Exho in Paris Provides Useful Test Bed for Federer's Expanding Game

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Exho in Paris Provides Useful Test Bed for Federer's Expanding Game
(Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)

There’s been an odd little event taking place in Paris this week. Odd, but interesting, because it has attracted some of the best men in the world just days before the launch of the French Open.

The event, rather ambitiously titled the Guinot Mary Cohr Masters, is based at the Paris Golf and Country Club. It’s a delightful event for the spectators: intimate, quiet, and relaxed. It is an attractive event for the TV viewer: short matches, low camera angles (no massive stands and gantries here), and few distractions.

It also happens to have an identical playing surface, the same balls, and similar environmental conditions to those at Roland Garros.

And that’s clearly what has brought the top three seeds, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Andy Murray, to this exquisite yet modest venue in Paris.

The unusual format may also have appealed. Twelve players are split into two "teams," though each player only has one best-of-three-set match with a champions tiebreak for the decider.

An arduous event in the one off week between a series of Masters events and a Grand Slam would be avoided like the plague. But this format offers the opportunity for a single day-time match that provides just enough of a challenge to warm up the body and practise the shots.

So is there anything in this unusual event that can possibly interest the serious follower of tennis?

Well there were, in fact, a number of points of note.

Yesterday, Gael Monfils—a doubtful name in the French Open draw due to rumoured injury—tried out here against Marcos Baghdatis, and was roundly beaten 6-4, 6-0. Blisters were cited. The signs are not good for the Frenchman’s chances on his home patch.

Murray was matched up with Paul-Henri Mathieu, ranked down at 34, and was found wanting. Murray lost 6-4, 6-7 and 10-8 in the tie break. It was a stiff and not entirely convincing display on the clay that he finds so demanding from the ambitious No. 3.

Nadal played against Arnaud Clement—current world No. 57.

What was surprising about Nadal was that he opted to play here at all. He had looked tired before Madrid, and he certainly looked tired by the end of it.

He doesn’t need the practice on French clay. He doesn’t need the money. Maybe he was simply fulfilling a commitment to his management team (IMG are, after all, heavily involved in organising this event).

His lassitude certainly showed in his tennis, though inevitably in such an unequal contest as this, he ran out the 6-3, 6-3 winner. If there was one thing worthy of comment, it was that the solid serve continues to improve and deliver up regular cheap points. 

Some of the other participants—James Blake, Marat Safin, Tommy Haas—are easier to explain. They need some court time to compensate for their relatively early exits in the clay tournaments thus far. Each will fancy their chances of causing an upset amongst the seeds at Roland Garros, and a competitive warm-up like this will only improve their timing and movement.

And what of the newest Master this year? What was he doing here?

As luck would have it, Federer drew friend and rival Stanislav Wawrinka—possibly the most useful match-up in the event. Wawrinka is ranked just high enough to test Federer, but not so high that it becomes significant if he loses. And Wawrinka is at his best on clay.

Friends they might be, but this was a serious warm-up for both men. Pleasantries were dispensed with, to the point where not a smile passed the lips of either player until they shook hands at the end. The umpire was even summoned from his chair to adjudicate on the odd close line call.

Wawrinka took the 6-2, 6-4 loss with his usual dignified demeanour, but in truth he was a sounding board for a magical variety of shot-making from Federer’s racket. 

The new-found creativity that won the Madrid Open was worked on from the start, apparently aiming to perfect the formula that broke down Nadal last week.

There were mistakes aplenty on this slower, lower court, but Federer’s drop shots were frequent and deadly. His serve was strong, varied, and penetrating; some swerved into the body, some kicked high, some sliced wide.

He attacked the net frequently and confidently, picking off both high and low volleys. It was a hard work-out in sweat-inducing humidity, but based on the tactics here, the game plan for Roland Garros looks clear.

Federer claimed afterwards that he was still a little jaded from Madrid, and needed a little longer to get back into shape. It’s doubtful that many of the 1,500 capacity crowd noticed.

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