Adrian Mannarino versus Aljaz Bedene.
It’s one of those matches that gets lost in the draw. The casual fan glancing through the order of play spots the clash, shrugs inwardly, and moves on to find the higher ranked players of more ‘esteem’.
On early Tuesday afternoon in Nottingham, Adrian and Aljaz contested a close two set battle that boasted variety, a contrast of styles, and a fluidity of ball striking.
In short, it was a pleasure to observe. In length, I give you the following…
The final score was 7-6 6-4, and it was a contest that could easily have gone the distance. But more importantly, it was a battle that paid tribute to the ability of late bloomers, and the magnitude that is achievable through care.
Both outside of the world’s elite, Mannarino and Bedene hold some 2015 interest for similar reasons. Frenchman Adrian is enjoying the best season of his career so far, having reached his first career ATP final in Auckland. Bedene – once residing under the Slovenian banner, and recently granted British citizenship – has done likewise, falling at Chennai’s final hurdle back in January, to Stan Wawrinka.
Each have hit career high rankings – Mannarino 29, and Bedene 71. Aljaz sits just three spots beneath his prize, and Adrian six below his.
But that’s nothing special, surely? For two guys in their mid-going-on-for-late 20s, this is nothing to raise the roof about?
Not unless you observed today’s match.
Adrian Mannarino emerged victorious. The 26-year-old certainly did not appear to be dominating throughout the match, but that is the beauty of tennis. Whilst Aljaz based his game around a clean power (which was certainly enough to halt Adrian when he kissed the baseline), Mannarino was more about care and consistency, cleanness and precision. Many long rallies were contested, and while the Frenchman did by no means strike softly, he was more concerned with the direction in which he was sending the ball. 50% of the time he made the unexpected move away from the open half of the court – not necessarily to wrong-foot his opponent, but in an intriguing strategy of gradually unbalancing him. Thus, somewhere during the long rally, Bedene would crack.
Of course, while this happened a fair amount, it didn’t happen every time. Bedene’s own placement was decent. Even when he didn’t go deep enough, he conjured some tough winners, or forced errors as he worked a pace and power that his opponent couldn’t quite cope with.
Both men defended their serves tremendously – the 8th seed via craft and skill, and the world number 74 by sheer force. Breaks were difficult to come by, yet this wasn’t the entire reason that each player succumbed to frustration. Frankly, the line calling at the Aegon Open has been appalling, and even the controlled Mannarino gave way to agitation with both the decisions made, and the amateur crew on court.
However, he was able to put this aside when the time came to get playing again. Even when a faulty second serve of Bedene’s at a crucial point in the final set was called an ace (I could sense Aljaz’s coaching team holding their breath), a fleetingly frustratated Adrian put it behind him, and got on with holding his own service game.
Aljaz Bedene did not time his frustrations so well. Perhaps it is what cost him the match. For the majority of Tuesday’s encounter, the 25-year-old was solemn and zoned in on his game, betraying little or no emotion. His coaching team neither commented on nor paid regard to his errors. They simply concentrated on applauding his winners and encouraging his spirit with cries of “Great return, mate!”, and “Good hitting, buddy, you’ve got this!”
It worked for most of the match. The passing of time, rather than the prowess of his opponent, was probably what signed the death sentence for Bedene. Indeed, when broken back in the second set, Mannarino looked to be weakening. But an immediate retrieval of the break caused Bedene to betray his first real frustration, soundlessly bouncing his racquet to the floor.
Panic drained his positivity, and there would be no comeback. By narrow margins, Bedene bowed out of the Aegon Open.
There was definitely a unique atmosphere about this match – something that made it different. Only after careful consideration did it strike me what it was.
Firstly, it was the conduct of the duo involved. Yes, they showed little fits of frustration. Yes, Mannarino snapped at the hopeless ball girls. And yes, Bedene could not hold himself together for the entire match. But throughout every episode, there was no ferociousness or bitterness – the type of thing that invades other cases like these. There was a genuine concern displayed for the proceedings, and then the reactions were brushed away as quickly as they had arisen. There was no exaggerated drama, no Querrey-like yells, no playing up for the crowd.
All the two guys on court were concerned about was giving of their best, and making sure it counted.
That cannot be said about every match. There was a real sincerity about this one.
The second atmospheric component of the duel was what happened immediately after it. Aljaz Bedene, leaving the stage first, was walking past the edge of the court when he suddenly stopped, his back turned to me. His focus was trained on Court One, where Martin Klizan and Simone Bolelli were locked in battle. Had he emerged victorious, he would have been facing the winner of this encounter.
I have to admit, I felt sorry for the guy. He spent about half a minute examining the clash – almost mournfully, forlornly, as if discreetly planning his next move. It wasn’t for show. It was as though he were musing over how much more he still had to give.
And maybe we’ll see that sooner than we think.
Once Aljaz had moved on, I turned back to Court Four to look for Adrian (hoping to catch a word with him about the line calls issue), but he was nowhere to be seen. Scouring the crowds, I finally spotted him.
The champion of the match, with no regard for applause or congratulations, was sat down beside his coach, and already engrossed the Klizan versus Bolelli match.
Thus, the dedication from both players was evident.
It’s a good enough prospect already: Passion and will combined. But my later research added the icing to the cake.
Although still several birthdays off his thirties, Adrian Mannarino turned pro all the way back in 2004. For the non-mathematicians (like myself) out there, that’s eleven years on the tennis tour.
Of those eleven years, that’s over ten years of not reaching an ATP final.
And it took him half of those ten years to first break the top 100.
Five years of grinding away outside the safety zone.
Whatever your first impressions, this statistic is not to be abhorred. Rather, it is a cause for celebration!
During those five years in the desert, Mannarino never quit. Because he never quit, he made it to his destination. And then he carried on. Those five years – and even up to this year, when he finally broke the top 30 and made a tour final – displayed everything he showed in his one match today: A lack of drama (the real reason you hadn’t heard much about him al those years – not a lack of talent!) A devotedness to his game. A resolve to improve in every match he undertook.
And a fierce, deep love for his sport.
This is what gives him hope to progress still further – and hope to all ‘late-bloomers’: Players who – if they truly care – can go beyond what the world thought was possible. Or even they themselves.
With Stan Wawrinka ever-so-recently picking up his second Grand Slam title, it’s a timely reminder not to cross off the ageing players who haven’t yet made a lot of noise.
25-year-old Aljaz Bedene lands in that category. Today, the guy showed off a super-solid backhand, a powerful forehand, and an extremely promising game. Why should he be ruled out of contention for the top, plainly because he’s not 21 years old?
He has all the fuel he needs to keep him running. His desire to succeed is evident, he wants to prove himself to his adopted country, and the clay-court lover was visibly making the effort to execute a grass-court appropriate game.
If they care, they can.
When you want something enough, and work for it tirelessly, anything can happen.
So watch these two guys. Because you never know what is to come.
Big things could be just around the corner.