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.