Saturday, January 27, 2007

Another day, another Slam ...

There's a joke among churchgoers about those who don't show up regularly.
"Oh, her?" they say. "She's a CME."
It's not a denomination. It means they show up on Christmas, Mothers Day and Easter, the big holidays.
Sound like a recent Grand Slam winner to anyone?
Church, let's greet Sister Serena Williams in the name of the Lord. She's a busy woman,
many careers and such, so sometimes, she can't make it to the weekly services held by
the Women's Tennis Association. But when she shows up, she can shine with the most
faithful members.  
Some members, the Dementievas, the Schnyders, they're always 
there. They know exactly what to do when they're handcuffed by a ball 
at the net, or when they're down a set point, or for that matter, 
up a set point. 
Others, like Sister Williams, may look rusty when they haven't been in those situations
in a long time.
But when she tells herself she probably won't be back on court until the surface turns 
orange and slippery, she'll get 
warmed up, all right. 
Just ask Maria Sharapova, if you want a testimony. Sister Sharapova was something
of a prodigy growing up. She had, and has, loads of talent. Better than any of her
contemporaries, she can hit the high notes in the heat of battle. And for all her hard work,
she recently was promoted to the head of the flock. That was the good news. The bad
news is that when she got to the big stage, the Australian Open final, she got whupped
by a CME tennis player. She got outshouted, outmanuevered and outshone.
All in about an hour's time.
Well, right now, Sharapova's back on the tour, grinding it out with the rest of the regulars.
She's working out the kinks at a tournament in Tokyo. She, of course,
will be back on the big stage, proving why she deserves to be world No. 1. Does she? Eh.
What's Serena doing right now? Maybe a taste of victory will turn her
into a regular on the WTA this year. Maybe she'll show up before the next Grand Slam in May.
Or maybe she'll be kicking up her feet at home in LA, or Florida,
agreeing to be a voice actress for a cartoon. Does she deserve to be
world No. 1? Is Serena, sitting on her couch at home come Sunday morning, of lesser faith, of lesser talent, than the grinders, 
the regular worshipers? 
Might have to wait until Mother's Day to find out.

Friday, January 26, 2007

An Open Letter to Andy Roddick

Dear Andy:

What in the hell is wrong with you?
I know that when you step out on the court, you might be thinking primarily of yourself, about your own desire to win. Especially when you play someone who appears to be head-and-shoulders above the rest of the class.
Well, let me give you a little hint about the rest of us. Some of us like to live life on the edge. Some of us, (and leave Pete Rose out of this, for land's sake!) actually bet on tennis. Some of us put a little faith in strangers, because we're in a trusting mood. Because you (specifically, you, Andy, you little -- whew! Almost lost it there ...) make "some of us" think we can believe, Andy. Some of us want you to win more than you do, trust me. Trust me.
I mean, why, Andy? Why would you retool your game, hire a tennis legend as your coach, tell us that you're the "New Andy," start hitting a backhand, even learning how to volley? Why do you reel us in, then cut us loose? Maybe you feel bad right now, because in spite of your improvements, you got beat again in a Grand Slam by Roger Federer. 6-0, Andy? 6-0?? I could see how painful it could be, feeling like you're closing the gap, only to be dismissed as just another pretender. You've got to be wondering, "What the hell? Is he getting better or am I getting worse?" Might even be feeling like you're trying to run in quicksand, working your ass off, and making no progress. And that sucks.
Andy, you might be thinking that this is the lowest a human being's ever felt. Two words:
"Some of us" expect big things, a big payoff, even, by supporting you, and "we" are the ones suffering now. Some of us have lost a paycheck over this match, a mortgage. Worse yet, "some of us" have to pick up a shovel and clean dog shit out of our yard in the biting Pittsburgh cold, sliding on a sloped lawn covered with snow. Ever been so low that you had to shovel dog shit for three weeks straight, have to clean up after a dog that doesn't even like you? (I can tell. I have my ways.) I didn't think so, Andy. Incidentally, when was the last time you've even been in the same room with a shovel?
Bottom line, Andy? There's only one fair solution to this. I feel like I've been hustled, man. You baited me into making a bet, then I get my clock cleaned. Or my yard. Whatever. Anyhow, you should pay off my bet, man. I put my neck on the line for you, dawg. For you. If you cared about your fans, you'd get your Cornhusker behind down here, and clean up my dog shit.
I really hope I don't need to get my lawyer on this, Andy.


