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Steve Flink: Janowicz spectacular in Paris

11/5/2012 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

The Masters 1000 ATP World Tour events are almost always a showcase for the established giants of the game. Across the last couple of years, only members of the esteemed top four in the world have captured tournaments at this elite level. After Robin Soderling upended Gael Monfils to take the BNP Paribas title in Paris back in the fall of 2010, every Masters 1000 tile since was claimed by a competitor ranked in the top four. But Spain’s commendable and industrious David Ferrer—the world No. 5—broke that string this past week by securing his first ever Masters 1000 championship, capturing his seventh tournament of a stirring 2012 season in the process, raising his match record for the year to an impressive 72-14, reminding us all that he has never been fully appreciated for the honor he has consistently brought to his trade.

But, with all due respect to Ferrer, this column is not dedicated to him. The man who turned Paris upside down last week was not Ferrer, but rather a soon to be 22-year-old from Poland who qualified for the event and then ousted no fewer than five men ranked among the top 20. His exhilarating and diversified play, demonstrative personality and immense flair were striking and admirable. His astonishing run was inspiring in every way. He was terrific. Know this about Jerzy Janowicz: the young man did not simply advance by chance. He will surely establish himself more fully and with growing conviction all through 2013 and beyond. He is a front line player to be sure, and the view here is that he will be a significant force in the game in the immediate years to come. Fans will cheer him on unabashedly everywhere he goes.

Janowicz commenced 2012 ranked No. 221 in the world. By the time he arrived for the qualifying in Paris the week before last, he had climbed significantly up to No. 69 in the world. Now he stands at No. 26. No one, not even Janowicz himself, could possibly have been prepared for the tennis he would produce on such an important stage at the end of the year. After recording two victories in the qualifying, the Polish player struck down Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber 7-6 (5), 6-4 before knocking out No. 13 seed Marin Cilic 7-6 (6), 6-2. Those wins earned him a round of 16 meeting with No. 3 seed Andy Murray. The Olympic gold medalist and U.S. Open champion was poised to usher Janowicz right out of the tournament.

Murray prevailed in a hard fought first set, and then served for the match at 5-4 in the second set. He moved to match point at 40-30. Janowicz was a single point away from a straight set defeat, but he refused to buckle. Murray took control of a backcourt exchange, and seemed to have Janowicz in considerable trouble. He drove a two-hander down the line but Janowicz displayed some fine defense, slicing a forehand crosscourt to work his way back into the point. Eventually, Murray narrowly missed a crosscourt forehand that was hit with authority. At deuce, Murray netted an inside-out forehand, and then the British player drove a two-handed backhand wide by inches. He had made three consecutive unforced errors to lose his serve. The score improbably stood at 5-5.

They proceeded to a tie-break. Janowicz led 5-3, but Murray connected boldly with a crosscourt backhand crosscourt winner. Serving at 4-5, Murray was three points away from a straight set triumph, but once more Janowicz was obstinate in a tense situation. In a high intensity crosscourt forehand exchange, Janowicz outdueled Murray. On the following point, the Polish upstart caught Murray off guard with an inside-out backhand drop shot return off a second serve that was unmanageable for the British player. Set to Janowicz, 7-4 in the tie-break.

Given that new lease on life, Janowicz was unstoppable in the third set. After breaking Murray to go ahead 2-1, Janowicz closed out a love game with a pair of aces. He broke Murray at 15 for 4-1, and then served three more aces in another love game to reach 5-1. Janowicz soon achieved his biggest career head to head win, upending Murray 5-7, 7-6 (4), 6-2, serving 22 aces in the process, winning 83% of his first serve points against one of the game’s premier returners. For Murray, the loss marked the third straight tournament that he had lost a match after having at least one match point. Against Milos Raonic in the semifinals Tokyo, he had two match points. Facing Novak Djokovic in the final of Shanghai, Murray failed to exploit five match point opportunities. The pattern continued in Paris as he could not finish his task against Janowicz, despite reaching match point once in that encounter.

Yet the fact remains that Janowicz performed mightily to win that pivotal contest. In his next appointment against No. 8 seed Janko Tipsarevic, the 6’8” Janowicz suffered no letdown. A determined Tipsarevic managed to break his opponent in the second game of the match, and made it count, taking the opening set 6-3. But Janowicz swiftly regrouped. Serving prodigiously, driving his forehand with growing accuracy, pace and confidence, giving little away, Janowicz broke for 3-1 in the second set, held in a long game for 4-1 and never looked back. He took that set 6-1 and surged to a 4-1, two service break lead in the third before Tipsarevic retired. That come from behind victory lifted Janowicz into a semifinal confrontation against the resourceful Frenchman Gilles Simon.

Simon had the home fans decidedly in his corner, and a wealth of experience from which to draw. But Janowicz was not intimidated. He broke Simon once in the first set, and served magnificently, connecting with 21 of 24 first serves. Simon raised his level considerably in the second set, to no avail. At 5-5, Janowicz broke in timely fashion, and then served out the match, winning 6-4, 7-5. That win propelled Janowicz into the final, sending him into a clash against none other than Ferrer, one of the wiliest match players in the business.

