Profiling Simone Bolelli's Claycourt Game (and Performance) in Umag
On the back of last week's title win in Hamburg, Nikolay Davydenko heads into the Umag semi-finals as the clear favourite to take the title. But what has his form been like this week? He's not really on top of his game, nor is he fading badly. But like all good players, Davydenko is surely making the most out of the fact that he can do so much with the ball, that he has so many attacking options from the baseline.
Yesterday's match against Italian Simone Bolelli was a difficult match, as unpredictable as a match could be in a first set lasting 77 minutes and not as one-sided in the second set as the scoreline suggested, resulting in a Davydenko win 7-6(10) 6-1. It was really only when Davydenko achieved his second break of serve that the outcome seemed finally set in stone, given that so many of the games prior to that were closely contested.
It wasn't one of Davydenko's rhythmic ball-striking days, he had to rely more on his speed instead, and he didn't exactly get to play the match on his terms given Bolelli's highly aggressive game. Bolelli is one of those players that have been mentioned from time-to-time as one of those dangerous claycourt players, as one of those steadily rising players, and he definitely captured some attention with his rather flashy game. At the top of his game, he looks like a rather stylish player, capable of hitting clean winners on both sides, not to mention that he has a very aesthetically pleasing single-handed backhand.
Though I have come to learn that he also has the tendencies of a power hitter, and the tactical side of the game is certainly something that he can work on. He takes big cuts at the ball particularly on the forehand side, and can be prone to shanking shots especially when returning fast-paced serves, or in other words first serves. Whereas on the backhand side, he can make the adjustment and shorten his backswing on return.
Just like in the first couple of games of the Hamburg final, Davydenko went down an early break lead, and the manner in which it happened seemed similar as well. Davydenko missed a couple of first serves, and Bolelli hit some unlikely winners. Unlikely because when he wins a point against Davydenko, he doesn't really wrest control of a point. Instead he pulls out spectacular shots in the middle of a competitive rally, overwhelming Davydenko with pace to the point where he either can't reach it or has to hit a defensive shot off a ball that's only one metre away from him. I think it's not only power, but also the heaviness of Bolelli's shots that makes it difficult to deal with.
For a powerful hitter, Bolelli can generate some excellent angles on his forehand, sometimes finding good angles on a crosscourt shot when it doesn't seem like he has much to work with. I guess it's because of that over-the-head swing that he uses on the forehand sometimes to find that extra angle, by applying additional spin.
But as well as Bolelli played to achieve that first break of serve, he returned it back with numerous tame errors in a way that looked familiar for him. I mean, based on that shot selection, surely he is always having to fight the ups and downs of his own play. He doesn't even react externally that much to what he does. I guess he's used to it.
So that's what the match ended up being like on both sides of the court. A match of uncompromising shotmaking, erratic on both sides but full of drama due to the sheer unpredictable nature of it. I would have thought that Davydenko would have been able to capitalise on his breaks of serve in the first set better, but strangely he had a hard time pulling away from the match. It was like whenever he had the opportunity to take a clear lead in the match, he had trouble stringing together points and kept letting Bolelli back in.
Bolelli remained in a neutral mindset the whole first set, sometimes hitting great shots and sometimes hitting awful shots but I never got a sense of momentum or a rise in confidence. When I watch him play, I feel his patterns of play are more based on instinct more than anything else, though he does like to hang in the backhand corner and run around to hit forehands. He doesn't strongly stick to that strategy in the same way that for example, Tommy Robredo does although for good reason because his backhand is a good shot as well.
The power that he can generate off both sides is particularly impressive. Looking at his physique, it reminds me somewhat of Nicolas Almagro, how they use a lot of their upper body strength to generate that pace, keeping their stance more upright than most other players. I can see why Bolelli sticks to playing a primarily attacking game, because when he's defending, it looks rather poor. Bolelli's mindset is to use attack as a form of defense. I think in a lot of cases, I actually see him hitting more aggressive shots when stretched further out wide, than when he's hitting a shot in the centre of the court.
In terms of court coverage, it's like there's a certain distance of the court he can cover across the court where he can still maintain his footwork and slide properly into the court. I'd say it's about the same distance as the width of the court between the two singles sidelines, and whenever he gets pulled outside of that, wider with angle then that's when he comes unstuck and tries to hit low percentage unlikely shots. When he's still within that strike zone, it's amazing the amount of power he can generate on the run. But unfortunately when it comes to hitting low percentage, improbable down-the-line running shots, he's also very prone to doing that.