Thursday, September 22, 2016

LEAGUE WATCH: Back on track?

As I've noted here a few times, I've been struggling lately with my game, specifically with confidence. Because no one has come forward with any magic potion to restore my swagger, I've been forced to come up with answers on my own. At the time of the last League Watch, I had lost four USTA matches in a row. (If you include last season, it gets much worse.) Since then, I've gone 2-1, with another league set to start tonight. So not bad. My inner Scrappy Doo is plaintively whining -- a good sign. I've not discovered some special cure-all for my game, but I'm focusing on a couple of things that might help you if you're having some issues, such as:

1. Play more tennis. This sounds very easy, but if you have a high-demand job and a family by chance, it is very for tennis to lose a spot on your schedule when things get tight. That happens, sure, but if you are forsaking tennis for your job, remember this: When was the last time your job served you out of trouble in a tiebreaker? Exactly. Making time to hit with someone at least once a week is a small change for me, but has given me the freedom to work on my shots and has paid dividends already. Previously, I had been playing one day a week -- my league match. This is a bad plan.
2. Pick a target. This is embarrassing to admit, but in my recent bad patch, I was so worried about hitting the ball that I had forgotten to focus on where I wanted to hit the ball. This is Tennis 101, and I used to think I was fairly good at this. It took a practice set with my husband to remind me that if I wanted to win a point, I needed to get after that dodgy backhand of his. Choosing to focus your energies on where to hit in the court helped me to stop worrying so much about my swing (which is perfect anyway, amirite? Trust me, I'm right).
3. Just settle down and have a good time. This is a First World Problem you have. If you're not having fun playing tennis, don't play. I was not having fun, mostly because I was losing and not playing well. So there are a couple of ways to solve this problem. You can stop playing tennis or you can improve your game so you can resume having a good time on the courts.

D'oh! I gotta get some new grips on my racquets for tonight. I guess the only thing left is to Keep Calm and Get Scrappy.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Therapy with TWA: Is 3 better than 5?

Because I cannot contain my nervous energy during high octane matches, like the U.S. Open men's final, I consulted the tennis-mad population on Twitter to vent/discuss/analyze/discuss fuchsia. Ben Rothenberg, a tennis writer for the New York Times (nope. Not at all jealous. Not one bit.) began tweeting out his support for men playing best-of-three set matches at all times. He's pretty consistent -- he's been ringing this bell all year round. The idea is that playing less tennis can help ensure a quality match and protect the health of the players. It's generated some traction, because many tournaments outside of the Slams have a best-of-three format. 
Who wouldn't want tennis players to have fewer injuries and play high-quality matches late into a major tournament? I want that! And as much as I trend towards bucking most stuffy tradition, I can't do it here. Most of it is sheer selfishness. I want to see heavyweights like Stan Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic play tennis for five sets. Hell, I'd like to see a five-set match between Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka. 
That's the other wing of this best-of-three argument -- that the women don't have to do it. We're wading into the territory of a previous therapy session, so I'll just say that yes, female professional players should be able to do best-of-five easy, given that current matches, especially early rounds, only last about an hour. 
Rothenberg is right about one thing, though -- tennis players are having a hard time holding up physically. Just ask Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, etc., etc., etc. But what really gets me about this whole debate is that if you want to ensure quality matches and healthy players, you don't need to alter match formats. You need to alter the tennis season. Because it's too damn long! 
There are tournaments all year round. If you are an up-and-comer, you play these tournaments to improve your ranking. Then you go into majors running on fumes. If you are a top-lever professional, you know you have to play the Slams. Then there are the top-tier events, such as Miami, Indian Wells, Rome, that you get fined for missing. The first Slam of the year is in late January. The year-ending championships are in November. Sure, you're training in between, but where's the down time? When do you get to recover, safe in the knowledge that you can also maintain your ranking?
Let us consider the schedule of newly crowned U.S. Open champ Wawrinka. What's he been up to this year? Glad you asked because this handy-dandy table can tell us.
Stan started his season the first week in January and has played at least one tournament a month since. Fifty-one matches, and it's only September. You might argue that his body seems OK with this -- he just won the U.S. Open. But look at the inconsistency. He wins Chennai and loses early in the Australian Open (by his standards) in the fourth round.
And then there's Djokovic, the world No. 1. If you're world No. 1, you gotta hit the courts to keep that ranking. And he's been faithful -- 62 matches to date. Unless he shuts it down due to injury, there will be more because it's only September, everybody.
What's the answer? Even to a tennis junkie, it's obvious that the season needs to be shorter. How do you do that without pissing off all the rich people who pay for these tournaments and want to make that paper? Well, that's the hard part, and the part for which I have no answer.
But you know who does have an answer, or even a say? Tennis players. Remember back in the day when the doubles players sued the ATP? I think a legal fight might be the only thing that causes the tennis powers that be to stop and consider that a season that is essentially year-round is a bad idea.
So the best-of-five v. best-of-three debate is a premature one. First, take care of the larger issue at hand.