The 30-year-old Spaniard has long been a contender at the Masters 1000 events across the years. He had been a finalist three times, but had never been victorious on those occasions. Ferrer confronted top of the line adversaries every time, losing to Rafael Nadal twice (2010 Rome, 2011 Monte Carlo) and to Murray at Shanghai in 2011. Clearly, Ferrer sensed this could be his best chance. Yet Janowicz comported himself well. Through the first eight games of the match, both players were in command on serve. In four service games, Ferrer won 16 of 18 points. Janowicz took 16 of 20 points on his delivery. It was 4-4, and neither man was ceding much ground.

Something had to give. In the ninth game, Janowicz had a chance to perhaps seize control of the contest. Ferrer was break point down at 30-40, a point away from allowing his daunting opponent to serve for the set. But Janowicz faltered at that critical moment, netting a routine forehand. Ferrer held on for 5-4. In the following game, Janowicz was set point down at 4-5, 30-40, but released a clutch ace down the T. Then he double faulted, and Ferrer pounced with typical temerity. The Spaniard got Janowicz on the run and coaxed him into a forehand mistake.

Set to Ferrer, 6-4. Janowicz was in a quandary. Ferrer was simply too unerring from the baseline. The Spaniard was prolonging the rallies, picking the big man apart, returning serve with cagey precision, displaying his usual tactical acuity. But Janowicz did not despair. He broke the Spaniard for the only time in the match to move ahead 2-1 in the second set. Serving in the fourth game, Janowicz had a couple of game points, but did not exploit those opportunities. A resolute Ferrer broke back for 2-2 and held after four deuces in the fifth game, saving two break points.

In essence, that was the match. Ferrer broke Janowicz to extend his lead to 4-2 as the Polish competitor double faulted at 30-40. Ferrer held at love for 5-2. Two games later, he held at love again to complete a 6-4, 6-3 triumph, registering the most prestigious title run of his distinguished career. But Ferrer was upstaged in many ways by the exploits of the man he toppled in the final. Janowicz had stolen the spotlight from everyone in the field at Paris, shining the light directly on himself, demonstrating that he will be a top twenty player before long, and conceivably a member of the illustrious top ten by the latter stages of 2013.

Why am I so optimistic about this charismatic player? Quite simply, he has an abundance of talent. For a man of his size, the 6’8” Janowicz moves remarkably well. John Isner is officially listed at 6’9” but, by comparison, he lumbers around the court. Isner can’t afford to get involved in too many long points. But Janowicz covers the court with surprising agility, and knows how to defend. When you watch him play for the first time, he doesn’t seem to be as tall as he actually is.

Moreover, Janowicz has an excellent first serve. He can swing it wide with biting slice in the deuce court and his placement is impeccable. In the ad court, he can go out wide with supreme power and precision. He can also swing his first serve down the T in that court to keep his opponents honest. His second serve kicker is highly effective on either side of the court, and he cleverly exploits kick and slice second serves into the body. Plainly, the serve is a strong suit for Janowicz. I would not put him in a category yet with Isner or Milos Raonic, but he will soon be one of the toughest players in tennis to break. Off the ground, he is dazzling. Although his two-handed backhand is somewhat vulnerable, he has good variety off that side, going to the slice and keeping that shot dependably low. His flat forehand is explosive and spectacular. He can drive that shot with pace and panache crosscourt, rip it down the line, and step around for the inside-out forehand.

But Janowicz’s best forehand is his inside-in, which catches his opponents off guard time and again. He is impressive at the net, has good feel up there, and is unafraid to venture into that territory. But what sets Janowicz apart above all else is his drop shot. He is so potent from the backcourt that he frequently keeps his rivals on their heels. Then he confounds them with drop shots. Once in a while he wanders into difficulty by going crosscourt with the drop shot, leaving too much time for opponents to respond. But his best drop shots are released with sidespin and heavy underspin, either down the line or inside out from the middle of the court. When he executes that shot properly, it is breathtaking and virtually unanswerable. I don’t think I have seen a player these days that drop shots as masterfully as Janowicz does off both the forehand and backhand sides. His propensity to drop shot with regularity yet good disguise makes Janowicz a multi-faceted and arresting player.

To be sure, Jerzy Janowicz will suffer a few hard setbacks over the next year, squander opportunities here and there, meet his share of disappointments. But the feeling grows that he will keep growing steadily as a match player, and he has so many tools to work with that Janowicz will inevitably bring down some of the game’s biggest names on his finest days. Janowicz is authentic, enormously appealing, and potentially a great tennis player. He is exhilarating. He is just beginning to discover his potential. The hope here is that he remains humble, driven and focused. If he does not get carried away with himself, if he recognizes that there is no substitute for hard work, if he stays clear of serious injuries, Janowicz will become a box office standout everywhere he performs. The world of tennis would do very well to have Poland’s Jerzy Janowicz somewhere near the top of the ladder.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.