Sunday, November 01, 2015

LEAGUE WATCH: Actually, don't watch.

It's a tennis player's dream to move to a place where the weather allows you to play as often as you can. You think: "What could be better? I can play all day!"

So one of the first things I did in Florida was to join a USTA mixed doubles team, and I was underwhelmed by the competition. The 8.0 matches felt like Allegheny 7.0-level skill, so naturally I wasn't very worried about anyone. But you know who else is underwhelming? Me.

I joined the women's 7.5 fall team and thought once again that it should be a cakewalk. These players have nothing I've never seen before, right? You should try telling that to my game, because all of a sudden, league tennis is like uncharted waters.

Take my last match. Now back in the day, I was used to playing my way into form during a match and improving as I went along. I'd shank balls all over the place in the first set and if I was playing with a new partner, I'd just tell them to give me a minute. Lately, though, I've been stuck in first gear.

Last night, while I laid awake thinking about how I should have gotten into lacrosse as a child, it occurred to me what the problem is. I've lost my swagger. See, back in the day, I had more swagger than game. I'd walk up to the service line late in a set and get real focused. The other night, I walked up to serve at 4-5 in the second set and I was so nervous that I briefly considered just throwing down the racquet and having a good Zvonareva-esque cry on the baseline. It was really that serious -- I just could not deal.

My game's not perfect, but I used to feel like I knew it and could trust it. I would get into a weird place during matches where I would rely heavily on instinct and the game just flowed for me. I never got rattled at losing the first set because I always thought I'd get stronger. Even after a loss in the old days, I always felt like I at least finished the match stronger than I had started. Now everything feels forced. I'm never fully relaxed anymore. I'm thinking about the mechanics of almost every shot I hit, especially the weaker shots in my game. I want my swagger back.

Probably the only way to get it back is to play a lot. That's much easier said than done, especially when you have to hand off 45-plus hours to the man every week. Maybe my game just needs to get adjusted to a different climate? Or my brain does? I have no idea. All I know is that I'm tired of playing poorly and I want to stop. Like I've always said, tennis is 99.4503827 percent mental, so whatever is happening concerns the hamster cage in my head. I mean, I can hit a thousand forehands in practice, but what's the point if I can't make myself hit them with authority while under pressure?

If you have any ideas about getting my head on straight again, I'm not too proud to beg. I'll take 'em. But make it quick, because I have another league match this week. #gulp

Monday, October 12, 2015

Vacation musings

Been very busy lately. The last week and change has been full of a daily regimen of laying at a beach, or a pool, or taking in island views. But something weird still ended up in my luggage for vacation:

And there have been some pro developments worth noting between my light afternoon hit and the hot tub. I know, rubbing this in is not classy at all. Which reminds me of my massage at noon:

1. I haven't seen the Rafael Nadal/Novak Djokovic China Open final yet, but I have seen the scoreline -- 6-2, 6-2. Yowsuh. Because of his recent struggles, Rafael Nadal is the subject of much speculation. Does he still have it? Can he still compete with the best? Is it finally time to consider a haircut? But his response to these trouncings he's getting from Djokovic will be interesting to see. It's not the first time Nadal has found himself struggling in a rivalry. For a couple years, he came up short to Roger Federer at Wimbledon especially, and he tweaked his game to change that. He might have to do a bit more than tweak in this situation, because Djokovic seems to be getting better and better. He is a fluke French Open loss away from holding all the Grand Slam cards for 2015. Of course, in the middle of a year, that's not an accomplishment that can be fully realized, but here we are. So what can Nadal do to reverse this? Let's ask Djokovic:
"I knew that he's going to make mistakes and he's going to give me shorter balls so I can dominate the rallies, which happened."
That from his post-match press conference, according to tennis writer Carole Bouchard. So can Nadal flatten out his shots? Is he going to man up that serve at all?

Oh, sorry. I was just asking the questions. I don't have the answer.
2. Serena Williams decided to shut it down for the year and everybody lost their mind. Me? It's like, "meh." Frankly, this nonsense about her being engaged to Drake is a bit more unsettling. I mean, he was on Degrassi, guys. Does this bother anyone else but me?!
3. However, whatever happened to all this talk of a shorter calendar for ATP and WTA tournaments? Is pushing back the Australian Open by a couple weeks supposed to make everything better? I just realized that even though it's October and there are still seven tournaments left, not including Shanghai, which starts this week. With Serena out of the WTA year-ending event, and other good players (Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, Garbine Mugaruza) pulling up lame, here's another question: Who wants to see a year-ending tournament without the players who made the regular season interesting?
I think I got this answer: No one, that's who.

