Sunday, March 19, 2006

Indian Wells wrap

It happened to John McEnroe. It happened to Venus and Serena Williams.
They got to the mountaintop, and maybe it got lonely up there. Or too intense. There were actresses, and directors, and fashion shows and interior design. To be fair, there were also injuries. They had dominance, a stranglehold on it, and released it. Mac took a break and was never able to fully come back. On her average day, a player with more consonants in their name than vowels whose ranking languishes in the fifties has got a shot against one of the sisters. She may be ranked higher than Serena, who rests at 61.
That won’t happen to Roger Federer.
In the Indian Wells final against James Blake at 4-3 in the second set, Blake had a point to hold serve, and even up the set. He played it nearly perfectly, yanking Federer left and right. Blake finally found himself with a floater at net, and rather than slam the overhead home, he blocked it into the open court.
OK. So you’re Roger Federer. You’re up a set, and you’ve already shaken your opponent’s confidence by overcoming a two-set deficit. Speaking of confidence, you walk out with two-game advantage against most opponents based on your swagger. However, you've been run ragged on this point, and that ball is still pretty far away. What do you do? Ah, you might let that volley go. Blake played a fine point, after all, you might reason.
No. Federer, already trying to recover from the previous shot, sprinted to the other side and barely reached that non-winner, ultimately ripping a shot to earn the break. There was nary a peep from Blake after that, and the match was a wrap in about twenty more minutes.
This is why Federer won’t ever just hand over his crown. Every title’s like his first. He plays with the reality of his situation always in mind, which is that everyone is out to get him. It doesn’t get under his skin (unlike some hard-serving Americans we know) but he relishes it. It’s like he watches his opponents struggle mightily and they get him in a corner, and it makes him chuckle. “Are you still trying to win?” it seems he’s thinking, but not in an arrogant way, then pulls a Houdini.
Federer’s not arrogant. He’s an awesome player, and he knows it. He says things like "Wasn't a real contest today," (after smoking Gaston Gaudio 6-0,6-0) and it’s understood that he’s merely speaking frankly. He could roll out the old "Score doesn't indicate how tough it was" crap, but that's not being humble. That's lying. Federer knows he worked hard to get to where he is today, and when you get to the mountaintop, you don't say "I just got lucky."
It certainly won't be luck when Federer does the expected (of him) and wins the Grand Slam. Right now, he's the only player who has a shot. Not just because he's already won Australia. He'll win all four because he thinks he deserves to. He wants to get to a place where he can be compared to no one. He wants his own mountain.

The perfect career

May you rest easy long-liners, in fair winds, and calm seas...
--- From The Perfect Storm (2000)

Andre Agassi looked pretty fit at Indian Wells this week. Not bad ... not bad at all for someone considered over the hill at 35, showing off his guns with fashion statements normally reserved for the likes of young gun Rafael Nadal.
He's played fairly impressively through his thirties, considering some of his contemporaries: Pete Sampras (playing World Team Tennis), Yevgeny Kafelnikov (picking lint out of his belly button) and Goran Ivanesevic (jockeying for captainship of the Croatian Davis Cup team). Agassi's putting it all out on the court, making Grand Slam finals, balancing his desire to win with newer obligations to family.
The bad news is that he lost in the second round to Tommy Haas at Indian Wells. In the tournament before that, in Dubai, he went down to some guy named Bjorn Phau in the Round of 16. Agassi has to get painful cortisone shots to quell the hip pain that had him limping through the French Open first round last year. That's just to play.
Why does he keep it up? Agassi's always said that as long as feels he can compete for majors, he's lacing up. Anything can happen (like Sampras winning the U.S. Open in 2002) but realistically, the journey's a much steeper hill these days. Not only is there near invicibility at the top of the game, but there are up-and-comers, like Haas, Blake, Gasquet and those who are appear to be fading, like Hewitt and Roddick, who Agassi would have his hands full with. Since Sampras' run, men's tennis has gotten deeper, and the likelihood that he can advance past the second week in a major draw is grim.
Here's hoping Agassi doesn't feel he needs to make up for lost time. Yes, he started out the rebel, refusing to play Wimbledon because of the dress code. (The irony: Now he's trying to preserve his body for one last All-England run.) He let his ranking dip to the mid-100's through the late 80s, watching Sampras dominate as he slugged away at Challengers events. But he came back and won the one major that Sampras can only dream about ... and they're probably clay-caked nightmares. There was the bleached-blonde hairstyle, and even that he rectified.
If he feels he has something left to prove, consider this: Eight Grand Slam titles, former world No. 1, one of five men to win all four majors in his career on four different surfaces, seven times the runner-up in majors, 60 singles titles, and right this second, ranked in the top 10.
Rest easy, Andre. Anytime you're ready.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

This week's results (3-5-06)