That's the end of your therapy session and that'll be $75. I accept PayPal.

Monday, September 12, 2016

U.S. Open: Over and out

Shoulda, woulda, coulda.
Roger Federer couldn't go to the U.S. Open this year. Rafael Nadal should have beaten Lucas Pouille, right? Andy Murray would have made the semis if it weren't for Kei Nishikori. What's left for men's tennis, the casual fan might have asked. Can it survive?
Yes, it turns out. The men's final between Novak Djokovic (remember that name, MLB announcer guy. I think he's going to be somebody one day) and Stan Wawrinka lived up to the hype of such a big stage, even if most of us thought that one of those names would have been Murray. The match ended up being a masterclass in fearless tennis and clean ball striking. And I think we can add Wawrinka to the list of things that were built to last. He was almost ousted from the tournament in the third round, and left no match under the eight-hour mark. I'm sure that has to be right. Wawrinka went into a match against an opponent who had three walkover/retirement wins, and at the end of the day it sure wasn't Wawrinka calling for the trainer. And he did all of this wearing fuchsia. Now that is some tennis with attitude, people.
The most important takeaway from this match, though, is that men's tennis is going to be just fine. American men's tennis? Well, we're going to need to discuss that one at a later date.
OK, everyone. Back to your regular sleep patterns. Until Australia, that is.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

U.S. Open: Greatly exaggerated

Yes, I know Angelique Kerber is the new world No. 1 and the new U.S. Open champion. It still bugs me a little, but I think I realize why.

(Who hits a forehand like that?)
And this.

Also this.

Kerber wins ugly. It definitely isn't pretty. But she won the point in these freeze frames. No effortless power on one or both wings. No shut-it-down serve to get out a tight spot. (That lefty swinger out wide is not bad, though. But it's ugly. Just saying.) Commentators keep going on about Kerber and Agz Radwanska's ability to hit a tennis ball almost in a sitting position. That baffles me. Do they teach that in tennis class now? That's ugly and there's a more economic way to blunt power and keep yourself in a point, a fact that former professionals ought to be aware of. Hi!
Here's my coping problem. I want my world number ones to be dominant and indisputable. Not invincible, but able to withstand an attack. Like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Steffi Graf, or even early Martina Hingis. Justine Henin. Like Serena Williams, who, despite her age is still a No. 1 contender for maybe the next couple of years in my book. She's still a force. You can discard anyone who has such a deep bag of tricks, plus sheer power.
Is Kerber a force? No. Can she consistently withstand various challengers? Sure, she edged Karolina Pliskova yesterday, but could she do that again next month?
The work ethic is why you can't argue with Kerber's new ranking. She wins ugly. But she wins. She does this because she works hard. Here's a portion of a story from the WTA website about what Andrea Petkovic had to say about Kerber in 2011:

Fifteen of 18 matches lost. There aren't a lot of pro players that could survive that type of drought with their confidence anywhere in shouting distance. What kind of fortitude must it take to come out and take beating after beating before coming out of that tailspin? These paragraphs right here says all that you need to know about why Kerber is the highest-ranked player in the world now.
And yet, she doesn't excite me about the future of women's tennis. Sorry -- she just doesn't. Kerber is post-Serena, but she's 28. There's the likes of Pliskova and Garbine Muguruza waiting in the wings. Some players have a work ethic and ridiculous natural talent.
At best, I would consider Kerber a stopgap No. 1, between Serena and either Serena again or the next dominant player. She isn't likely to have a long reign, or add the spark that women's tennis desperately needs right now outside of Germany. (Kerber v. Pliskova was a great final, but I'd watch a men's match any day still.)
So to dramatically appropriate a line from "The Dark Knight," Kerber isn't the world No. 1 that we need right now. 
But she's the No. 1 she deserves.

Friday, September 09, 2016

U.S. Open 2016: The future is ... now?

Look. Don't play the injury card. Worse yet, tell your coach not to play the injury card. Tell him to not speak of it ever. (OK, maybe for the tell-all at the end of your career) You're out there, aren't you?
I'm not saying Serena Williams wasn't really injured throughout a good chunk of this tournament. Doesn't make much sense to lie about something like that. But that is straight-up whack to bring that up after a huge upset against an inspired Karolina Pliskova (or any other player) who just played her ass off. Just don't. I remember when Justine Henin pulled that nonsense when Amelie Mauresmo beat her to win Wimbledon back in the day, and it was just as weak then. You lost. It's fine, it really is. Just move on. Don't try to asterisk your opponent's win.
OK. Got that off my chest. Let's move on.
One of the most impressive things about Pliskova's win is that she struggled with her nerves and somehow overcame them. It was pretty obvious -- all those double-faults she tossed up at key moments was a good indication. But then she swallowed it and hit her way through it. That type of mental game is the difference between her and someone like Petra Kvitova or Garbine Muguruza. And I kinda think she's going to win the U.S. Open.
That's not shade on Angelique Kerber, who made me revise my opinion of her game a bit. I thought she and Caroline Wozniacki would have a much closer match because neither of them have any big weapons that will win them easy points. What they do both have is stamina and the ability to run down any ball, which they did. But Kerber was able to unfurl that forehand down the line a bit more than Wozniacki did with her backhand (and she waited until she was down in the second set to start busting that out for some reason).
Kerber's the new world No. 1, and most of me still finds that a little fluke-y. (Nope, not a word. Already checked.) But you cannot deny that woman's work ethic. She works her ass off on the tennis court and although I still wonder if she can maintain the top ranking until, say, mid-2017, she does deserve it now.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

