x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

A compliment to Nicolas Almagro's backhand

Almagro is up against formidable Djokovic today but Osman Samiuddin likes that he plays a stroke so rare in modern era.

Spain's Nicolas Almagro dependance on his backhand is remarkable considering he is more of clay-court specialist.
Spain's Nicolas Almagro dependance on his backhand is remarkable considering he is more of clay-court specialist.

Purely on the basis that he possesses a one-handed backhand Nicolas Almagro is a delight.

It has become, in the modern game, by default of its rarity, a stroke of unquestionable grace and elegance: imagine Batman hidden and crouched in his own cape and then imagine him, rising, in one sweeping, soaring motion opening up the cape as his wings.

Think Roger Federer and even Justine Henin. It can be that good to look at.

That backhand was not an emphatic success against Janko Tipsarevic yesterday, but it probably won him a few more points than it lost him, especially as the match wore on in the second and third sets. These days it looks so out of place that at times it feels like it might rob a player of some power and time.

Almagro even spoke about it a little defensively, as if trying to prove that how he plays it is not the wrong way to play it, or it is not some weird genetic kink that has forced him to, or even that it is not an act of rebellion against some established order.

"All my life I played with it. It's not that I started to play like this just now. It's natural, I've played it until now and I don't think I am going to change it now." (Nobody had asked him, of course, whether he did plan on changing it but he felt the need to say it.)

It is important to know this about his game because not too much else may be known about him. He is not a journeyman; he is the 11th-ranked player in the world and has 12 ATP tour victories to his credit.

But it says something about the very top echelon of the sport that those beyond the top four - maybe, at a stretch, the top ten - do not get much time in the sun.

Repeat this: he is the 11th best men's tennis player in the world right now and it is a fair bet that many might not have heard of him, or seen him play.

Tipsarevic knows him well, being of roughly the same generation, and he was not surprised at all by his performance.

And he actually has a very watchable game. He has got a big, easy serve; not only did it score him 12 aces against Tipsarevic, but he knocked a service winner in at 207 kph.

There is that backhand of course and a big, winded-up forehand. There is lots of topspin, but there are also regular forays to the net and for a clay-court loving Spaniard - all his titles have come on clay - that is a surprise.

So he is not just, as he might be remembered here, the man who was not Rafael Nadal.

He may not have gone past a grand slam quarter-final ever but he was, in 2011, ranked as high as 9th.

And what a little tale he has spun while here, on this whistle-stop tour of Abu Dhabi.

This is how he got here.

At 8pm on Christmas Day, he got a call from his manager telling him there was an opportunity to play in place of Nadal. He told him he needed to think about it, mainly to sort out flights. His agent told him there was a flight the next night and he took it.

"I came at 5am, I go to bed for two hours, I start to do things I need to do here, I play a little bit, I go to bed. This morning [Friday] I come here again, practise, play my match now and now I want to sleep because I'm a bit tired."

Asked if he had seen the city at all, he asked back, incredulous: "Here? I didn't see nothing at all."

Tonight, after the final against Novak Djokovic, he flies back to Spain. "Maybe I can buy some postcards from the airport."

But he is not really as much a journeyman as that schedule sounds.

He has lost all three times he has played Djokovic and with precisely the kind of self-deprecation you might imagine, did not seem to think he stood much chance today.

Djokovic is the world No 1, he reminded us, and he is playing on his favourite surface too. It is quick and bouncy and fast and not clay.

Three times Almagro spelt out that it will be really tough and once he stressed the point that even as he will try to do his best, "if I do my best, maybe it's not enough to win the match."

He might not win it, but at least he will never lose that backhand.


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