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.