difficult but I feel I’m playing well, I’m feeling confident. First of all I look to play my game and get my game on court first.”
And some of the rest…
Meanwhile, Victor Estrella Burgos and Rajeev Ram faced off in a fascinating clash out on Court Two. After over two hours of play, it was the clay-courter Estrella Burgos who triumphed 7-6(7) 6-7(4) 6-2, certainly a minor upset considering Rajeev Ram’s grass court credentials. Benjamin Becker also toppled 22 year old Jordan Thompson in three sets, 6-2 2-6 6-4. The young Australian, who recently burst into the top 100 after taking the Anning Challenger title in China, looked increasingly tight as the match neared its conclusion and dropped serve at 4-4, allowing Becker to pounce.
There were also two other Brits in action: Brydan Klein and Alexander Ward. Klein succumbed to the experienced Stephane Robert 7-5 6-4 after a valiant display on what is arguably–with his dexterity around the net–the Frenchman’s favored surface. Ward also suffered defeat, going down to Frank Dancevic 7-6(3) 6-7(3) 6-2.