Friday, December 29, 2006

Wacky coach-player pairings

Jimmy Connors will travel with Andy Roddick nearly full-time next year. The improvement and fire in Roddick's shows that it turned out to be a good idea. So... which pro players today would benefit from the advice of a former player? Let's find out.

Marat Safin/Pete Sampras
Why?: Safin did take out Pete Sampras to win the U.S. Open in 2000, but his results have been inconsistent at best. He has been known to party quite a bit, and let's face it: he is the definition of "ladies' man". Pete would bring a championship mentality to the party. This is the guy who played through finding out his coach was ill and also managed to puke up his pre-match meal and still beat Alex Corretja. Match made in heaven.
What the first session would be like: Marat walks in with three half-dressed chicks, who sit on the courtside bench and titter every time he hits the ball. Pete's talking.
"OK, Marit, the first thing we need to do with you is ..."
"Hey, is Marat, all right. You still can't get my name right!"
"Sorry. Marat. Anyway, you've got a great game, but you get distracted way too easily ... Hey, Marat, are you listening to me?
Marat is not, unfortunately. One of his girlfriends has just bent forward.
"That's it," Pete says. They're outta here!"
How long it'd last: That was it. Marat needs his cheerleaders.
The second session: No. Seriously. That's it.

Maria Sharapova/Billie Jean King
Why?: Oh, she can grip it and rip it. But can Maria Sharapova add variety to her game? The former Slam winner, world No. 1, and Fed Cup captain says yes.
The first session: Billie starts Sharapova at the net, and is perplexed when Maria begins taking full swings.
"Whoa, sweetie," King says. "This is where you volley."
Maria looks at her quizzically, then at her father, seated courtside. He uses hand signals to tell her to speak.
"How do you do that?"
Billie shows her a classic volley, and Sharapova seems to enjoy it. But on the fifth ball, she can't help herself, and takes a roundhouse swing.
Billie smiles patiently and backs her up to baseline. "We're gonna try some slice backhands."
"But I can hit a lefty forehand!" Maria beams.
"That's nice, honey, but sometimes you want to change the pace on a ball, you know?"
Maria looks again to her father. He, too, seems confused.
How long it'd last:
The second session:

Elena Dementieva/Goran Ivanesevic
Why?: Duh.
What the first session would be like: Elena's warming up, hitting sizzling groundstrokes. After about five minutes of this, Goran speaks up.
"What you doing?"
"Hitting. Is that OK?"
"Too much. In my day, I hit serve, volley, maybe two. This why your game so bad."
"Fine then. I need to work on my serve."
"Really. I had no idea."
Goran watches her slice her serve weakly over the net. "What is that?"
"My serve. I had an injury a few years ago, and ..."
"You injured now?"
"No, I just ..."
"Hit the ball, then."
How long it'd last: This is long term, baby. She'll hate him, but hey, she'll squeeze out at least one major.
The second session: "Actually, that groundstroke thing look like fun. How you do it?" Goran inquires.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Lindsay Davenport out for nine months

Lindsay Davenport, who's been on the fence about whether she'll retire, has allowed biology to make her decision. The three-time Slam winner is pregnant with her first child, due in early summer.
"I hate the word 'retirement' but this season was such a struggle physically for me and I can't imagine playing again," the 30-year-old told Davenport says farewell to a fine career that has seen her rise to No. 1 in singles and doubles. She holds 88 singles and doubles titles and comes away with more than $21 million in earnings over the years.
Yes, it's been a fine career for Davenport, but you just can't help but think how much better it could have been. She is one of the cleanest ball-strikers in women's tennis, and she has a great, reliable serve. All the technical tools were there for Lindsay. If her head game had been more solid, we could be talking about someone with six or seven Slams to her name.
But I'll miss the only American woman left with a chance at top 10. Even with the injuries, the slight underachievements, you could still bet on her being part of the late stages of just about any tournament she entered. Try to think of one other American female who fits that description.
One last thing: Anyone else suspicious about the timing of this kid? If she were to return in 2007, it'd be just in time for Wimbledon, and oddly, just missing the French Open. Man. Some people will do anything to get out of the dirt.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Class o' 2006

It was a fair to middling year for pro tennis. Pluses: Amelie Mauresmo growing some balls, James Blake playing up to his potential, tennis officials finally owning that the season is too long. Minuses: Andre Agassi retiring, (moo!), Martina Navratilova retiring (yeah right) Justine Henin-Hardenne's crying game, the wading pool that is the depth of women's tennis, Roger Federer hogging all the titles. Sorry, but he's taking the suspense out of every tournament he enters.
As our favorite pros graduate to ... next year, I guess, a look at the yearbook:

Most likely to succeed: Roger Federer
Most likely to succeed, not including Roger Federer: Rafael Nadal? Hmm. He finishes his year struggling with an abdominal injury, and with 2 losses to Fed, and another to Jimmie Blake. But his game gives most players, including Rog, fits. You don't want to take too much from end-of-year stats though, and it seems after Wimbledon, the year caught up with Nadal. Which is what seemed have to happened to Rafa last year. Remember? He won the French, and tumbled in the first week at Wimbledon and Flushing Meadow. Certainly, he's made some incredible strides this year. By far, his most impressive feat was making the Wimbledon final. He's going to get better, too, so look for a complete year for Rafa in 2007, and (gasp!) another Grand Slam that is not the French.
Least likely to succeed: This hurts, but I'm going with David Nalbandian. I love his game. At his best, he shows steadiness, variety and is capable of beating down his opponent. At his worst: Whiny. Slumped shoulders. Mental weakness. Those 'worsts' are worst than his 'bests.' He's been on the cusp for a couple of years now, and the closest he's come is taking the year-end championships in 2005. Impressive, yes, but let's be fair. Everyone's thinking "Caribbean vacation" when they get to Shanghai. Anyway, for someone with such a strong game, he possesses a surprising lack of consistency and confidence. Of course, if he can pull Argentina out of its Davis Cup hole this weekend, that could serve as a boon.
Most likely to start the year with a bang, er, Slam: Andy Roddick. He gave Federer a run for his money in Shanghai, and a couple more months with Jimmy Connors in his ear is only going to help.
Most improved player:James Blake. Everyone knows his comeback story. And most would have continued to laud Blake had he pretty much hovered where he was last fall. This year, though, he left mediocrity behind, and managed to fill the American void at the top of men's tennis. While Andy Roddick was coming around to the fact that all the naysayers were right, Blake was still improving. The fact that he can beat Nadal, Roddick, Nalbandian and Safin puts him right up there now with the real contenders, who come to the majors with a swagger. Can he get closer to Federer next year?
Most likely to skip a grade: Looks like the British investment in Andy Murray's gonna pay off real soon. Brad Gilbert led his charge on a summer tear, beating Roddick on his home court and Federer in the summer. Assuming he doesn't suffer from Big-Head Syndrome (BHS), he may break deep into the second week of a major.
OK, there's something else bothering me. Why do all the British players have such bad teeth? What the hell, Henman and Murray (who's really Scottish, but which I suppose is close enough)? And what the hell, Britain (and Scotland)? Why won't these players take full advantage of their dental bennies? Fight Bad Teeth Syndrome (BTS)!
Worst dressed: Nadal. Yes, the capris are cool. But there's not a damn thing sexy about pulling wedges out of your ass after every point.
Valedictorian:Andre Agassi. (Cue the Pomp and
Circumstance music) He started pro tennis school with a bleached mane and denim shorts. He finished a "super-senior" with 8 Grand Slams, no hair whatsoever, and jewelry made by his kids. How geeky. Yeah, right. Agassi graduates with a summa cum laude degree and a permanent place in sports history, as one of the best bad-boys, underdogs, frontrunners and foils to fellow legends of the game. (Pete Sampras, Pat Rafter) Who knows what Andre will do with his advanced degree? Teach children? Check. Mentor up-and-comers? Check. Kick his wife's ass in singles? Well, a man can dream. (Kill "Pomp and Circumstance" music now)

Most likely to succeed: Who the heck knows? The women's game has been unpredictable this year, what with injuries and all. I still ask myself, despite the Vaidisovas, Petrovas and Jankovices out there, what would happen if everyone was fit? Utopia: Lindsay Davenport, the Williams sisters, Mauresmo, the Belgians, the Russians, Hingis, and hell, throw in a Capriati -- all in one tournament, preferably a major. What we have now: Mauresmo, Hingis, Sharapova, and no drama, no rivalries, matches that take 17 minutes to play, and, oh, is that Roger Federer playing Dominic Hrbaty? Hey, let's see that! Yeah. That bad.
Least likely to succeed: Kim Clijsters. You don't announce your retirement two years in advance and expect folks to let you roll on them as you pursue your Grand Slam.
Most improved player:Martina Hingis. Let's pay tribute to some hard work. In a time where players get hurt and return with more 'bone density,' (ahem)
here's someone who retired for almost three years. Hingis, let's not forget, started the year ranked outside the top 1000. By the Australian, she was at 349. Now, No. 7 in the world. That, my friends, is what you call a comeback.
Of course, Virginie Razzano taking Hingis to the woodshed at the U.S. Open remains filed in the "UFO Sightings, and the time Agassi beat Baghdatis at the U.S. Open" file.
Least improved player: Not only hasn't she improved, but Elena Dementieva has only managed to stay in the top 10 because of the lack of depth in the game right now. Okay. So what if you can be a steady top-tenner if you have the worst serve in the history of tennis, including the times when old heads were playing with wood racquets? I felt sorry for her a few years back, when she cried during the French Open final, "I hate my serve!" What, does she love it now? Because it's still the same sorry pedestrian serve. If being a professional tennis player is your career, and you're not working to improve your performance at your career, can Dementieva at least stop whining about reaching the next level? Next stop: Myskinaville.
Most likely to start the year with a bang, er Slam: Sharapova. She still hasn't tried to vary her game, but the Australian's on a fast surface, and it's a short break between seasons. Those factors will probably roll in her favor.
Most likely to skip a grade: Jelena Jankovic. She has a great game. Power, finesse, net game, brains, and she has a great time out there. With the exception of her meltdown against Henin-Hardenne at the U.S. Open, she deals with pressure fairly well. I could see her making top 10 next year, especially if most of the contenders keep taking sick days.
Most likely to drop out: Serena Williams. And this isn't a slight, a la Chris Evert. Serena is young, talented and has the world open to her. She can do whatever she wants. As a tennis fan, I wish she had really set her mind to domination. Venus, too. But I think the older sister still feels she's got something left to prove. Serena? Seven slams, including her last, at the Australian, which she practically won tripping out of bed that morning. Former world No. 1. Intimidating former world No.1. She was Federer-imposing. While she was on top, she brought a lot to the game, but it's time to set Serena free from our expectations. Fly away, Serena. Fly away.
Best dressed: Although I maintain the sequins was a big mistake, Sharapova wins for her black evening-dress gear for the U.S. Open. Who would've thought you could even wear a little black dress to a sporting event?
Worst dressed: Sorry, Serena, you've got to play to qualify. Alas, just when you think there's no more tackily-dressed players, allow me to submit Bethanie Mattek. If you missed her Wimbledon get-up, do a Google search.
Valedictorian:Martina Navratilova. Hands down, the best female player ever, better than Steffi Graf. Check out part of her last report card from the USTA:
Endurance: A+
Martina is a competitive player. She is always working to improve her game, but this persistence makes it difficult to get her to put down her racquet. As a result, she has been able to play quality tennis at fifty years old.
Mathematics: A+
Martina is very good with numbers. For example, she is a former World No. 1 in singles and doubles (and has held both spots at the same time.) For another example, Martina has won 9 Wimbledon titles. She is also very good with double digits. She has 49 Grand Slam titles. Eighteen are singles titles. She was 49 years old when she won her last Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open with Bob Bryan.
Martina's aspirations have enabled her to count very high. To illustrate, she has won 178 career titles, a record among all the boys and girls in her class, past and present. She once went on a 109-match win streak with her doubles partner, Pam Shriver.
English: A+
Although Martina is not a native American, she has learned to speak out very well. Some of her words have cost her many endorsement dollars, but Martina is undeterred. Her words have never failed to inspire her classmates, and those outside the classroom. Also, her grasp of the language and the measure of her words far exceed younger students whose first language is English.
Geometry: A+
As a left-handed student, Martina has become very good at creating beautiful (and acute!) angles in class.

