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.

Monday, June 05, 2006

The dust-up, or Week One at Roland Garros

I would just like to start by thanking my useless piece of crap computer for shutting down just as I was finishing the post you're about to read, the one that I had to rewrite at 2:30 in the morning. My sledgehammer awaits, you bastard.

OK. I can do this.

There were few surprises early on in the French Open. Andy Roddick lost early, and none of the favorites did, with the notable exception of Nadia Petrova. She seemed to have picked up an injury while playing nonstop before the French. Way to blow your high seed at a major.
Things picked up quite a bit on Sunday, though. James Blake went down to French teen Gael Monfils in five really tight sets. Unfortunately for Blake, it all seemed to turn for him on what looked like an easy volley that he managed to drop on his shoelaces. At the end of the match, and before he went to drown his sorrows in some stinky chateau, he whined to the chair umpire about crowd noise. It's understandable to be a bit pissed at yourself for blowing it, but to expect a chair umpire to turn into a detention teacher is a bit nuts, especially for the normally classy Jimmy. Speaking of nuts, Blake, at 26, is 0-8 in five set matches. His 19-year-old firecracker of an opponent is 3-1. All three: At the French.
On the women's side, Amelie Mauresmo squeaked out a first set win over Czech Nicole Vaidisova, then remembered she was (1) at a major and (2) it was the French Open. She bailed, 6-1, 6-2 after that. Dare I say czechmate?
The bigger surprise was Maria Sharapova dropping a 5-1 lead in the third set to Dinara Safina. No one was picking Sharapova to win this, bad ankle and all, but her strength has always been that killer instinct. It's actually harder to not win a game between 5-1 and 5-4 than to win four points. It may be somewhat early to sound the alarmist button, but here's an interesting factoid: Miss Power Shot hasn't been to a major final in nearly two years. Yes. she can pound the ball, but so can everyone else now, and some of them actually do other things, like change the pace and (gasp!) volley. And when she looks around her in the locker room, she'll see girls her size and age, but with nearly 20 more pounds of muscle. I would say she needs to bulk up, but that would ruin the whole modeling thing on the side. Sharapova seems to make a point of saying she's a tennis player first. Let's see if she's willing to put her body where the gym is. (p.s. -- what is up with that commercial with the balls exploding everywhere? Subliminal is supposed to mean not obvious, right?)

Anyway, let's whip out this crystal ball again already:
The women's quarterfinals:
Vaidisova v. Venus Williams: Venus is the same as she ever was -- you never know what to expect. Streaky doesn't even begin to describe how someone get make about 30 unforced errors a set and still beats some good players. I picked Vaidisova for the semis, and I'm sticking with it. She's full of confidence right now, while Venus is still in the early stages of a comeback. It should be three tight sets.
Safina v. Kuznetsova: Good thing Safina has today off. She'll need the time to refuel after that tough match ... D'oh! She's got a doubles match, y'say? What's that I smell? A late withdrawal? Leaving her partner in the lurch, a la Steffi Graf to John McEnroe? Anyway, Kuznetsova in three because she's got Grand Slam experience, and she's fitter, which she'll need because Safina will be ripping every ball.
Justine Henin-Hardenne v. Anna-Lena Groenefeld: Hate to pick everyone's favorite bellyacher, but she's playing great right now. This will be Groenefeld's first real test, and it's a doozy. She'll score a D, but there's room for improvement.
Shahar Peer or Hingis (tied at a set all) v. Kim Clijsters: Peer has been making some serious clay waves lately, so she's not a pushover, but it's hard to think that giving Hingis a night to think about this match won't work out to her advantage. So Hingis v. Clijsters. Clijsters is playing really well right now, and the great thing about her game is that she has the ability to hit huge shots and that she knows when to go for them, and when to keep a point going. Clijsters in three, methinks.

And the men (still mired in the fourth round):
Alberto Martin v. Julien Benneteau: Yes, it's the French Open, but you should almost always pick against the French. Especially when he's playing a Spaniard. Martin wins.
Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo v. Ivan Ljubicic: Yes, it's the French Open, the time of year when Spaniards (Ramirez Hidalgo) you never heard of go deep in a major, and sometimes win the damned thing, only to retreat into obscurity for the rest of their career. Ah, the French. Sorry, Ivan.
Gael Monfils v. Novak Djokovic: How's this for a stat: Djokovic was below .500 for his career before Roland Garros? That's sweet, but the run will end here. Monfils is French, but he's fired up after beating a top 10 player in Blake on a big stage in his home country. He may be physically tired, but he won't collapse yet. That's in the next round.
Lleyton Hewitt v. Rafael Nadal: The brat is back! Good to see Lleyton back in the thick of things. He also holds a 3-0 record against Nadal, but never on clay. It's also been a year since they played during which time Nadal has taken to regularly kicking Federer's butt on hard and soft courts. If Nadal can keep his food down, he's going to take his first step toward turning that record around. Straight sets for Nadal.
Tomorrow: A look at the men's quarters, and what happened when Martina met Martina.
3:30 a.m. Sigh. If a tree falls in the woods ...

League Watch: 6-1 -- not the height of my fantasy man

Another week, another loss. This week, I was sent out into the mysterious land of doubles. Here's the problem with doubles. There are about two too many people on the court. Seriously, how are you supposed to get anything done with someone buzzing around you on your side, and two people to hit between on the other side? Crikeys!
Anyway, we lost, and big. Beyond that, my partner got all Howard Dean on the opposing team, accusing them of a conspiracy of the highest proportions: purposely making us run for balls between points. Sheesh, it's bad enough we're getting killed out there, she's gotta go fire them up!? Plus, there was also that one game where I hit an ace, and then three double faults.
I still have a chance to go .500 for the season. We've got five matches left. I'm an eternal optimist. Or extremely dim.
Next week: I ask experts, after they stop rolling on the floor laughing, what is wrong with my service.