Monday, September 21, 2015

To Roger and Serena, with "love"

Hey, guys:

Just wanted to say congrats to both of you on a great U.S. Open! Roger, your form was incredible throughout the tournament. If you think that tennis is waning in viewership and popularity, you should know that at least four people I've played against this week have tried the SABR return approach. No, none of them have done it with a 90 square inch racquet or against a serve over 50 mph. And Serena, coming into this tournament, you held all four majors at one time. Actually, of all the majors this year, your form looked the best here.
Alas, neither of you won the tournament, and that's led to you being a victim of your own success. The second the match was over, you both faced some tough questions that you shouldn't face because you are basically legendary. But you know how they say 'Love means nothing in tennis?' 
Anyway, I thought I'd offer you a few stock responses to commonly heard comments after your losses. Free of charge. Don't worry, it's no trouble at all. We'll start with Serena, because she's losing patience:

Question: "You don't seem happy." No, that's not a question. Variations of this theme: "Why did you leave so quickly after losing in the semifinals?" or "You're not saying much," or "Let's discuss how bad you feel about losing." This is unlikely, but in the event that someone actually gets to the root of these questions and finally says straight out: "Women aren't allowed to brood. How about you buck up and do a twirl for us?"
Your answer, should you choose to accept it: "I know you guys watch tennis for fun, but it's my career. I work at it, 40 plus hours a week, even when I don't want to. When you work that hard, you expect to be successful, and if you're not, it's not a great feeling. Maybe you take it better than I do when you fail at something. Sorry I'm not smiling. It doesn't mean I don't respect my opponent. I'm kinda pissed is all."

Question for Roger? Sadly, yes.

Question: So you lost again. Are you going to retire?
Your answer: Sure. I'm thinking about it. Let's face it -- I'm old. I made the final of the U.S. Open, and am one of the best players of my generation -- and of the game. I just beat the world no. 1 in a tournament a few weeks back, but what does that really mean? I'm not gonna lie -- I miss winning the titles, and clearly that's never going to happen for me again. I mean, I just don't have what it takes anymore. I was thinking of playing the Old Man Tennis Tour that Jim Courier's got going on. Why grind it out with Djokovic and Andy Murray when I can whup up on Pat Cash? It's working for Andy Roddick and Mark Phillippoussis. That doesn't look lopsided at all. So it's decided then? Let me just knock out this Davis Cup obligation, and I'll see you guys next year in Salt Lake City in the first PowerShares tournament!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

So ... about yesterday.

Just your average run-of-the-mill matches Friday at the U.S. Open. Couple thoughts on them:
1. OK, I expected an upset with Flavia Pennetta and Simona Halep, but geez. Halep said in her press conference she felt out of gas by the time she got to Pennetta, but she kinda looked out of gas against Sabine Lisicki. And she was lucky to get out the Victorial Azarenka tussle. You could say she had a tough draw. You could also say that if you're the No. 2 player in the world, you and your body has to be ready for that tough draw. Of course, Pennetta also took out the in-form Petra Kvitova in the quarters. Who knows. Strange things have happened at this tournament. Very strange things.
2. For example Novak Djokovic barely broke a sweat against defending champ Marin Cilic. Djokovic is like a buzz saw right now. Cilic didn't exactly luck out to get this far, but you know what they say. Sometimes, you take the bull by the horns, and sometimes the bull takes you by somewhere else. The other thing they also say is that Djokovic was destined for a dream final to face 
3. Roger Federer. If any match on Friday's docket seemed destined to go five sets, it was Federer's match against Stan Wawrinka. But Roger's really popular these days, and you don't just leave Bradley Cooper waiting backstage. Seriously, Federer looks vintage right now. When you come to a major talking about trick moves you're working on, and then bust that move out in the third game against a quality opponent in the semis, well, then. I will make one prediction about Sunday's final. You're not gonna see any SABR attacks. It's not about fun anymore. 
Well, that's all I got. Happy finals weekend, guys!

Kidding. Of course.
4. If you've played tennis long enough, what happened to Serena Williams yesterday in her semifinal loss to Roberta Vinci has happened to you, too, and your stakes were likely nowhere near as high. Serena had never lost a set to Vinci before Friday. At no point on any surface had Vinci gotten closer than four games in a set. Vinci doesn't have a SABR move -- she was just playing her game. (Although am I wrong in thinking she actually looks more fit than in recent years?) That game usually isn't a problem for Serena. But as I said, and as many others noted, there's one person who's going to prevent Serena from making history, and it sure as hell wasn't Roberta Vinci. And if anything weird was going to happen, it was going to happen in the place where she may or may not have threatened to assault a linesperson, the place where an ill-timed yell led to her getting derailed against Sam Stosur, the place where the blind umpire began overruling calls against Serena. Watching her begin to play not to lose is a familiar feeling for many of us, but it's unfortunate for her that it happened so close to the finish line. But we are talking about a woman who still at this moment is holding four major tournament titles at once. Limited time only, but you see the point. 
If you've played long enough, what happened to Roberta Vinci yesterday has also happened to you. You've been across the net from someone with much better tools, and many more accomplishments than you. You assess your skills.
Power? Nope.
Speed? Ahh ... nope.
Familiarity with the stage and situation? Oh, wait, ... no, no exactly, unless my girl Sara Errani's nearby.
But Vinci took her tools and went to work, and stayed on task while Serena was over there yelling "Yes, bitch!" (??!?) It is the mark of the underdog and that is what's great about sports. You know what's more likely to happen -- this is where you get rankings -- but no matter your reputation, you still have to go out there at get it. Today's women's final is merely a testament to the ones who went out there and got it.
It is also true-life anecdotal evidence about why you don't buy your tickets for the women's final in mid-August. 