Four reasons I haven't had any 'Attitude' since the end of the U.S. Open:

1. Lazy
2. Dropped on my head as a baby
3. Eh ... busy. ?
4. Hell, the season should be over anyway.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Oh, great. Now it's the back: Womens final preview

Looks like someone finally broke the Mauresmo/Henin-Hardenne monopoly on the Grand Slams. Maria Sharapova took Amelie Mauresmo to the woodshed in their semifinal match on Friday, in an oddly lopsided score: 6-0,4-6,6-0. Sometimes, when you're on a roll, you're on a roll. (Although, after witnessing Sharapova's dad tell his kid when to eat and drink during a match, you'd have to wonder if Sharapova would know she was on a roll unless pops was there to tell her.) The Russian has earned herself another berth in a major final for the first time in more than two years. Besides her serve, which has improved, she seems to be bringing the same game to a final as she did at Wimbledon against Serena Williams. This could be a problem, because her next opponent, Justine Henin-Hardenne has no problem whatsoever with power.
Speaking of JHH, she pulled a little Houdini stunt in getting out of a tight spot against Jelena Jankovic, who came thisclose to making her first Grand Slam final. Jankovic played some great tennis until she had a point for 5-2 in the second set, after winning the first. Then she had a problem with a line call, got pissed at the umpire, and said to her racquet: "That's it. I'll get off here, please." And she did. She lost every game after that, falling to JHH 6-4,4-6,6-0. Now, melting down like that is bad. And it happens to everyone. But if you take a shower, change your clothes and sit down before a press conference without yet realizing you choked that match away, that is really bad. Jankovic is a sophomore college student back in Serbia, and she seems to be doing well in Advanced Bellyaching. Get a load of this:

Q. Near the end of the second set, she began to take a lot of time between points, bending over a bit. Did you sense she was getting tired?
JELENA JANKOVIC: I don't know what she was doing, but she was acting like she had pain in her back, and she was, like, trying to get start me thinking or something, you know. Because I was looking at her, and she was, Oh, I have pain in my back, or whatever she was doing, I don't know. That's the time when she was losing.
Then when she was winning. All of a sudden she's hitting the biggest serves ever and all that. I'm like, Now your back doesn't hurt? Actually, I was the one who couldn't even tie my shoes the other day, two days ago ...
Q. Did you hear her say anything when you say, Oh, my back? Did she actually say her back hurts?
JELENA JANKOVIC: No, but she was like (bending over holding her back).
Q. Do you think there was some gamesmanship?
JELENA JANKOVIC: I don't know. But I think from my point of view, I think you should play fair. And if you have pain, you have pain. But then when you if you have really pain, then you gonna have pain when you're winning, as well. But then how come when she's winning, she serves like 120 mile serve, and then when she's losing, she barely pushes it back? Just to kind of say, Oh, that's why I'm losing or something.
For me, that's not quite fair play. I'm a quite fair player. I give the credit to all the players, it's okay, I lost this match, but... (smiling).
I don't know.

Now that is sophomoric. Boy, I love jumping on the anti-JHH train. But what the hell was Jankovic expecting from a Euro-flopper? It's so true that tennis is a mental game. All of a sudden, Jankovic is distracted by a call. All of a sudden, there's the wind blowing. All of a sudden, her opponent is playing better. I'm no doctor, but is it possible that her back was tight, then somehow ... loosened up? As Jankovic, is JHH's back any of your concern? No, it's the backside you want to kick. But Jankovic is young, and hopefully she'll learn to keep her bitter piehole shut after losing a match. 'No comment' is a valid response. Seriously, Jankovic blinked, and for some champions, that's all they need.
If JHH comes out with a 'tight back' as I hope she does, Sharapova won't blink, and the match will be over before Henin-Hardenne can quit. Maybe.
Although Sharapova can't match JHH's variety, she can belt the hell out of the ball, and she has become, I think, the mentally-toughest player out there at age 19. Is she ready to beat Henin-Hardenne in a major final? Mentally, yes. Physically, she seems to be the fresher of the two. But can Sharapova stay consistent and fight off JHH's arsenal of shots? After seeing her play for the past two weeks, I think she can. Sharapova in two.

Don't call it a comeback part 2: The 'new' Andy Roddick

After dismantling Lleyton Hewitt in the U.S. Open quarterfinals on Wednesday night, Andy Roddick was asked about John McEnroe's suggestion that he's now playing like 'the old Andy.'
Roddick flatly dismissed it and declared, "This is the new Andy Roddick."
Same trucker-style cap. Same hissy fits at umpires and linesmen. Same rocket serve. So what's new?
For the first time ever, during the Hewitt match, Roddick hit a backhand winner. It wasn't blocked, either. He actually took a real swing at it. And while it's still the weaker side, there is a marked improvement.
Another thing: Roddick approached the net without being dragged in. The man saw an advantage and took it. He even hit some volley winners. They weren't pretty volleys, but they landed inside the lines. Unreal, you're thinking, and I'd say it couldn't be true either if I didn't see it with my own eyes.
There's no mistaking the almost-immediate effect Jimmy Connors has had on Andy Roddick. Seeing him so subdued in the stands during Roddick's matches almost makes one wonder if they had a Freaky-Friday moment, where Connors gave him his brash confidence on the court, and got the spirit of Roddick's boring-ass game. Eh, the 'old' Roddick's game.
It would be a giant upset if Mikhail Youzhny managed to beat Roddick, more of an upset than Youzhny's victory over Rafael Nadal. Assuming Roddick makes the final, his newfound confidence and willingness to serve-and-slap-volley could bother Federer. Federer has had issues with the S&V game in the past, a reason Tim Henman used to give him trouble. Now what I'm going to say next might get me kicked out off some tennis courts in these parts, but Andy Roddick has a chance against Roger Federer if they both make the final on Sunday. The combination of the big serve and Roddick pouncing (somewhat) on weak returns could test Federer. It's hard to see anyone not named Nadal beating Federer, but the world number one has been showing some weakness this Open. This could be a fine opportunity for a boisterous American with a New York crowd and Jimmy Connors behind him to reclaim his U.S. Open championship.
Or Federer could just smirk and shove a few bagels down Roddick's throat.

Friday, September 01, 2006

You'll buy the whole seat -- BUT YOU'LL ONLY USE THE EDGE!!!

It looked bad for Andre Agassi before the start.
First was the revelation that he could barely stand, let alone walk after his come-from-behind win in the first round of the U.S. Open against Andrei Pavel. He needed a shot of cortisone to his spine just to perform on Thursday night.
Then there was the preamble to his match at Arthur Ashe stadium. Martina Hingis, retired for three years, returned to the game in January, and was seeded No. 8. She was supposed to set the pace for the evening by wiping the court with Virginie Razzano. The match didn't last long, but it was Hingis who was upset by the virtually unknown Frenchwoman. Hingis has always gotten by on her smarts on the court, but it was a power game that was her undoing, back in 2002, and it was last night.
So, not looking good for the veterans in the house. Not until Agassi stepped out onto the court. He was facing the Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis, a player bursting with talent and personality, who came out of nowhere this year to make the final of the Australian Open. He was seeded eighth at the Open, and strictly by the numbers, should have been the favorite.
It looks like "8" is the new "13", as far as that goes. Andre uncorked some vintage Agassi in outlasting Baghdatis, 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 5-7, 7-5. Vintage Agassi is being 36 years old, and being able to pull his 21-year-old opponent all over the court. It's making the kid do all the work, while he reaps the benefits. Vintage Agassi is knowing a ball is long, and swinging and missing on purpose, just to give the boy false hope. It's pulling out some new tricks, like drop shots and aces, because he's old. He even pulled a come-from-ahead-then-dead-even win, which is so unheard of that there's no real name for it. You'd almost want to kick Agassi for relinquishing a 4-0 lead in the third set, but then you'd never appreciate his grit and spirit for pulling it out in five.
It couldn't have been easy for Baghdatis, playing in a hostile environment, where he was clearly not playing for the good guys. He took a spill in the eighth (familiar theme here?) game of the first set, injuring his left wrist, which appeared to limit his backhand for a set and a half. He missed serves, and was booed. He began cramping badly in both legs, and was booed. The impartial tennis observer wants to say: "C'mon people! Leave the kid alone!"
The riders on the Agassi caravan: "Toughen up, ya little punk!"
Baghdatis is a fine player and he'll be a presence for a long time, if he can stay fit. And he'll get another chance at the Open. Agassi won't. His is a limited-time engagement. One can only hope that he can conjure the spirit of Jimmy Connors, who made a semifinal run at the U.S. Open at 36. But to do that, he'd have to face Connors ... in a sense. Andy Roddick, in need of a game transfusion, took Connors as his coach, and looms in the Round of 16.
Let's not go there now. Agassi won't. Straight to the ice bath for you, young man.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Open -- and shut

If you live in the United States, and haven’t made the trip to the tennis mecca of this country, Flushing Meadows, what are you waiting for? Most of us may never get into Wimbledon or the Australian Open, but this is our backyard, and the last major of the tennis calendar. This is the chance to see the fuzz fly -- on a massive stage.
This season has been both thrilling and disappointing in some ways. There’s the beginnings of a potentially great men’s rivalry, and the collapse of the women’s game. There’s the ending of one great career, and hints of greatness from others. There’s also the fact that it’s 1:30 in the morning, so let’s just get right into it.