In Acupulco, unseeded Luis Horna, of Peru, won his first career title, defeating Chile's Juan Ignacio Chela, who was seeded seventh. Score: 7-6, 6-4. On the women's side, Anna-Lena Groenefeld also had a breakthrough, beating Flavia Pennetta, 6-1,4-6, 6-2. Groenefeld has been showing steady improvement since she partnered with Martina Navratilova in doubles. Just a coincidence, says Svetlana Kuznetsova.
Ah, 56 ain't bad: Roger Federer's streak of 56 wins on hardcourts ended when he lost in the Dubai final to dirtballer Rafael Nadal, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4. After the Spanish teen won the French Open, the question became whether his game could translate to other courts, which is fair. The Spaniards traditionally put their all into Roland Garros, then find an injury when it's time to report to Wimbledon. Nadal's win this week isn't a major, but it is Roger Federer. Look out for Nadal, French and beyond. Also in Dubai this past week, Marat Safin and Andre Agassi returned to the tour. Both lost in the second round to Olivier Rochus and Bjorn Phau, respectively.
At the Qatar Total(ly!) Open, Nadia Petrova beat Amelie Mauresmo, 6-3, 7-5 in the final. The Russian was able to beat Mauresmo for the second time in six tries for her second career title. The resurgent Martina Hingis made the semis here before going down to Mauresmo.
I don't stay up long enough to cover the Tennis Channel Open final in Las Vegas between James Blake and Lleyton Hewitt. Blake has never beaten Hewitt, but Blake is playing with confidence these days, while Hewitt has a title drought in the back of his mind. Blake in three.

In other news:
Believe it or ... believe it, Martina Hingis is now ranked higher than Serena Williams after two months of play. She's 44th, while Williams is 46th.
Pete Sampras will compete in World Team Tennis this season. He says he's not interested in competing again, but that sounds a lot like what Hingis was saying. "It's for fun." Sure. It'll be nice to have you back too, Pete.
The straight dope: Two wheelchair players were busted for "doping" this week. David Buck, of California, was suspended for 3.5 months after testing positive for cannabis last October. Although it isn't performance-enhancing, there is still a minimum penalty under the World Anti-Doping Code. Clearly, pot is not going to enhance your tennis game. It makes you eat Cheetos and kill police horses. Besides, the man's in a wheelchair. Give him a freakin' break.
Ilanit Fridman, of Israel, tested for terbutaline, a drug used to treat asthma, and not known to enhance performance. But alas, he had no therapeutic use exemption, so he got a month. So let's get this straight. You have asthma and you have an attack before a match. But you really want to play, but damn, no exemption. The World Anti-Doping Code says: "Hey, man, don't even think about it." Guys, focus on performance-enhancing! Unless they consider being able to breathe a defined advantage over your opponent.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Second wind

It was 1999. According to Prince, it was time to party. Jesse Ventura was a governor. Postage stamps cost 33 cents. And Martina Hingis was atop the tennis world. She was hoisting the Australian Open title she won over Amelie Mauresmo, and reclaiming her place at number one.
Well, that's how it started. By the end of the year, she had lost in the final of the French Open, the first round of Wimbledon and stepped aside to give Serena Williams her first U.S. Open title. Despite the Australian being her last singles Slam win, she held on to number one, with steady results, except where she wanted them.
By 2003, she'd packed it in, citing serious ankle problems. Not cited was the feeling she must have had that she was a Lilliputian, and everyone else was Gulliver. She decided that it was time to have some fun, ride horses, and sleep until 9 a.m.
Since then, Martina Hingis has retired and returned. She started slowly, losing to Justine Henin-Hardenne in her first tournament back, but picked up speed, momentum, and confidence. She's beaten Maria Sharapova, Anastasia Myskina, Vera Zvonereva, and stretched Kim Clijsters at the Australian.
While Hingis was controlling women's tennis like Bobby Fisher in a chess match, she may have gone somewhat unappreciated. Toward the end of her reign, some commentators thought it wrong that that Hingis was in a two-year drought in majors, and still No. 1. It's the slams that count, they said, and it's true.
But back then, few appreciated that she was able to show up for work almost every week. She consistently won the smaller tournaments, and was almost always around for the second week for Grand Slams. But the way the bigger and stronger players took her down mesmerized fans hungry for some excitement in a game that has never known how to market itself. The fact that she stayed healthy and sharp wasn't enough sometimes. Not when girls fifty pounds heavier and nearly a foot taller didn't so much focus on strategy as they did clubbing the ball.
Now, most of your favorite players take about two months off at a time. Strangely, Venus and Serena Williams introduced the 'power' game, but now their bodies seem as fragile as twigs. The jockeying at the top of the rankings depends largely on which injuries Davenport, Clijsters, Mauresmo, Sharapova and Henin-Hardenne are nursing now. Now, the winner of Grand Slams is largely determined by who can hang on, not on who's playing the best tennis. Sound familiar?
It took the rise and stumble of the Big Babe Brigade to see there is value in endurance in tennis. Martina Hingis made it infuriating then, to those awaiting the advent of the power game. Now, it's nice to see a familiar face in a familiar place, who isn't limping off the court.

Getting served:
It was another easy week for Andy Roddick, getting ousted in the quarters in Memphis. Andy's pretty frustrated right now, saying he's hitting the ball well, but everyone beating him is playing out of his mind. There are a lot of upstarts in tennis right now, the Murrays, the Gasquets, the Baghdatises, and among them, there's no respect for a top player. Roger Federer's been seeing that a lot lately, too, and somehow he still wins. So that's not the problem. The problem is that players have the book on Roddick. His rocket serve paralyzed opponents for a few years. Now they've figured him out. The problem is that Roddick needs to take his game to the next level. Either he doesn't realize this or he doesn't know how to raise his level.
It's only a matter of time before the same thing happens to Federer. The difference is that he is such a great all-around player that he'll answer, all the way down to Plan Z.