Friday, September 11, 2015

Friday picks

I still can't decide if it's OK for us to actually live life normally on any Sept. 11. Every time I see things occurring on that date, it seems weird. I don't think anyone who was really around during that time will actually ever forget the lives lost or the general panic we felt on that day and the days that followed. The fact is, though, that we are still here and life still goes on, even under a different pall. Babies are born on Sept. 11. Others go to work on Sept. 11. People do good things for other people on Sept. 11. And, I guess, we play and watch tennis because life goes on, even if your heart is a bit more heavy today. Peace to all the survivors and families of victims today.
It is really going to be difficult to segue into tennis now, but awkwardly, that is what I will do, but it will be quick and painless.
Because I think at least one of these matches will be very short. It is really hard to see Roberta Vinci mounting much of a challenge to Serena Williams, who hopefully finally got some sleep. (Shout out to the tennis that Venus Williams has been playing lately. She still overpulls the trigger at key points, sacrificing her form in the process, but man, was she spanking that ball on Tuesday.) But Simona Halep against Flavia Pennetta could get interesting. Like, upset interesting.
The men? Yes, it is perfectly fine to salivate at the thought of a Novak Djokovic/Roger Federer final. But this won't be easy for either guy. Stan Wawrinka is looking pretty strong this tournament and Marin Cilic has already won it, so there is that small detail. Welp, better get going so I can reserve my spot on the couch ... for the mixed doubles final! Hingis/Paes v. Mattek-Sands/Querrey. Any other questions?

I got some things to say.

I never thought I'd be a person who was happy with a rain out during a Slam, but dammit, there's too much good tennis going on! How are you supposed to watch it, write about it and hopefully play a little bit yourself, along with other, more minor concerns, such as work and family obligations? So let's take a breath and catch up on what's happened in the last couple days, and look at what's on deck as long as there are no more monsoons in New York ... in another post.
But first, it's not often that tennis collides with Big World Issues, but it did this week when James Blake, a Harvard grad and a pretty decent tennis player in his time, was tackled by police while he was standing outside his hotel. There are a couple of things about this incident I would like to discuss:
1. "Whoa," you might have been thinking when you first heard this. "That other guy must have done something really bad to get straight-up tackled on the street." If James Blake had been the guy the police were looking for, he would have been guilty of buying shoes with a stolen credit card. Which is a crime, yes, but it doesn't sound like there's a weapon involved ... so why are you showing physical force on a guy just standing there? Well, having grown up in New York, I have a theory. If you grew up in New York when I did, there are names you know, such as Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo (look them up). The NYPD has a reputation for going a bit overboard and honestly, it's a good thing this didn't get worse. The record shows that it definitely could have.
2.  I really like how everyone's crediting Blake for handling this situation so well. Gah -- the sarcasm font doesn't work very well on this keyboard. He said what he had to say. Some people are saying he didn't say enough. He really didn't have to say anything, but he did, and he really needed to. He was direct and honest and then he was done with it. But all of this "handling this with grace" or "not doing enough" talk is putting the onus on the victim, as though if he had gone on a Twitter rant about it, he wouldn't have been justified. James Blake handled this the way you would expect James Blake to handle this, and he didn't take leave of himself or his values to do that. Now, if this had happened to Lleyton Hewitt or Nick Kyrgios, well, let's just say you would have had a different pony show.
3. This wasn't necessarily a race thing for me because I think the police would have sadly done this to anybody. But how about this nonsense? I mean, really? Putting the other suspect's picture out there is just saying in effect, "Come on, look how much alike they are! You would have done it, too!" But here's the two-headed kicker: (a) they really don't look that much alike. Both are darker skinned and are smiling ... (b) the guy on the right is also not the right guy. Finally, though Blake got an apology from police commissioner William Bratton. But that even brings up another question:
4. Here's a scary thought: We heard about this one because Blake is kind of a big deal. How often does this happen? And are you OK with that happening to every SUSPECT in a crime? Do they get public apologies? Private apologies?

