Facundo Bagnis vs. Pablo Cuevas, a live blog
This needs no introduction.
MATCH START: Pablo Cuevas beat Rafael Nadal on clay once. This was in the semifinals of the 2016 Rio Open, back when Nadal was washed up and Barack Obama was still president. The 2016 Rio Open was Cuevas' biggest career title and the height of "Cuevas-Mania", an entirely invented nickname for the multitudes of Uruguayan tennis fans who could celebrate their native son.
He's not so good now. He's playing Facundo Bagnis in the first round of the Córdoba Open in Argentina, a weak 250 in the Golden Swing of clay tournaments that South America hosts every winter. Pablo Cuevas is 5-0 against Bagnis, only dropping one set in those wins. It's one of the most lopsided matchups in the South American clay court universe. They have only met in clay tournaments in South America, including three straight meetings in Sao Paulo and one 6-2, 6-0 demolition in Rio.
These vestigial clay events are traditionally the most nonsensical events on the tennis calendar–it comes while the rest of the tour is on the random European indoor hard court mini-season or prepping for the Sunshine double in North America. You can generally expect one or two completely absurd results, like Victor Estrella Burgos winning infinite numbers of titles in Quito or Alexandr Dolgopolov defeating Kei Nishikori in the 2017 Buenos Aires final. And yet Dominic Thiem and I love them. I generally find clay court tennis to be extremely underrated in general by the Anglo-American love affair with the serve. If you want to see truly wide open, random, and lovably bad tennis, just watch the Golden Swing. It's like MACtion, but for tennis fans.
South American players and European clay grinders like Marco Cecchinato care very deeply about the Golden Swing, even if Acapulco made the switch to hard to better reflect tennis realities and Quito recently ran out of money. Quito running out of money, incidentally, has caused the creation of this Córdoba Open, held in the large Argentine city of Córdoba. Argentina has a wide selection of Futures, Challengers and now 250 tournaments to offer its more obscure players like Juan Ignacio Londero, Guido Andreozzi and Federico Delbonis.
Argentina is one of those truly great sporting nations, even if they occasionally lean toward insanity and stunning disappointment as much as they lean toward greatness. This is no better exemplified by Argentina's recent big stars, David Nalbandian (insanity) and Juan Martín Del Potro (disappointment). They have doubtless inspired a generation of Argentine clay court mainstays though, and they are all going to be in Córdoba and Buenos Aires next week.
One of those grinders is Facundo Bagnis, which my computer keep autocorrecting to Fecund Bangs as if he's an extremely fertile sow rather than a lefty with an inconsistent serve, inconsistent forehand, inconsistent backhand and inconsistent volleys. The only thing that is consistent about his game is that he isn't that good. He comes into this tournament ranked No. 149 in the world after peaking at No. 55 in 2016, just after Donald Trump was elected president.
Bagnis and Cuevas exchange quick holds to start the match, but Bagnis runs into immediate trouble in the third game. After blowing a 40-30 point, Bagnis surrenders his serve and allows Cuevas to take and consolidate the break. Before long it's 5-4 and Cuevas is serving for the set. Cuevas has lost three service points in the match thus far. In singles on hardcourt, Cuevas' serve is hardly a weapon. But on clay, where placement is everything, Cuevas can really bring it. Before long, he's up 30-15. But the troubles that have turned Pablo Cuevas into a very mediocre tennis player are still visible. His one-handed backhand is spasmodic and no longer usable as an offensive shot. He runs around it a lot to get to his forehand, which can still find the right angles, but does not scare anyone.
Unfortunately for Argentine fans everywhere, Fecund is unable to capitalize, spraying two unforced errors and to lose the set 6-4. Bagnis is a tactical blockhead. His primary strategy is "get the ball back and then try to hit a winner when I'm out of position" which is the opposite of how you are supposed to play tennis when you are a rather stocky six feet and can't move well. His default play is "central forehand back into Cuevas' hitting zone." This backwards style means that he ends the first set with 3 winners and 19 unforced errors. Nice. That's really good, actually.
SECOND SET: The second point of the second set features an intervention from the chair as Cuevas disputes a ball mark. Clay court tennis famously does not feature Hawkeye or any electronic line-calling. The accuracy rate on the surface is apparently not worth the trouble. That leads to a lot of gesticulating and frustration on clay courts around Europe and South America.
It should be noted that the side court of the Córdoba Open, which we are watching in lieu of commercials, is named the Estadio Mario Kempes, after the striker who led the Argentine soccer team to victory in the 1978 World Cup. Pretty much anything athletic in Kempes' home region of Córdoba must mention him in some way, even if he is mostly unknown even by soccer nerd standards in the States. This has nothing to do with tennis.
Once again in the third game of the set, Bagnis has imploded on serve. He hits himself into a 0-40 hole and then leaves a makable volley on a high, looping ball that lands just on the baseline. This is a good metaphor for the digital journalism industry, a land of insanely bad misjudgments that still look like they are going to work until they catastrophically do not.
It occurs to me that I desperately want to watch Bagnis play Rafael Nadal. I want to watch Nadal at the peak of his powers eviscerate him. The best I can find is, once again, 2016, when they played in the first round of the French Open. Nadal won 6-3, 6-0, 6-3.
Still, this is almost disappointing. Yes, there's a bagel, but Nadal Nadal was at 60% in this tournament, and he retired from the event before the second week. I want something like Nadal's 6-0, 6-1, 6-0 win over Basilashvili in 2016. Ah well. Fecund Bangs night never make the French Open again, but a 6-0, 6-1 thrashing in the first round of Barcelona would suffice.
Cuevas wins the match behind his janky but effective serve. Fecund Bangs continues to play like he's 5-foot-8 while also having a massive, Del Potro-esque forehand. He has neither of those things, and he ends the match with a staggering 39 unforced errors to 7 winners. Sometimes Bagnis looks at his camp with a puzzled expression, as if he doesn't understand how he hit a backhand that landed two feet behind the baseline. There's definitely potential here if Bagnis decides to play within the lines, play with decent tactics, serve and volley more, or learn how to hit a flat forehand. If not, he can only hope to make the top 60 again if he once again gets lucky in a big tournament.
Cuevas, on the other hand, has spent the last year losing consistently at every level to just about anyone you can imagine. He retains his place in the top 100 by virtue of his deep runs in last year's Golden Swing (quarters in Rio, semis in Sao Paulo). This is and the annual Montevideo Challenger in his beloved Ecuador are Pablo Cuevas' Super Bowl, every year. Fecund Bangs doesn't even stand a chance.