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Same dance, different partner

There was a time in Martina Hingis' career when all that stood between her and an Australian Open title was Jennifer Capriati. In 2001 and 2002, Hingis made the final, and lost both times to the American. Particularly memorable was the 2002 final, where both players were barely standing after playing under that famous Australia heat.
Five years later, Capriati is languishing in semi-retirement and Hingis, having had retired herself, has bounced back to the top of the game. For the second year in a row, Hingis has made the quarterfinals. And for the second year in a row, she draws Kim Clijsters.
Clijsters, continuing the familiar retirement theme, is calling it quits at the end of the year. (Ah, to be 23 years old, and be facing the promise of never having to work again ... ) It's her self-imposed last chance to win this championship.
In 2006, she stopped Hingis' comeback train, and this year, she's favored to do it again. In her three years away from the game, Hingis never did come up with a weapon against her own biggest weakness -- the power game.
The other quarterfinal casts top seed Maria Sharapova against Anna Chakvetadze, seeded twelvth. Chakvetadze (say it, don't spray it) is toward the conclusion of her best run at a Grand Slam. On paper, she has a win against Sharapova, by way of walkover in 2006. The bad news is that Sharapova has two very real wins against her fellow Russian, and she'll probably make it three.
The men's quarterfinals will feature world No. 2 Rafael Nadal against Fernando Gonzalez, who did Nadal a solid by doing something Nadal's never been able to do -- beating James Blake in the previous round. Gonzalez has an explosive, high-risk game, and when he's on, it's pretty impressive. When it's not, well, just look away. Nadal is recovering from a rough end to 2006, but looks to be playing himself back into condition. This one could go either way. Break out the popcorn.
The winner, of course, advances to the semifinals, and will face the winner of the Nikolay Davydenko/Tommy Haas match. Haas has been climbing back from injury for the past year or so. He's having his deepest run at a Grand Slam in a long while, but he'll have to be inspired to beat Davydenko, whom he holds a career 0-2 record against.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

It was the (insert word here) of times ...

"Those who can, do. Those who can't, pretend they know what the hell is going on with those who can."
My words. I know. They're beautiful. Thank you.
'Bout wraps up my feelings of superiority when it comes to tennis knowledge, too. Really, what effin' moron picked Marat Safin to make the semis, and Jelena Jankovic to win the whole thing? Shouldn't I have known that Andy Roddick was mentally improving at a rate that no one could predict? That although Serena Williams' lack of activity would mount to retirement to most, she could still beat the snot out of top 10 players?
This, in particular, either bothers me, or convinces me that women's tennis is about to get very interesting. Jelena Jankovic, for example, is match-tough. Since January 1, she's won one title and took Kim Clijsters to the limit in another. She's fit. She's smart. She's ranked eleventh in the world.
She just lost in the 4th round of the Australian Open to a woman who played three matches before the Open, and sixteen in all of last year. Serena Williams, who could stand to lose (at least) ten pounds in order to regain some semblance of fitness, is taking down seeds at a major like she's nineteen again. I'm not talking about seeds like Elena Dementieva, either. Her other scalp is Nadia Petrova, only number five in the world.
So. Is women's tennis at a place where the top is comprised of those who avert injury enough to play a full schedule? Or are things about to get very interesting? A bit of both, I think.
Even with two Slams under her belt, all you need to know about Amelie Mauresmo is that you just never know. And Svetlana Kuznetsova, without question, grabbed a Slam when the women's game was in a freefall. She was ranked third in Australia, and lost in the fourth round. Their victors, Shahar Peer and Lucie Safarova, are no slouches, and, by all counts, are legitimate up-and-comers. Especially with Kuznetsova, though, the question of whether a three seed is too high for her at a major has been answered emphatically.
Would the top 10 list look dramatically different if not for the injuries/departures of the Williams sisters, Clijsters, Davenport, Hingis and Capriati? Yes. And if you know the game, I bet you have an idea who just who wouldn't be there.
But are Peer and Safarova tough players? Hell yes. What we're seeing now in the women's game (I hope) is the development of depth. Soon, perhaps, it'll shake out like the men's game, where you have your top echelon, but you have those guys who always make things interesting. What's great about men's tennis is that there may be players you've never heard of, but they've got game. Most men's first-round matches aren't thirty minutes long.
To paraphrase Alexandre Dumas, now we just have to wait and hope. Wait to see if Peer and Safarova are the real deal. Hope that Serena doesn't get bored again, and that Venus, and even Henin-Hardenne come back soon. (I can't believe I wrote that. Now, you see the desperate nature of this situation.) And see what happens if the best of the present and future collide.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Australian Open pre(?)view

Is it Australian Open time already? Well, very little has changed during the offseason. Injuries have still ravaged the ranks, especially on the women's side. How bad is it? The No. 32 seed is Eleni Daniilidou. Who's that? you may ask. My point exactly, I respond.
Let's get to it.