Monday, September 07, 2015

Draw demolition derby

It's the editor in me. I can't help pointing out the (multiple and numerous) errors, even in my own draw.
But who cares? This tournament has been insane in the best ways. Even in a match I could barely bring myself to care about offers up a woman doing a between-the-legs shot that worked! (Yes, I stayed up until 1 a.m. to watch a match I did not care about. smh)
Anyway, a look at some of the highlights of what's coming up today -- dare I say right now:
Victoria Azarenka v. Vavara Lepchenko: I think we all know that the player who has the best chance to beat Serena here is Azarenka. She also keeps it classy at all times when "consulting" with umpires. I don't want to say Lepchenko has no chance at all, so I won't say anything else.
Stan Wawrinka v. Donald Young: In some ways, Stan is a much different player than he was when Young managed to beat him in 2011. He's got majors and he's beaten the best in the world on the big stages. He also seems to think this improved play gives him license to wear some truly horrible clothing throughout the year. In other ways, he's not so different (Wimbledon 2015, where he just kinda went 'meh' in the quarters against Richard Gasquet and let him back in the match). Young is also playing some inspired tennis right now. He hasn't done it yet against the elite. Gilles Simon is a pretty good win, but it doesn't spell an upset here. I'm going with Stan.
John Isner v. Roger Federer: I haven't seen a Federer match yet, but have heard so much about this SABR attack. I like how Roger is now just trying to keep himself amused by coming up with new tactics, just for kicks. Roger, sneak attack or no.
Sabine Lisicki v. Simona Halep: Halep, although she hasn't had a real solid Grand Slam year, and she is susceptible to an upset. Oh did anyone by chance see her mixed dubs match last night, when he ripped a forehand past Nenad Zimonjic for match point. That's very boss-like. Very boss-like indeed.
Tomas Berdych v. Gasquet: I don't know, but nobody bother me while this match is on.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

What's in an underdog?

Before we talk about Fabio Fognini, Petra Cetkovska and Bethanie Mattek-Sands -- NIGHT TENNIS AT THE OPEN, Y'ALL! It is, hands-down, the best part of any Slam. You've got general rowdiness, dancing fans, alcohol, two opponents slugging away under the lights and celebrities all happening at the same time in the same place and if the tennis is good, this is all happening usually waaaay after midnight. For the people who think that tennis is boring and has no personality, you can step off.
Segue: HolyhellRafaNadalandFabioFognini! That was just a ridiculous display of tennis. There are far too many highlights to rehash, but two quick things:
1. Everyone's going to say that this is the proof that Nadal is over. Yeah, maybe he took his foot off the pedal just a bit when he was up in the third -- maybe thinking he'd conserve his energies for the next match. But he really was playing great tennis throughout the night. He was fast, his groundstrokes were imposing and accurate, his defensive and offensive game was on fleek, and plus his ass looked great in those shorts. Maybe on another day, with another opponent, that match would have been one-sided. So he's still got game. But
2. This guy. Fognini has a bit of a reputation for sometimes not putting forth his best effort at all times. He also has a reputation for being a hothead, so maybe it was the night atmosphere that fueled him. Because there he was, playing against one of the best in the world, smacking winners all over the place, and he almost never looked off-balance in doing this. Maybe Nadal needs to flatten out his ball a bit, or maybe Fognini just knows him too well.  Either way, it takes a lot to keep yourself composed in a situation like this, and Fognini did it.
Fabio Fognini is 28 years old. In tennis years, that's like, 46. Petra Cetkovska, who took out Caroline Wozniacki in another night-tennis thriller, is 30. So, 48. Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who had better never retire, is also 30. How old are you? How's your career going? Ever think that you're past the age to do what you always wanted to do, that you missed something? Have you ever said to yourself, "Gah, I coulda been a contender if it weren't for XXXXX?" Have you ever looked at your contemporaries and wondered why they are so much more advanced than you? You don't need to answer any of that, especially not to me, but this is why watching underdogs come out on top is so fulfilling. It's like lower-case everyman taking on Superman. Of course they don't have a shot. Right? Did anyone see that wide-eyed look in Cetkovska's eyes the other night when Wozniacki was staging her comeback? If you did, you know that feeling -- "You're going to let it slip away again, aren't you?" And that is not just a tennis feeling. That's a life thing, dawg. And watching the physical battle on any athletic stage, and actually seeing someone overcome it in public to seize victory is empowering and awe-inspiring. Not everyone can take that ball of nerves and just swallow it. There's something in that for all of us, something very big-picture that you can take away from the underdogs at the Open this year.
It's also just great entertainment and we could leave it right there. Whichever.