1. Roger Federer: What hasn’t been said about the F-bomb? Truly, he’s got men’s tennis by the, er, throat. However, he’s had a long year, and it showed in his loss in Cincinnati against Andy Murray. That defeat might have been the best thing to happen to the man, though. He comes in rested, and refocused, and dangerous.
2. Rafael Nadal: The yin to Federer’s yang. He also suffered an early loss in Cincinnati to the resurgent (??) Juan Carlos Ferrero. Like Federer, he’s been making finals all year, and an extended rest before the U.S. Open won’t hurt him. But the difference between he and Federer is that Federer’s knows this surface like Nadal knows clay. A little more work on concrete wouldn’t have hurt Nadal, but he’s already shown his ability to adapt. His first round match is against Mark Philippoussis, and if he can escape that, he’ll have an easy ride to the semis.
3. Ivan Ljubicic: Wherefore art thou, Ivan? He’s got a big game, big serve, imposing shots -- and no majors. Must be between the ears. He’s drawn Feliciano Lopez in the first round, the only Spaniard who sucks on clay. Even if he gets out of that, he could face Richard Gasquet in the third round, and Lleyton Hewitt after that. Not good, Ivan. Not good.
4. David Nalbadian: Another big-time player with nothing to show for it. One of the few players to hold a winning record against Federer, Nalbandian has underachieved, losing to players that he should be able to beat. Sounds like his likely opponent in the second round, one Marat Safin. Break out the popcorn for that one.
5. James Blake: After tanking at Wimbledon, Blake has gone on to have a lackluster summer. He beat Andy Roddick for the second time in his career to hoist the Indianapolis title, but has been sliding since. He was seeded first at the Pilot Pen in New Haven, had a cushy draw, and couldn’t even get out of the starting gate. Did he play too much this summer? I think so. Damn the U.S. Open Series, James. Get ready for the big one next year. I see him losing to Dmitry Tursunov in the quarters.
6. Tommy Robredo: How did he get up here? Consistent results all year long, that’s how. He’s a solid player who’s beaten the likes of Nalbandian, Blake and Davydenko this year, and he’s got what it takes to make the quarterfinals. There, he’ll probably run into a brick wall named Nadal.
7. Nikolay Davydenko: Won New Haven, beating a librarian's row of cream puffs in the process. He’ll come away with some confidence, sure, but playing Andy Murray in the Round of 16 will be a shock to his system.
8. Marcos Baghdatis: The likable Cypriot will be the most hated man in Arthur Ashe Stadium come that second round match against Andre Agassi. He hasn’t done much this summer, and has shown some scattered results all year, from the Aussie Open finals to crashing out in the second round of the French. If Agassi’s fully rested and ready to go, Baghdatis could have a lot of time to sample the Greek food in New York.
9. Young Andrew Roddick: All right, Andy. You’ve got your props. You got a title this summer, and you and your camp say that you’re back. He did whip some contenders, like Andy Murray, Fernando Gonzalez and Ferrero. And he’s starting to hit his backhand. And he does have Jimmy Connors with him at the zoo of the majors. Under the lights of New York City, Andy could do anything. Like charge to the finals of the U.S. Open. Or lose in the Round of 16 to Agassi or Baghdatis.
10. Fernando Gonzalez: Watch him play, and you wonder why he hasn’t made any significant noise in a major yet. His fearless style of play is probably his biggest undoing. He goes for his shots -- and misses -- too much.

The stragglers:
Andre Agassi: Somehow, calling him a straggler seems wrong. But Agassi, even with the storied ending to a magnificent career, is a long shot. He’s got little chance of making the run he did last year because his body’s getting rickety. The hope: That he gets past Baghdatis and handles Sebastien Grosjean and Andy Roddick. The reality: Enter the doubles draw, Andre. Extend your stay.
Andy Murray (17th): He’s been a different player since Brad Gilbert grudgingly accepted more than $1 million to take Murray under his wing. Gilbert is probably a pain in the ass to have around, but it’s hard to deny the effect his has on his students. Murray has dropped the hangdog look in tough matches, and pulled most of them out. Roddick nipped him in Cincy, but he’d played all summer. He’ll be ready for a nice run at the Open.
Novak Djokovic and Gael Monfils (25th and 27th): Neither may get very far at the Open, but they have rather strong games and each is capable of an upset. Djokovic could very well take advantage of an injured Hewitt (knee) in the third round, while Monfils could get a shot at Nadal in the Round of 16.
Gaston Gaudio (21st): What, does he have a protected seeding or something? He won the French three years ago, for crying out loud.
Juan Carlos Ferrero (16th): Nice Cincy run. Now try it at a major.
Dmitry Tursunov (23rd): Fiery temper? Oh, yeah. Not even MacEnroe tried to break a ref’s hand before.
Marat Safin: To take a page out of Goran Ivanesevic’s book, let’s see who shows up to Queens: the bad Marat (busts a few racquets, loses in the first round to Robin Vik) or the good Marat (busts a few racquets, garners some fines, moons the crowd, and beats Nalbandian in the second round, only to lose to a Rochus brother).

First-round matches to see:
Lopez v. Ljubicic
Nadal v. Philippousis: Sheesh, not even Alexandra Stevenson gets wild cards anymore. Who does Philippousis know?
Murray v. Robert Kendrick: Was Kendrick’s performance against Nadal at Wimbledon a flash in the pan, or is he an American hope?
Tim Henman v. Greg Rusedski: The battle of the Brits. Go Tim (into the second round, where you’ll get dusted by Federer)!

Upset special:
I’m not throwing Andre under the bus. Later, Ljubicic.

The way it'll go down:
Semifinals: Federer v. Murray, Nadal v. Roddick
Final: Federer v. Nadal
Winner: Coin toss.

1. Amelie Mauresmo: About time she puts those mental demons to bed. Her win over Justine Henin-Hardenne was her first real major win, and she should be proud. Truth is, though, she’s the weakest top seed at a major in a long time. Just as easily as she could put together a run, she could be pushed by someone like Lisa Raymond or Ana Ivanovic. In order to cement her seeding, she’ll have to perform well here.
2. Justine Henin-Hardenne: How does she do it? She bailed at the Australian Open final, only to win the French and make the Wimbledon finals. She even comes in with a measure of confidence, heaving the Pilot Pen trophy, despite Lindsay Davenport doing most of the heavy lifting, (in disposing Mauresmo) then pulling up lame in the final. Even with her injury problems (both real and imaginary), she’s the closest to a sure thing the women’s game has got right now.
3. Maria Sharapova: After she beat Kim Clijsters in the San Diego final, and lost to Dementieva in the L.A. semis, Sharapova sure has made herself scarce. Let's hope she's been working on a 'Plan B' for her game. Even coming in somewhat cold, Sharapova can always challenge. Is she ready to make it to another Grand Slam final?
4. Elena Dementieva: Just when you thought it was safe to let her serve out a match ... She nearly let Jelena Jankovic back in during the Los Angeles final. Plus, she had Svetlana Kuznetsova on the ropes in New Haven and double-faulted her way to defeat. She’s such a strong all-around player that the weakness that is her serve really stands out. But she’s seeded fourth here, so she’s doing something right. Expect it to go wrong, though, if she faces Sam Stosur in the Round of 16.
5. Nadia Petrova: It’s been a long, tough road back from injury for the Russian. She’s a fine player, with big groundstrokes and a versatile game. But she’s been on the shelf for most of the summer. Can she shake off the rust by the time she faces Anna Chakvetadze in the Round of 16?
6. Svetlana Kuznetsova: During her match with Elena Dementieva in New Haven, she called for a coach’s time-out. Woman, you were playing the weakest server in women’s tennis and you need some advice? Hmm. Maybe you should try attacking the serve. Anyway, this former U.S. Open champion hasn’t been as strong as she was in 2004, when the tour was depleted by injury. She’ll need to stay focused in this draw, if she wants to advance past Jelena Jankovic in the 16s and Dementieva in the quarterfinals.
7. Patty Schnyder: Gotta give her credit for her staying power. She’s been consistent all year. Her lefty game usually makes for long matches. She has a nice draw, and with Lindsay Davenport dealing with a new injury, could make her way to the quarters.
8. Martina Hingis: Well, well, well. Look who’s in the Top 10 again. She lost in the Montreal finals to Ivanovic, but the Chessmaster is probably raring to make a real run in a major. Problem is, her first round match is against the talented Shuai Peng. If she can get out of that sticky situation, she can enjoy a fairly comfortable ride to the quarters. And although she’ll face Mauresmo, she’s gotta like her chances of getting into the Frenchwoman’s head.
9. Nicole Vaidisova: She’s cooled off somewhat since the French Open, and pleaded injury in withdrawing from the New Haven event. She could have been saving herself for another major run or she could be booted in round three by Jankovic.
10. Lindsay Davenport: Prediction: This will be the 30-year-old’s last major. Davenport has been frustrated by injury all season, and to be unable to compete against players she should be able to beat must be killing her. Her game is willing, but her body seems to be unable.

The stragglers:
Jelena Jankovic (19th): Pegging her for the semifinals, and maybe further. She combines a power game with variety, and she showed how much fun she has on court in her win against Serena in Los Angeles and even in her loss to Dementieva in the final.
Vera Zvonareva (33rd): She looks to be on the comeback trail this year, and she’s capable of taking care of Dementieva in the third round.
Serena Williams: Serena comes in to this tournament with a few matches under her belt, and unseeded. Can she beat Daniela Hantuchova, Ana Ivanovic, Amelie Mauresmo, and Dinara Safina or Martina Hingis just to reach the semis. Um, no.
The Chinese brigade: Peng, Na Li and Tiantian Sun are all floating around in the top half, and Li could beat Mary Pierce to make the Round of 16. Here’s a question: Where are all the up-and-coming Americans?
Chanda Rubin: Not quite who I had in mind, but it’s great that she’s playing again. What’s not great is that her first round is against Nicole Vaidisova. See Chanda while you can.

First round matches to watch:
Hingis v. Peng
Shenay Perry v. Eleni Daniilidou: Perry made waves at Wimbledon when she was the only American to advance past the third round. This is a great chance for her to make another run.
Vaidisova v. Rubin
Karolina Sprem v. Sania Mirza: Doesn’t look like Sprem can do much when the ref’s keeping the right score. But she should beat Mirza, who could use just one revolution of spin on her groundstrokes.
Vania King v. Alicia Molik: Molik’s another player who’s been sidelined by injury. At her peak, which was just before an inner ear infection, she was beating Venus Williams at the Australian and challenging Davenport.
Hantuchova v. Bethanie Mattek: Please, someone take Bethanie clothes shopping before this match. Do not let her emerge from the store with tube socks.
Bychkova v. Shavronskaia: Try saying that three times fast. By the time you're done, the match will be over.