U.S. Open: One long night

True confession time: Shortly after sending this tweet

I remember nothing else. I wouldn't call it falling asleep as much as losing consciousness, but I did not ride and/or die. I still don't know what happened between Stan Wawrinka and Juan Martin del Potro. No spoilers! Kidding. I'm sure I'll find out momentarily when I check out today's schedule.
What I do remember is watching Serena Williams take out Simona Halep under circumstances we've seen before, and it doesn't always go her way. There she was, cruising, and then suddenly in the second set, she was not cruising. Big ups to Halep for offering a stiff challenge in that set. Now, social media went a little nuts last night after a commentator said Halep smiled too much after winning the second set. It's not the smiling that lost her the match, but she obviously let up off the gas after the second set, as though it was more than she expected just winning a set. That is the head thing I'm talking about. Halep obviously showed she can hang with Serena, physically. Mentally, too, for a set. You need two sets, though.
There was one minor development during the day session. Andy Murray got beat! By Kei Nishikori! The guy I said would win majors, just not now! I believe I might have been mistaken. Still awaiting a block of time to watch this one, so I can't say much but !!
Alrighty. Women's semis tonight. Serena and Karolina Pliskova. Hmmmmm. This is tricky because Pliskova has a great serve. Serena is a pretty good returner, though. Still, Serena is showing that she can dig deep in this tournament, even in tight spots, so I'll give her a 60 percent chance of winning. Pliskova clearly also has balls of steel (see Williams, Venus, fourth round, U.S. Open 2016). I think it'll be a great match.
I'm not gonna call Caroline Wozniacki and Angelique Kerber. Sometimes, you just have to pop some popcorn and watch some tennis and hope they're done by midnight because I'm clearly now an old lady who can't stay up much past the ending of The Tonight Show. Sigh.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

U.S. Open: Well, that tennis was (not) special

You got all amped after you saw the Rafael Nadal and Venus Williams matches over the weekend, right? You were probably like, "It just can't get any better than this! We got Lucas Pouille, Gael Monfils, Angelique Kerber, Roberta Vinci, Novak Djokovic and Jo-Jo Tsonga! This is gonna be ...
... the biggest tennis letdown ever. Here's hoping Vinci, Tsonga and Ana Sevastova heal up, which is most important. Second most important is griping about such a balloon-popper of a tennis day at the U.S. Open. Obviously, it's not the fault of the players that their bodies cannot hold up consistently over a 17 1/2-month season. I'm gonna take the higher road here and not rant about the silliness of how the tennis season is set up, but there is likely a TWA therapy session coming up on this very topic.
Let's instead take a look at what's ahead, and hope for better days and also hope that all banana peels are promptly picked up in the players' quarters. The last thing we need is another injury.
Ana Konjuh and Karolina Pliskova: A TV commentator pointed out that you don't see a lot of young guns advancing deep into tournaments anymore, so Konjuh is a complete anomaly right now. Pliskova's had a good summer, and at 24, she's basically a spring chicken compared to just about anyone in the top 10. I'd give the nod to experience, but Konjuh seems to offer more variety in her game, which can defuse power well. So I'm going to live on the edge here and pick no one. (See what I did there?)
Kei Nishikori v. Andy Murray: Way back in the day, I predicted that Murray would win majors. It took a lot longer than many people thought, but here he is, a favorite to win the tournament, even as the second seed. I believe Nishikori also has the game to win majors, and as with Murray, it's going to take a little longer than most people think. Nishikori has been impressive, especially in handling Ivo Karlovic's serve in the previous round. But Murray's on a different level right now and he'd have to take quite the dip for Nishikori to even pick up a set here.
We got Serena Williams v. Simona Halep: I'm going Serena unless some emotional self-sabotage takes place during this match. Everyone's talking about how great Halep's playing right now. I don't see anything different. She's always had a solid game. The problem is her head, and if she really believes she can beat Serena, well, then, we have a problem. I don't think she has the weaponry, so this one is up to Serena.
Oh my god Stan Wawrinka and Juan Martin del Potro: I want you two to drop and give me five sets and a tiebreaker, stat!