Upset special:
Martina Hingis gets a Shanghai surprise.

The way it'll go down:
Semifinals: Mauresmo v. Sharapova, Henin-Hardenne v. Jankovic
Final: Mauresmo v. Jankovic
Winner: Mauresmo

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Think fast?

This summer, a few events will allow something new. If a player is in a bind, or is just lonely, perhaps, they can call for on-court coaching. The powers that be theorize that this will make tennis more interesting.
The ATP and WTA has some very interesting ideas about how to boost interest. First, throwing in a ‘super tiebreak’ in place of a third set in doubles, because why on earth would a tennis fan want to see more tennis in a match? After two sets, it’s boring as hell, the TPTB seems to think. Let’s wrap this up.
And now this on-court coaching nonsense. What’s more interesting to watch?:

Scenario A: A player is down a set and a break, and lumbers over to his chair at changeover. He buries his head in his towel, and realizes that he has to try to draw his opponent to the net. He employs this strategy, and bam! he’s tied the match up.
Scenario B: A player is down a set and a break, and lumbers over to his chair at changeover. He tells the umpire he needs his coach, stat! and some balding fat guy comes running down and tells him to watch the ball and move his feet, and to pick on his opponent’s backhand, and to get into net and to put away the overheads and above all, to stay positive. The player goes out on the court, and can't remember anything his coach just said. Moreover, he realizes that he never even got anything to drink.

Or ...:
Scenario C: A player is down a set and a break, and lumbers over to his chair at changeover. He tells the umpire he needs his coach, stat! and some balding fat guy with a temper (channeling Maria Sharapova's dad here for some reason) who begins raging at his guy, with mikes on, and making derogatory comments about his guy's opponent, and throws in some helpful advice about beating him. Well, the opponent can hear it, too. Oops.

For crying out loud, tennis fans like tennis. They like the scoring and they like the gladiator-like atmosphere. We don’t want to see players getting Cliff-notes from their coach. Part of the great thing about tennis is that you’re on your own, and if you can’t see the game unfolding before your own eyes, then it’s your problem. And what’s so interesting about seeing a coach and a player conferring on the sideline? How will that make tennis more exciting? It’s a part of Davis Cup and World Team Tennis, but have you noticed that when the coaching begins, networks go to commercial? There’s a reason for that.
The tennis bigwigs, as usual, seems to have this all wrong. It looks it’s trying to glean elements of more popular sports in order to draw the masses. The truth is that tennis will never be football in America. Changing the rules won’t make it so, either. If you’re not a fan, you’re not a fan.
The ATP and WTA should be working together to shorten the season, so that the top players will play more often. That seems to be the outstanding issue where tennis popularity is concerned.

Advantage: Jankovic

Serena Williams has had a couple of semifinal runs since she’s returned. She’s won some tough matches against some good players (Myskina, Hantuchova, Shaughnessy) and has proven that she still has one of the most potent serves in women’s tennis. But in her semifinal loss to Jelena Jankovic in Cincinnati last week really revealed a few issues that need to be tweaked.
Now I know that the ESPN commentators are American and are catering to American fans, but let’s not lie: Serena is not fit, and she has not lost weight since we last saw her. Now if she ballooned up to 200+ pounds while she was gone, then that would need to be pointed out. But she is not fit. Yes, she played some tough matches before losing to Jankovic, but she’s barely played before that. We’re not talking about a Roger Federer here, who makes finals every week. If he loses early, like he did this week to Andy Murray, one could theorize that the man needs a mental break, and he does. But Serena has had her time off.
She also showed that she’s just as capable of taking mental breaks -- in the middle of a match. During the second set of her semi against Jankovic, the Serbian was hitting a couple of balls back to the ballboy, and one of them hit Serena on the foot. She stood there for a moment, staring down Jankovic, who had her face buried in a towel. At the end of the match, the two players shook hands, but Serena appeared to make a grab at Jankovic’s attention, asking her why she hit Serena with the ball, and informing her that it was ‘rude.’
Well. At least Serena told her. At least we know now that Serena had her mind correctly focused on teaching this girl a thing or two about messing with a Williams. If Serena had half a mind on the match, she would have realized that Jankovic unintentionally hit Serena. Then she would have asked herself: ‘Self, I’m down a set here, and I’m tired. What should I do to win this match?’
So, does Serena have a chance at this year’s U.S. Open? Even with Kim Clijsters sitting out, the answer is no. She isn’t physically ready, and her form is atrocious. She’s got some serious balance issues, and I’m only talking about her ground strokes here. But when you harbor something silly like a ball hitting you in the foot, (considering that she tried to drill Jankovic a new belly button every time she went to net) and you can’t use that perceived slight to play better, then she’s not mentally ready for a Slam yet. Heck, any player who saw her mini-breakdown should considering throwing a ball in her direction from now on.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The red, white and bruised

Road trip?
I love road trips. Man, it feels so good to get in your car, roll down the windows and sunroof and allow the wind (smog? exhaust?) blow through your hair. Turn up the radio and blast your favorite tunes, watching the world pass by your window, and that idiot driver cut you off --- HEY! HEY! WHAT THE &*##$@'s WRONG WITH YOU!
The best part of a road trip is getting to your destination, and hanging out with your buddies, who also sacrificed their time and blood pressure to join you. This summer's road trip promises to be quite awesome. Who's gonna be there?
Well, there's Venus Williams, for one, who's bringing her bling. What, you say? There isn't Venus Williams? She pulled out of the Acura Classic (her first stop) because of wrist problems.
OK. That's a damper. Ah, well, at least there's Serena Williams. She's on the comeback trail. Should be interesting to see -- oh. She's out, too? Doctor's orders, huh? (Is this the same girl who proclaimed herself her own doctor after her first knee surgery a couple years ago?)
Downers both, but can't say it's unexpected, really. But you know who won't let me down? Lindsay Davenport, who hasn't quite been the same since that Wimbledon final last year. She's got to be itching to play, considering she's been out since March. I know she loves hard courts. I know she'll be ... out. Still. Back problems.
Speaking of back problems, this trip is starting to become quite the pain in my backside. I guess I'll have to settle for watching Andy Roddick. I hear he's going for the bowl haircut, like his new coach, Jimmy Connors. Could be interesting. Maybe he's been working on his game and his fitness. I know he was signed up for this Legg Mason event, but can't quite find his first round match... Oh, you've got to be kidding me! He's injured, too?
Well, damn. Why did I make this trip? Seems like most the people who invited me aren't showing up. It's not like there's no one here, though. There is Tommy Haas, who's trying to kick-start his career again. It's fun watching him. Kim Clijsters is holding it down. So it's not a total wash. But how about some honest advertising next year? If we're going to get Dmitry Tursunov and Patty Schnyder, then let's find out what they're bringing, since they're actually coming?

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Don't call it a comeback

You're Serena Williams. You used to world's best female tennis player, but you're now plummeting in the rankings due to a combination of boredom, injury and delusions of winning an Oscar. Your Neiman-Marcus bill is due, and you need quick cash. What do you do? What do you do?
You return to the tennis courts. You enter a Tier III tournament where the top seeds are Patty Schnyder and Anastasia Myskina, so it's a cushy draw. You make the semis, losing to the rebounding Vera Zvonareva.
Wow! everyone says. That's pretty good for your first tournament back. She's going to win Slams again, they say. She's a contender again!
Not really. Consider this: Serena is now ranked 108. Most people would argue that there aren't 107 players in the world that are better than she is. That is true. So where in the rankings does she really belong?
Top 5? Nadia Petrova would wax Serena right now, and possibly for the rest of Serena's career.
Top 10? With all things equal, Williams could take Elena Dementieva, Schnyder and Mary Pierce. With the exception of Pierce, the others are match-tough, and you'd have to pick current No. 10 Lindsay Davenport over Serena.
Top 20? Nope. With the exception of Myskina, Serena is not up to challenging Nicole Vaidisova, Anna-Lena Groenefeld or Ana Ivanovic. She might overtake Martina Hingis (ranked No. 13) by sheer power, so that's not a fair fight.
Top 30? Warmer. Venus (No.24) against Serena? I'd go with Venus. Rumor has it the elder Williams sister still occasionally play tennis. And Jelena Jankovic, who beat Venus at Wimbledon, can do the same to Serena. But players like Marion Bartoli and Nathalie Dechy wouldn't come close.
Although Zvonareva is ranked No. 37 right now, we won't go there with Serena. Will she get into the top 50 again? Sure. Can she challenge for Slams? Maybe. Has she wasted some valuable time in her career? Absolutely. It's going to be a long road, like it is for Venus and for Andy Roddick, because they are slowly coming to the revelation that it's not all power. Literally, there are at least 100 players with better technique than Serena. But she's still ridiculously talented. My guess is that the end of the year finds her nestled comfortably in the mid-30s. It's hard to see her cracking the top 15 again. It's also hard to see her winning a major. You have to assume that she'd meet one of the top 6 players in the world from quarters on. While she's been gone, other players have matured and won majors. What's happened in women's tennis since Serena started riding the bench is like what would have happened in basketball if there had been no Michael Jordan. She gave the rest of the field a taste of success.
I don't get the idea they'll return the favor.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Every prophet in his house

Babe Ruth had Yankee Stadium. Michael Jordan had Chicago Stadium. Brett Favre has the vaunted Lambeau Field.
Rafael Nadal has Roland Garros.
And Roger Federer's house (for now) is the All England Lawn and Tennis Club, and he is already among the exclusive members. His victory Sunday put him in league with one Rod Laver, who also won four straight Wimbledons. He has eight majors now, and in two years or less, he could exceed Pete Sampras's record of 14 Grand Slams. He's 24, folks. Scary, isn't it?
Not quite as scary as his opponent in the Wimbledon final. Rafael Nadal is 20. He has never lost at the French Open. He has a 6-2 edge on Federer. He was 3-2 at Wimbledon before this effort (beating Mario Ancic in 2003). Nadal was outclassed in Sunday's match, but he was fighting, and still showed his ability to fluster Federer. He also showed a glimpse of what could become one of the best rivalries in sports. Tennis fans saw what one-sided dominance did to tennis when Sampras was world number one for six years --fascinating, yet lacking suspense. Right now, there are two men at the top of the game who are at the top of their game, challenging each other at nearly every event they play.
Their Wimbledon final may not have been one for the ages, but their rivalry will be. What more could a tennis fan want?
Well, one thing. C'mon, Rafa, how 'bout some new gear? Pair of shorts, maybe?

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Wimbledon finals preview

The folks at the All-England Club call it Grass, and they're right -- for the first three rounds. Then the Grass becomes something approaching clay, but not quite. At this point, let's introduce Rafael Nadal. He is the Undisputed King of Clay, and he is in the final of Wimbledon, on a Grass court that looks less and less like grass every day. I suspect that young Nadal wears those long capris so he can carry some fine French clay in his pants. As he walks the lawns of the All-England Club, he shakes the wedgies out, and along with it some of his favorite surface.
No one gave Rafa much of a chance, especially after his tightrope performance against Robert Kendrick in round two. But he gained a few believers by the time he had dispatched Andre Agassi in his next match. He bows his head, and demurs gracefully to Roger Federer, the Undisputed King of Grass, saying that Fed is the best player in the world. That sounds a lot like what he said before the French Open final last month, just before he beat Federer like he was a red-headed Jonas Bjorkman.
Now, though, the tables are turned. Nadal seemed to be hosting Federer at his house, Roland Garros, where he was the natural, and Federer trying to mask his discomfort for the red stuff. At Wimbledon, Roger's at home, and Nadal still a novice. But something's amiss. Nadal isn't playing like he's never been to a Wimbledon final before. He's beefed up his serve, flattened his strokes when necessary, and is moving very nicely on the green stuff.
Almost everything, including the way Federer has handled his 'tough' draw, points to him holding up the trophy on Sunday. Nadal's dedication to training on grass, though, has gotten him through a tricky draw as well, and where Federer has been sublime, Nadal has bent under the pressure of some of his opponents. To borrow from 'A Knight's Tale,' Nadal has been weighed, and he has been measured, and he has been found wanting ... to win Wimbledon. Will he get it?
It will go five, and if you want to know who wins it, ask someone who didn't botch all her picks for this tournament. Seriously, enjoy.
As for the ladies, well, let's say I'll be sleeping in on Saturday morning. I've seen this script before. You've got to admire Justine Henin-Hardenne for her all-court game, despite her small frame. If she weren't a Euro flopper, like some of those World Cup bastards, I'd be rooting for her. But she is, and I won't. Independent of that, though, how about Amelie Mauresmo? You could just see it in her semi against Maria Sharapova, couldn't you? She wanted badly to crack under the pressure. Hell, she did, in the second set. She steadied herself and has herself in position to actually win a Grand Slam. Not like the Australian. She has a chance to prove to herself, and to the women's locker room, that she isn't a head case. There was a time when Henin-Hardenne mentally folded in tough matches -- folded, not flopped. But she learned to compete, and let's hope Mauresmo will, too. The women's world No. 1 shouldn't be someone who can't get her game face on for majors.
But like I said, I can see where this is going. One word of advice for Mauresmo: If you feel a sneeze coming on in that second set, and you're incidentally down a set and a break -- quit.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Damn, does that boy learn fast!

There was a lot of emotion surrounding what turned out to be Andre Agassi's Wimbledon farewell on Saturday. It was so emotional, in fact, that fellow Americans Andy Roddick and Venus Williams dropped their third-round matches in deference. Or something.
First, though, the bottom half of the draw has opened miraculously, it seems, for Rafael Nadal. A lot of people thought the surface would be his undoing in the Agassi match. Wrong. Nadal showed that he can adjust his game, hitting harder and lower, but still with that topspin safety on. He has adapted nicely to moving on the grass, too. There's a little Agassi in him. Seems he's seeing where his opponent's going before they know. He'll go wherever that ball goes, and his fighting spirit is phenomenal. There aren't a lot of players, especially on the men's side, willing to make adjustments in their game in order to succeed on all surfaces.
Most of the potentially tough obstacles have been removed from Nadal's half. Ivan Ljubicic and Andy Roddick have been accounted for, and now, former Wimbledon champion Lleyton Hewitt replaces them as Nadal's biggest upcoming problem. The bad news for Hewitt is that he has a seeded opponent next, David Ferrer, then could play Andy Murray, who dismantled Roddick. You don't even want to think it, for the fear of disappointment, but a French Open final replay could ... never mind, I won't even write it.
Back to our great American hypes, though. First off, Roddick's loss has really exposed what I've been saying for a long time. Over-rated (clap-clap-clap-clap-clap). God bless him, because he seemed really disappointed by his loss, but Roddick is still deluding himself (as is Venus Williams) that he is among the tennis elite. No, my boy. You are slowly entering Ivo Karlovic territory -- becoming a one-dimensional player. Roddick's matches were always so hard to watch, because he'd serve and the game would be over. His opponent would get worn down trying to do something great with the return and wear themselves out. Now, players have figured out that all you have to do is return his serve. Block it, because he won't do much with it. His forehand is huge, but not terribly consistent. His backhand has nothing. He can't volley, and therefore, if things are going wrong in his game, there's no backup. What you see is what you get. What Roddick needs is a coach who is going to tell him to stop serving in practice. He can serve already. He needs someone to expand his game -- make him an aggressive-minded player willing to quickly finish off points he started strongly with his serve. And for crying out loud, he has got to get someone to work on that backhand. Please, Andy, please.
And Venus. Dammit, Venus! I'm getting the pattern here, though. Win, win, loss, loss, bad loss, win, loss. So basically, we should expect Venus to lose in the first round next year, then mount another huge comeback the following year. Seriously, the time has officially passed where Venus can expect to win a major on sheer athleticism. She's going to have to (gulp!) work more on her game. This isn't a Roddick situation, though. Venus' forehand has seen a marked improvement over previous years, and her backhand has always been dangerous. And she's got the intangible that Roddick doesn't: a killer instinct on court. It seems Venus is awfully comfortable on the baseline. She could have beaten Jelena Jankovic if she had come in on some of those serves. Let's face it: As comfortable on the baseline as she is, she makes a hell of a lot more errors from back there, too. She's got such a strong serve (at times) and a great wingspan that she shouldn't fear being more aggressive. I don't think the window has closed on her, though. She's a great fighter, and seems to be a bit more dedicated right now than some other Williamses on tour.
Venus' ouster leaves the top half of the draw somewhat open. It's looking pretty good for Sharapova to make it through the week. Mauresmo has been flying through the first week, but her next oponent is Ana Ivanovic, who's beaten her twice, as recently as this January.
All told, Andre Agassi put on the best performance among the top Americans, and I'm not just saying that because he's a legend. If he were playing anyone else, except Federer, his effort would have been more than enough. He would have been in the locker room in the time it took for that first set to wrap up. He ran up against a better player, and that's not clear in the losses of Roddick and Williams. And yet, Agassi put it out there and made Nadal work for that win. That's enough to make him rest comfortably tonight. Some other people will be tossing and turning.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

'I just lose by myself' -- words to live by

Mr. Benjamin, Part II
Good for Venus Williams for taking a stand on the equal pay issue at Wimbledon. I disagree with her standpoint that it's a 'human' issue -- we're talking about a group of millionaires quibbling over pennies essentially. But in her press conference Thursday, she said the women were willing to play best-of-five to get their equal pay. It seems that issue is often skirted when the money topic comes up.
Why wouldn't Wimbledon give women the opportunity to earn the money? If Wimbledon officials really believe men draw more of an audience, they should take a look at their own tabloids. Who's gracing the covers? The best-looking women, not men. And guess what, stuffed shirts? That's why the casual fan will come to Wimbledon. Not to see Rafa Nadal show some leg. It's sex appeal, and it's a little disturbing, but that's the fact. If Wimbledon isn't willing to consider having the women play five sets, it's doing the tournament a disservice. I know I'd feel a bit cheated if I paid for Center Court tickets, and watched Amelie Mauresmo blow away some nobody in thirty minutes. The women are fitter than they've ever been. Give them the chance to earn equal keep. A word to the other Slams: You, too. Shame on you for giving out the same money for less work.

Tennis? Just a game. Now let's watch some soccer!
David Nalbandian had a plan on Friday. Play his match early, wipe the Grass with this Verdasco dude, thereby advancing in his best Grand Slam. Then paint his face baby blue and yellow and scream his bloody head off cheering for home country Argentina as they kick the snot out of Germany in World Cup action. Well, he got the early match he requested. He also lost in straight sets to Fernando Verdasco, who is ranked No. 30 in the world. On top of that, Argentina lost to Germany, 4-2 in penalty kicks. First, penalty kicks? Why don't all the players just gather in the middle of the field for a thumb-wrestling competition? Second, if there was a way to penalty kick a player, Nalbandian would be at the top of the list. I play tennis as often as I can, and my serve sucks. My husband calls me Two-Hit Nancy. I would give my husband's right arm for a chance to be in Grand Slam, even to lose love-and-love to a great player. But Nalbandian's got natural talent and a beautiful counterpuncher game, and he holds an edge over potentially the best tennis player ever, and he flakes out in the third round in the only major where he's reached the final.
'So what happened?' the reporters essentially asked after his match.
'He play okay,' Nalbandian says. 'He don't play great. I just lose by myself.'
Another gem:
Q. You had a racquet warning. You appeared to lose your temper a bit in the first set. What was going through your mind at that point?
Nalbandian: Nothing.
Man, you don't say.
At least he's not alone on the bench. James Blake lost yet another five-set match to Max Mirnyi. Blake was definitely the favorite, but Mirnyi is truly a sleeping giant in tennis. He has lots of doubles success, but he showed today that he's got plenty of singles game. The American will kick himself for surrendering a two-set-to-one lead, but he went up against a grass buzzsaw. The truly strange part is that Mirnyl's next opponent, Jonas Bjorkman, Mirnyi's current doubles partner, holds a 9-1 advantage over Mirnyi, including a win at Wimbledon in 2003.
Along for the bench ride is Martina Hingis, going down in a shocker to another doubles specialist, Ai Suyigama. Hingis was the clear favorite here as well, but her weak serve betrayed her some, and Sugiyama gave possibly her best singles effort ever. It was a game of 'Beat the opponent to the net,' a rarity for the women's game, and highly entertaining. Next time, Martina. As for Ai, it's all on you to beat Henin-Hardenne.
Maybe women's tennis isn't as shallow as you might think. Usually, the top ladies cruise through the first week of a major. Not this week. Svetlana Kuznetsova, the French Open runner-up, lost today, too. She went down to Na Li, of China. She's seeded 27th.

Doubles vision
Guess who's playing mixed doubles at Wimbledon? Nope. Try again. All right, Venus Williams. With Bob Bryan. They won their first round match today against Ai Suyigama and Jeff Coetzee. But one of their next opponents should sound familiar to doubles fans: Mahest Bhupathi. Good luck, guys.
Remember a few years back, when Hingis, Davenport, Clijsters and the Williams sisters were playing doubles, too? Seeing Venus back on the doubles court is good for two reasons. First, she's showing that she's feeling healthy enough to do both for the first time in years. Second, let's get some excitement for doubles going, you guys! We all play it, and never see it on TV. Not even the great Martina Navratilova, who's playing mixed and women's doubles. Don't bet on seeing her much, though. And really, what's the big deal? Hey, we'll all get a chance to see her some other time, right? Come on, ESPN. She's evergreen, but sheesh. One day, she might stop playing tennis.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Suicide watch list

Do not, do not, leave any of the following players alone with a razor blade, a noose or a sewing needle and a bar of soap. (Haven't you ever seen MacGyver?)

Marat Safin
While his sister battled down from a one-set deficit against Mashona Washington, Marat was up a set and closing in on another. Locked in a tiebreak with Fernando Gonzalez, Safin did something inexplicable. He won a point to go up 5-4 -- and railed at the umpire because he thought Gonzalez' serve was out. So. He wins the point. And yells at the ump.
Then he won the set and lumbered over to his chair, still outraged -- about the point he won. Most people are somewhat excited to go up two sets over a quality opponent. Some feel a sense of accomplishment. Safin? Slap in the face. So he decided: 'No. Screw this. Two sets. Ha! I could lose three right now."
(I consider Safin the most likely to use the needle and bar of soap for suicide. Anything else, for him, would be too easy.)

Robert Kendrick
So, you're Robert Kendrick. To which most people say, "Who?" You say: "I'm Robert Kendrick, dammit. I was up two sets and two points away from beating the number two player in the world. This was good, because this guy, Nadal, is a clay specialist, and as you know, Wimbledon is played on Grass. So I was thisclose to beating the number two player in the world. Two points away."
"Wow, that's cool as hell. So you beat him."
"Well, I lost in five. That's not the point. I was close. I got a little tired. It's effin' hot out there. In challengers, we don't get a lot of five-set matches. Or shots at some of the best players in the world. Oh, well, next time."
(Memo to Rafa: How would you feel about going a size bigger on the capris? (might cut down on the wedgies.)

Lisa Raymond
Once again, Venus Williams pulled a rabbit out of nothin', escaping the wily serve-and-volley veteran Lisa Raymond. Some would call it an escape, and others are probably still staring at their TV screens, saying "Why don't you run after that ball?"
Raymond was up 5-3, and (familiar pattern here) two points away from beating the defending Wimbledon champion, and sending Williams spiraling into the depths of the rankings purgatory her sister now inhabits. What happened at 30-15 is anyone's guess. This was the point when Raymond made a very important strategy shift: Stand in the middle of the court, and don't go for anything not hit at me. It backfired slightly. Raymond was the closest (and least active) observer while Venus approached, and hit, her stride. There's nothing wrong with being a doubles specialist, and looking forward to that part of the tournament. But it is not good to practice doubles, taking one side of the court, when you're playing singles, no matter how far ahead you get.

Fortunately, there's not all bad news for the losers at Wimbledon. Dominik Hrbaty may be trying to live down his pink shirt with the shoulder blades cut out, or maybe he's not. Aerodynamics and such. Regardless, he may have found his help meet in Bethanie Mattek, whose The '70s Show/trailer-park redneck inspired get-up offered the rare opportunity to see what Britney Spears might be looking like today if she didn't get rich. Um, thanks, Bethanie.
The young American, after winning one game from Venus Williams in the first round, says she's been fined before for her choice in clothing. After seeing her play, you've gotta wonder where this money's coming from. She's not winning any tournaments, is she? Or maybe she's getting some help from a sponsor.
Here's hoping she ends that clothing deal with Goodwill immediately.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Did someone say 'tough draw'?

All that talk about Roger Federer being threatened here -- it's just for us. The fans and the media need to be amused. We toy with the idea of an up-and-comer (Richard Gasquet) pushing Federer to the limit. For the record, that line read 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.
Then, we think, somehow Tim Henman -- Henman, who's doomed by his British blood to never win Wimbledon -- he's going to give the world No. 1 a battle. He'll wear him down, lay it on thick after the 'battle' with Gasquet. Well, Federer might as well have played that match in his new blazer. In the process of slaying Their Tim, he slapped him with a 6-0 set.
Let's just stop it right now. We want excitement and upsets and we'll get it. If you come to Center Court Wimbledon looking for it, you will be sadly disappointed.
Perhaps, though, all this talk about dethronement amuses Federer just as much as it does us.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Will Mr. Federer lose his crown? (Wimbledon preview)

What can we expect from the English Open this year, besides lots of white before Labor Day, poor weather and bowing to an irrelevent queen? Some great tennis, that's what. There are some intriguing storylines converging at the All England Lawn and Tennis Club this year. There's Andre Agassi taking the path of least pomp and circumstance in announcing his retirement here, Roger Federer looking for a return to victory on a second Sunday and Rafael Nadal discovering that you can't slide on grass.
Let's jump right in.

1. Roger Federer -- What does the three-time champion of Wimbledon get this time around? Richard Gasquet in the first round. Possibly Tim Henman in the second. Maybe a Tommy Haas in the fourth. Mario Ancic or Ivo Karlovic looms in the quarterfinals. In other words, Federer's gonna take some body shots on the way to another Wimbledon final. The good thing is the tough draw he had at the Gerry Weber Open was good preparation for this. However, if there's a time for a Grand Slam collapse, this one would be most understandable.
2. Rafael Nadal -- Time for the reigning clay court king to loosen the dust from his shoes and get his grass legs under him. Mark my words: One day, Rafael Nadal will be great on grass. One day, he'll win Wimbledon. That day will not be July 9, 2006. But he could have a nice run here. The toughest test he may face in the first week would be in the form of Andre Agassi. As good a chance as this is for Rafa, it's a better opportunity for the departing Agassi. If he gains round four, he could have a rematch against the big-serving Ivan Ljubicic, and if they play, it's almost certain that the result at the French Open won't stand.
3. Andy Roddick -- Thanks to Wimbledon's souped-up ranking system, Rodddick gets a little help with a higher seed than his No. 5 ranking. For someone who played in the final last year, there is very little buzz surrounding him now. It's understandable, since his game has offered little to remark about. Roddick's draw though, is just what he needs if he's going to get another shot at Federer -- potential for a couple easy rounds, and stiff challenge from Andy Murray or Marcos Baghdatis or Sebastien Grosjean. If he prays hard enough, he can avoid facing Lleyton Hewitt in the quarterfinals. All told, grass suits Andy well. He's got a look at another semifinal appearance.
4. David Nalbandian -- Is he all recovered from that (ahem) abdominal injury? If he is, he can almost mark his calendar for another semifinal date with Roger Federer. 'Almost' because he could draw James Blake in the quarterfinals. He could also have a potential problem in the fourth round with Xavier Malisse.
5. Ivan Ljubicic -- His first round match should be a nice workout against Feliciano Lopez, and he'll probably get one (and only one) tight set if he plays against Justin Gimelstob. His first real challenge would be Nicolas Davydenko, who got screwed by the Wimbledon system with a low #9 seed. It's time for Ljubicic to play in a major final already.
6. Lleyton Hewitt -- There are a couple of dangerous stragglers in his quarter, like Greg Rusedski and David Ferrer, but Hewitt's playing well lately, even picking up a warmup trophy a week ago. A matchup between he and Andy Roddick would be more than a match, but a big-time boost for the winner, since both men are trying to recapture their glory days.
7. Mario Ancic -- Hey, if you're interested in some boring tennis, make sure you catch Ancic's third round match against Ivo Karlovic if it happens. Eight serves, then switch. Eight more serves, and switch again. The tiebreaks will be more of the same, but Ancic will hit some volleys. Seriously, Ancic is a good player, and better evolved than the serve-and-serve Karlovic. But he's had a hard time breaking through in majors, and although he has a manageable draw, he'll probably lose to Tommy Robredo in the fourth round.
8. James Blake -- The third round has the potential to be a minefield for Blake, where his opponent could be Max Mirnyi, Mark Philippoussis or Paul-Henri Mathieu. But his newfound confidence, his bigger backhand and finalist performance at the Stella Artois tournament will help him. I'd love to see what happens if he and Nalbandian meet.
9. Nikolay Davydenko -- 25 years old, huh? Let's see an ID card, grandpa. Anyway, over the past year or so, he's been the most unlikely top-10 player, and the most unlikely to stick around. Yet, he's still performing, keeping his head down, and shaking opponents with his solid play. Grass won't give him much of a chance to keep a rally going, though.
10. Fernando Gonzalez -- Quick, strong, big game, no Major results. Gonzalez seems most comfortable in the second round of Grand Slams, but this time around, he could get the winner of Safin v. Rusedski.

Mr. Andre Agassi (25) -- Nice stunt, announcing your retirement before a major. If taking off that pressure works for him, it'd be great to see him go deep once again, if his body will allow it. If he and Nadal reach the third round, call off sick from work.
Tommy Haas (19) -- Last time he played Federer, they went the distance, and Haas has beaten Federer before. He's been at the top of the game before, and he's going to make a strong push again.
Gael Monfils (21) -- He got a lot of notice in France, especially when he dispatched James Blake, and showed off his great atheleticism. He's got a nice grasscourt game, and I'm tagging him for the quarters. The only question mark is his mental strength and maturity.

Good first round matches:
Federer v. Gasquet: As mentioned previously, Federer's got his hands full for this tournament, and he'll have no chance to get warmed up here. Gasquet's dangerous and has a win over the world No. 1.
Robin Soderling v. Tim Henman -- This won't be a cakewalk for Their Tim. As good as he's been, he's about as good with hometown pressure as Amelie Mauresmo does.
Wayne Arthurs v. Fabrice Santoro -- Any fan of tennis should watch Fabrice Santoro play, any chance they get.
Greg Rusedski v. Marat Safin -- Although he has a great game for grass, Safin hates the stuff. Rusedski probably sees himself as the English hope for this major. Of course, he's delusional because the Brits have no hope (not yet, Andy Murray), and he'll probably blast Wimbledon officials for not giving him an easier draw.

Upset special:
Bogdanovic over Nadal? Possible.

The way it'll go down:
Semifinals -- Federer v. Blake and Hewitt v. Ljubicic
Final -- Federer v. Ljubicic
Winner -- Ljubicic.
Just kidding. Federer, tough draw and all, is still a sure thing.

1. Amelie Mauresmo -- She had a jarring intro to the grass court season, losing to Nathalie Dechy. And that, friends, is Amelie Mauresmo. Loads of talent, and mentally shaky. The fact that she could face up-and comers Michaela Krajicek and Tatiana Golovin could expose that. My guess, though, is that she'll get creamed by Dinara Safina in round four.
2. Kim Clijsters -- What the hell happened to her in France? It was probably that mental block she seems to have against Justine Henin-Hardenne. Clijsters might have to face her again if she wants to be in the final. But Clijsters has the toughest first-round match on the women's side against Vera Zvonareva. The fourth round could hold a match with Anna-Lena Groenefeld.
3. Justine Henin-Hardenne: Wimbledon is the only major she hasn't won, and she's had some very short stays at the All England Club. Let's hope for another, especially after her Australia debacle. Realistically, though, she'll be fine until she goes up against Martina Hingis.
4. Maria Sharapova: Sharapova's draw reminds me of the heavyweight whose handlers keep putting her up against the tomato cans. She should float like a butterfly through her quarter, especially considering that the other high seed is Elena Dementieva. However, Amelie Mauresmo or Venus Williams loom in the semifinals. That's when she'll likely get stung like a bee.
5. Svetlana Kuznetsova: Coming off a finalist showing at the French, Kuznetsova usually doesn't get past the quarters at Wimbledon. That should make Kim Clijsters pretty happy. Not that she should really worry. Kuznetsova could face Nicole Vaidisova in the fourth round, and this time, the teenage probably won't fold mentally, like she did in the French Open semis.
6. Venus Williams -- Last year, she managed, at over 6 feet tall, to come in under the radar. She won't pull it off again, though. She's tipped as the favorite by many, and I'm drinking the Kool-Aid, even though I know it'll bite me in the ass. She could face Lisa Raymond in the second round, who burned her at the Australian a couple years back. But Wimbledon is her playground, and unless there's some kind of Sprem conspiracy, she should sail to the finals.
7. Elena Dementieva -- It's really too bad about that serve. She's a solid player in every other aspect. She'll get Sania Mirza in the first round, which sounds tough, but should be easy for Dementieva. But this ain't 2004, and she's not going anywhere significant here.
8. Patty Schnyder -- A consistent quarterfinal performer of late in Grand Slams, but she'll get blocked this time by Martina Hingis.
9. Anastasia Myskina -- Made the finals in the Eastbourne warmups last week, losing to Henin-Hardenne in three. Still, the one-hit wonder won't go far here, with Venus likely in the fourth round.
10. Nicole Vaidisova -- I won't gloat over the fact that I was the only person to pick Vaidisova for the semis at the French Open. But it's true. I like her chances again, too. She's reached another level, and players who would normally be threats, like Karolina Sprem won't be a problem. She may have a chip on her shoulder if she plays Kuznetsova, and the result will be different this time. She's got a nice serve, she's a big kid, and she can do damage here. Can she beat an in-form Kim Clijsters, though, assuming she makes quarters?

Martina Hingis (12) -- Hard to imagine her losing before the quarters, where she'll have her hands full against Henin-Hardenne. But I predict an upset here. It's not because I refuse to give JHH any props. Yeah, mostly it is.
Anna-Lena Groenefeld (13) -- I keep waiting for this talented German to do something already. Could it be beating Clijsters in round four?
Tatiana Golovin (29) -- Haven't heard much from her since she let Sharapova off the hook in Miami. Plus, as far as I'm concerned, anyone in Mauresmo's half has got a fair-to-middling shot.

Good first round matches:
Zvonareva v. Clijsters: Zvonareva has been showing signs of life again, which is good for women's tennis, because this is the only interesting first-round match. Really. I'd offer up Mirza v. Dementieva, but if Mirza wins that match, I'll eat my shoe. Anyway, Zvonareva is the only person I've seen cry and it made me laugh.

Upset special:
I'll pass.

The way it'll go down:
Semifinals -- Venus Williams v. Maria Sharapova and Martina Hingis v. Kim Clijsters
Final -- V. Williams v. M. Hingis
Winner -- Venus

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Where's your head at?

A few Wimbledon withdrawals were announced yesterday, among them the usual suspects (Carlos Moya-shoulder/grass allergy and Mary Pierce with a bad foot.) More surprising was Lindsay Davenport pulling out. She's still struggling with a back injury. It's too bad. She's always got a chance at Wimbledon, especially with the shallow waters of the women's field these days. A couple of years ago, she was thinking about retirement, when she magically pulled a great season out of her tennis bag. This year, having a marginal record and having to pull out of two majors, those thoughts have to be returning. No one would fault her. She's 30 and probably ready to get off the tour-go-round.
Like Andre Agassi, though, the one thing that could be stopping Lindsay is one word: 'more.' She could have had more majors, more weeks at No. 1. Sure, injuries are just as much a part of her story as the Williams sisters, but the main problem throughout her career has been her mindset. She's a great champion, but the last word associated with Davenport is 'fighter.' She has succeeded despite her poor attitude and focus sometimes. But it's been at the majors, most recently at Wimbledon against Venus in 2005, where the negativity has derailed her whole game. The most puzzling aspect of this is that her game is nearly flawless. She hits the cleanest ball in the WTA locker room right now, and debatably the best serve, first and second. Davenport comes on court armed with enough weapons to beat anyone, and then she misses one shot. That's when the shoulders slump, the cursing begins and the shots clip the net.
Lindsay Davenport should have more than three majors now. Perhaps that's what will keep her going past this latest setback. Maybe her time off with also be good for her head game, because women's tennis seriously needs another contender. Unlike Agassi, she's still got shots at majors as long as her body holds up.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Get out the lawn mower: It's grass season!

Many of the pros started the grass season in earnest this week, including French Open champ Rafael Nadal and French Open not-champ Roger Federer. Let's start with Nadal, who scored a few impressive wins against Mardy Fish and Fernando Verdasco, before splitting sets with Lleyton "The Difference, Mate" Hewitt, who eventually beat James Blake in the final. Then he retired from the match with a sore shoulder. His first attempt at the Stella Artois tournament wasn't so bad. Beating a big server like Fish on grass and challenging Hewitt is definitely good for the Spaniard. He's just too good a player to limit himself to one surface.
Like a certain world No. 1. Federer had yet another streak to defend at the Gerry Weber Open, and he did it as far away from Nadal as he could get. He was shooting for 41 straight grass-court wins, and he pulled it out somehow, defeating the talented Tomas Berdych, who beat Federer at the Olympics. Federer found himself stretched to the limit in almost all his matches. He beat Richard Gasquet in three sets in his second-round match. Believe it or not, he was down four match points to Olivier Rochus. Then he squeezed past Tommy Haas. Is this what Rog gets for making it to the French Open finals -- a challenging draw in a grass-court warmup? Perhaps, Roger, a week off is in order.
Another grass lover, Andy Roddick, had high hopes to defend his Artois title, but was just left bellowing "Stella!" James Blake, who is without question the best male American player right now, beat Roddick in the semis in straight sets. He may still be knocking off some rust, but if Andy ain't got grass, he ain't got much.
On the topic of declining Americans, Andre Agassi lost his first match back, to Tim Henman, who may know something about playing on grass. Or as they say it in England, Grass. Anyway, I'm starting to wish Agassi would take his fans out of our misery. He's a legend, but he hasn't got a chance to win a major again. Watching Agassi struggle with pain, and against opponents he used to own is like watching Evander Holyfield get back in a boxing ring. Except Andre's only got two kids to feed.
The women also took to the grass this week, and Maria Sharapova allegedly has the best grass-court record in tennis history. From a wire story: "She has won 34 of 37 matches and owns a winning percentage of 91.9 percent, just ahead of the previous record of 91.5 percent held by the German Steffi Graf." Wow. A whole 37 matches. I wonder how many grass-court matches Steffi Graf played. I'm guessing more than 37. We get it already. Maria's the 'it' girl of tennis. Fine. Great. Don't give her ridiculous records, too. She's no Steffi Graf on grass. Steffi Graf would probably beat her right now, on grass or any other surface. Back to the lecture at hand. Sharapova's "record" took a huge hit this week when she lost in the semifinals to little-known American Jamea Jackson, 6-4, 6-4, in the DFS Classic. Another Russian, Vera Zvonareva, took the title, beating Jackson in two tiebreakers on Sunday. It's good to see Zvonareva back to her winning ways. Women's tennis needs the depth, and maybe Jackson will have something to offer in that department as well. She's had some nice wins this year, and she just happens to be the only young female American having success these days.
For some reason, Wimbledon is giving Mark Philippoussis a wild card. This is either a huge waste or this is going to turn out like Goran Ivanesevic's wild card adventure did.

Greg Rusedski has a bone to pick with Stella Artois organizers. From the wire: "British number one Greg Rusedski accused organizers of the Stella Artois Championships of not looking after the interests local players after he was forced to retire from his first round match on Monday.
'Last week I was playing... and just did the splits and hurt my hip. So coming into the event, I asked for a Tuesday start,' Rusedski fumed after he withdrew while trailing Frenchman Antony Dupuis 5-7 6-3 3-2. 'We warned the tournament director that if they put me on Monday, there was a chance I might not be fully fit to go the whole distance. But he obviously ignored that ... You'd think they'd want to help their British players do well here instead of hinder them.'
Did I miss something? Aren't you Canadian, dude? They root for you after Henman, and Andy Murray, and Paul Bettany, from the Wimbledon movie, have tanked out. Yep, it's your world, Greg.

Also, Venus has committed to playing the Hopman Cup with Taylor Dent in late December. December. Let's be serious. Who among those organizers would bet their house that she shows up?

League watch: 0-fer-- you know, it's not about winning or losing ...

Yeah, it's how you play the game, and for the first time in a while, I felt like I played pretty darned well in my league matches this week. There's a Pittsburgh Tennis League and a USTA team I'm weighing down this season.
On Wednesday night, I accompanied my PTL team to Mt. Lebanon in the South Hills to play on their wannabe-clay courts. I hate that stuff. To me, it's like playing in quicksand. You take a step, and ground is disappearing under you. That's not right. Either get real clay or make it a hard court. Anyway, everyone's got that fake stuff out here, so I'll have to get used to it. So I'm on the 4th doubles line (for the 'developing' player) and my partner was a girl I once played against at Highland Park, a tennis hotbed in the city. But she was rusty, and I never start well, so by the time I was really ready to play, we were down 0-6 and 1-2 to a very interesting team. Both players were fairly solid, but one of them had a very suspect serve. When I say 'suspect', I mean that the serve w-a-s e-x-t-r-e-m-e-l-y s-l-o-w. Yeah. I suspected it was a tactic to make the returner go for too much, which is exactly what I did for the first set. I couldn't believe the free point I was about to get, because it never came. Well, in the second set, I began to stand in really close and treat it like a short forehand putaway shot and that worked better.
I also knew that my partner was a very aggressive player, and she's excellent at net. Unfortunately, she was lacking confidence, and found herself in a place I've been this year: no man's land. Not that no man's land. The place where aggressive players go when they're afraid their normal shots will go out and start dinking balls over, but they try to do it with their regular stroke. No man's land -- as in, no man wins that way. Watching Janet struggle made me realize my own issues, and I walked up to her and said, "Listen. I know you're aggressive, just like me. Go for your shots. Don't hit like a punk because you'll regret it." She responded to my advice, and so did I. I began intercepting loose returns and she began burying some of those volleys.
We held off defeat for a few more games, and came pretty close to evening the second set at 5, but we left with a loss and a lesson. Don't be a (insert your favorite derogatory word for a pusher here). Hit the ball, for crying out loud.
Saturday, I was teamed up with one of my team's better doubles players on the #2 string. After Wednesday's match, I was feeling pretty good, and starting to feel more comfortable with doubles. But my teammate, Jamie, and I made a key mistake: I took forehand. I know Jamie, and I thought I'd be better on the backhand side, but she usually plays backhand, so I acquiesed. Well, that first set went fast: 6-1, bad guys. On the changeover, Jamie looked at me and said, "Let's switch." It wasn't that we were playing horribly at that point, but I was once again partnered with an agressive player, and our shots hadn't started falling yet. They fell in the second set. With Jamie pounding away on those forehand returns, and with me holding my own on backhands, we leveled the match with a 6-4 set. (I should mention we were up 5-2, and when it was my turn to serve, I took a deep breath, told myself to relax, and served three double-faults in a row. Yep. Cool as ice. That's me.)
The third set was a seesaw affair, with Jamie and I leading at 2-1 and 4-3, and surrendering the lead both times, until we found ourselves looking down a 4-5 barrel. The last game of the set ended with me taking a nervous swing at a pretty easy serve and burying the ball snugly into the net.
Another loss, another lesson. First, for cryin' out loud, never, NEVER, just don't ever push the ball if that's not your style, even if you're nervous. Second, I'm on backhand. Always.

Monday, June 12, 2006

A Spaniard chewing the cud? Maybe

Now that Rafael Nadal has successfully upended Roger Federer to win his second French Open in a row, the question is: What's next? Nadal has shown unprecedented enthusiasm (for a clay specialist) to play well at Wimbledon. A breath of fresh air for fans who are used to seeing Spaniards cite various make-believe injuries an excuse to pass on Wimbledon, which is, regardless of the surface, the biggest tournament on the tennis calendar. That attitude is unbelievable from a pro, from someone who makes money playing tennis. To already brainwash yourself into believing you can't play on a certain surface is why those in question (the Gaston Gaudios and Carlos Moyas out there) win one, and then they're done.
Nadal likes to deflect talk about how he ranks against Federer. "I can't say I am better than him because that's not true," Nadal says, and he has a point. Federer is better rounded, and possesses a complete arsenal, but when you can beat that kind of player six times, while he's only tagged you once, it's time to give yourself some credit.
Federer is the favorite on any other surface against Nadal or anyone else. However, Nadal has taken him out a couple of times on a hard court. In the past few years, players have noted that the surface plays more hard-court these days. If so, that could help Nadal a lot. He plays with lots of topspin, and it's hard to hit a ball with topspin when it's barely bouncing off the court.
It's too early to tell if Nadal will ever succeed on a Grand Slam level on a surface other than clay, but his determination is definitely a good sign. Let's keep an eye on him during Wimbledon warm-ups.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

League Watch: Can you quit a match because you're an airhead?

You'd think the more you lose, the more you get used to it. Well, for me, it just gets worse. Today, I played someone who was constantly talking about how ill she was and that she probably wouldn't be able to finish. So I jump out to a 3-1 lead, and already thinking about how big a deal winning would be if my opponent is injured. Before I knew it, it was 3-all, which didn't concern me, but then she got up 4-3, and I thought, 'OK, time to get serious.' Well, by the end of that thought, it was the end of the set, and I had lost it.
The part that really hurt for me was that I realized that I'm a head case on the court. I'm good until I miss a shot. One shot, and then I'm frazzled. I start second-guessing myself, wondering if I'm going for too much and at the same time chiding myself for merely pushing the ball.
Oh, wait, there's another part that really hurts. Every match I've played, I've got to listen to my opponent tell me about the nice game I have. The woman I lost to today told me, "I didn't win the match, you lost it." It's a nice compliment, but when you hear it at least once a week, it starts to resemble the laughter of the Wicked Witch of the West. "You're a loser, my pretty. You and your little racquet, too."
Why can't the better player win all the time, regardless of all the damn Swiss cheese in her ears?
I'd like to end on an optimistic note: My season is ending soon.

It's on: Quentin Tarantino v. Lou Diamond Phillips

While the women's draw was ripe with possibilities, there was only one real scenario on the men's side and on Friday, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal sealed their destiny to appear in this year's French Open final. Federer was looking a bit shaky in his semifinal against David Nalbandian, but fortunately, the No. 3 seed picked up a strained abdominal muscle and had to pull out. If he's really injured, that's a stroke of really bad luck. He could end up missing Wimbledon also. Once again, when you see players who are really injured, you have to look at the schedule. One month off is not enough.
In the other semi, Nadal finished off Ivan Ljubicic, but the Croat didn't go away without getting a couple off-the-court backhands. On Nadal's time between points: "I am surprised how much they let him do it, because, you know, they give him one time violation, but didn't seem like change something. I think the umpire should be more aggressive on that because it's ridiculous how much time he takes between points." On Nadal apparently being coached by his uncle Toni: "But I had bad experience in Miami when I lost to him. Toni was telling him a lot what to do, yes." He really could have wrapped in up a few words: "Yes, he dusted me and it pisses me off. Leave me alone."
If there is credence to Nadal being coached, it is something of a disadvantage. His coach can tell him, "Get him into the net," all he wants, though, and it will still be up to Nadal to execute. I still see off-court coaching as a crutch in a sport where the appeal is figuring it out yourself. It may give Nadal an edge, but it's not why he's No. 2 in the world.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Rule of Tennis #472: You cannot quit a match because you're losing

It was practically a given that Rafael Nadal would advance to the semis at the French. Most people would not have thought that the teenager he played, Novak Djokovic, would have pulled up lame in the third set.
Apparently, he was having some back trouble, but he played two close sets. Also suspicious was his penchant for grabbing his back every time he lost a point. But the best part is his press conference. "I think I had the control of the match. I just didn't finish it on the right way when I needed to. " The Joke said. You know what's funny is what some people's definition of control is. Most people would define control as being most agressive, setting up the opponent for errors, maybe even having a lead in the set. Some people, like Djokovic, define control as being the first person to cry uncle -- before he loses in three sets. Strange, that.
Really, on the biggest stage he's ever played on, with a chance for a Grand Slam semi and he just bails? And then you make a statement that sounds a lot like: "He's lucky I bailed when I did, because I was going to destroy him." They say denial ain't just a river in Egypt. It's probably also the name of Novak's shampoo.
Friday's semis will pit the fortunate Nadal against Ivan Ljubicic, while Federer will face Nalbandian, again. Ljubicic's a very solid player, but not as patient as his opponent. Nadal should advance, but he may drop a set, or maybe two. As far as the other two, Federer has a tough time with Nalbandian, and on his worst (?) surface, those issues could be magnified. Nalbandian has a sniff, but he can also be very flaky. This is the semi to look forward to, but it's hard to see the top seed losing.
The women's final is set. Unfortunately, Henin-Hardenne is in it, and she will likely beat the daylights out of Svetlana Kuznetsova. Unless she gets a headache, or a paper cut. Seriously, I don't ever want to see Henin-Hardenne in another major final. Yes, she's a great player, and she's got a beautiful backhand, and she's the antithesis of the standard Big Babe in women's tennis today, but where do you rediscover respect for a player who just quits a Grand Slam final because she has a stomachache? Allegedly.
I shall not cheer for you, JHH.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

And then there were six

Wednesday's men's quarterfinals are set: Benneteau v. Ljubicic, then upstart Djokovic v. Nadal.
The Frenchman doesn't have a shot against Ljubicic. It's been noted that Ivan the Lube has had a very easy draw. This has got to be the easiest ride to the semis anyone's ever had.
The other match should be quite interesting, though. Both are very close in age, but with very different tennis fortunes. While Nadal has enjoyed Grand Slam success, Djokovic is enjoying his first real run. Both have great talent. As usual, Nadal's biggest advantage will be the surface. He'll keep points going, but his opponent will look to finish early. Nadal's fitter than anyone right now, and he's too young to worry about missing so far. This, too, should be a quick match.

Speaking of quick matches, there were a few in the women's quarterfinals. Dinara Safina threatened in the first set, but very quickly, and with little forewarning, simply fizzled against Svetlana Kuznetsova, 7-6(5), 6-0. It's interesting that Safina happens to be Russian, because there's this Russian male player who seems to flame out in important matches inexplicably. Now that I think about it, his name is Safin. Hmm.
Anna-Lena Groenefeld brought more than double the unforced errors to the party than did her opponent, Justine Henin-Hardenne. She, too, went away in the second set, and she went down 7-5,6-2. Henin-Hardenne will face fellow Aussie drop-out Kim Clijsters for a spot in the semifinals. With a major under her belt, perhaps Clijsters' performance anxiety against her countrywoman will dissipate. She really destroyed Martina Hingis, reducing tennis' Bobby Fischer to a chicken with her head cut off. Clijsters displayed that balance of power and touch, and she'll do just fine against Henin-Hardenne.
The last semifinalist, Nicole Vaidisova, again came back from losing a first-set tiebreak to defeat Venus Williams, 6-7(5), 6-1, 6-3. Venus had to have been remembering when she was Vaidisova's age, intimidating everyone with her height and heavy hitting. She might even be asking, "Hey, what happened to that Venus?" The answer is simple. She was the first of a kind, the Big Babe Brigade. Now, she has to contend with the monster she created, but the difference is these girls were taught better form. Back when the Williams sisters were the toast of tennis, their athleticism bailed them out of a lot of tight spots. It's still very impressive, but in order to win the French Open, you've got to keep a rally going. This is why Venus, or Serena, could take most of the year off, and still show up and win Wimbledon cold.
If Williams wants to get to the top again, she's got to get rid of all those unforced errors. She is allegedly being coached by her dad. Does he ever encourage her to play more defense and wait for her shot? Venus has done all kinds of great things in her career. One great thing she could do for her career is work extensively with another coach. The window's closing on her career. She's thisclose to approaching Lindsay Davenport status in majors: Close, but no cigar.