1. Roger Federer -- So here we go again, with talk that Fed's draw is tough. When it comes to the early rounds, he's practically sleepwalking out there. He'll probably face Novak Djokovic in round four, which could be tough, and Marcos Bagdatis after that, which would be tougher. With Ljubicic relinquishing his quarter, Federer could Safin, Roddick or Ancic in the semis. Yeah, that is tough. But he'll probably win another Australian Open, maybe with one eye open, if even that's necessary. Unless ...
2. Rafael Nadal -- Here's the only guy who can make Federer look downright uncomfortable. The bad news is that since Wimbledon last year, he's had something of a dry spell which includes zero titles and a semifinal loss to Federer in Shanghai. And, truly, Nadal's the one with the tough draw. His first round opponent is Robert Kendrick, who, with a couple more revolutions of the Earth, would have beaten Nadal at the first round in Wimbledon. We'll see how he handles him this time, but as he advances, he'll come upon potential minefields by the names of Andy Murray, Lleyton Hewitt and James Blake. With the added problem of an apparent thigh injury, it's hard to see him even getting to Federer.
3. Nikolay Davydenko -- Good to see him all recovered from his "foot injury." In case you didn't know, the third seed withdrew from the Sydney tournament, and said "I don't think nobody cares about here." So, assuming Davydenko is "healthy," he has a cushy little draw, with a projected meeting with Max Mirnyi in round four. But can he advance out of his quarter, past the likes of Tommy Haas or David Nalbandian? Don't think so.
4. Ivan Ljubicic -- That's a damn lot of money to spend on a plane ticket for one match. What's happened to Ljubicic? He's not been the same player since his clash with Nadal at the French Open.
5. James Blake -- The American belle of this ball has been Andy Roddick, with his newfound attacking game and win over Federer in exhibition. Still, I think James Blake is a better player -- for now. He can be a consistent threat to Federer, and I think the former Harvard student can figure out how to adjust his game faster, although he's obviously prone to mental lapses. His first-round match is a run-back of the Sydney final last week, where he edged Carlos Moya. Although the Spaniard is a tough customer, Blake should be OK through the fourth round. Lurking will be Fernando Gonzalez or Lleyton Hewitt. With a 1-7 record against the Annoying Aussie, I'm sure he'd rather see Gonzalez. If he gets out of that, he could meet Nadal. Having never lost to the world No. 2, and not playing on clay, should make James really happy.
6. Andy Roddick -- So you get a new coach to change your game, train hard in the offseason, beat Roger Federer in an exhibition final to start your season, and what do you get? Marat Safin in round three. This, in my mind, is a real problem for Roddick. Everything Roddick has been learning to do from Jimmy Connors, Safin can do naturally. He's a better volleyer and has incredible groundstrokes. The ray of hope for Roddick is Safin's unstable mental status. One bad call, and Roddick could roll right past Safin.
7. Tommy Robredo -- If you think that working hard (and often) means little, meet Tommy Robredo. Last year, he played 27 tournaments, scoring wins over James Blake, David Nalbandian, and Marat Safin. Yes, there is a 'but' here. Robredo has had little success with majors. It's unlikely his luck will change here. Four words: Baghdatis or Gasquet Round Four. Two more words: Federer's quarter.
8. David Nalbandian -- Really, who knows what to expect anymore from this guy? Here's one thing NOT to expect: Nalbandian getting past Tommy Haas.
9. Mario Ancic -- Blahblahblah(ACE)blahblahblah(ACE). Seriously, there's more to Ancic than a wicked serve, but it's hard to tell where that will take him, as far as Grand Slams go. Blahblahblah(GOOD LUCK BEATING SAFIN OR RODDICK)blahblahblah.
10. Fernando Gonzalez -- Another fine player with questionable success at Grand Slams. His game is risky, which often backfires, but also gives other players fits. He could meet Lleyton Hewitt in the third round and James Blake after that. Since I'm picking Blake for the finals, I don't guess I can pick Gonzalez to do well here, too.

Lleyton Hewitt -- He's always a contender, although it's unclear how long that will be true. He comes to his home slam with some injury concerns, no coach and a strong odor of baby food.
Marcos Baghdatis -- Last year's finalist has little chance of coming in under the radar. His second round match against Gael Monfils should be a popcorn match.
Tommy Haas -- Opportunity knocks for the former World No. 3. The highest seed in his quarter is Davydenko, and he's got a sniff at Blake or Nadal in the quarterfinals.
Marat Safin -- He could have a great run here, but he could have a nervous breakdown, too. Here's hoping he didn't forget to pack his sedatives.

Interesting (remaining) first round matches:
Nadal v. Kendrick

How 'bout that second round?:
Baghdatis v. Gael Monfils -- The Frenchman's got a lot of talent, and he's a big guy. He's looking to make that next level, and he could claim a big scalp here.

The way it'll go down:
Quarterfinals: Federer v. Baghdatis, Ferrer v. Safin, Haas v. Davydenko, Blake v. Nadal
Semifinals: Federer v. Safin, Haas v. Blake
Final: Federer v. Blake
Winner: Duh.

1. Maria Sharapova -- She gets top billing with the withdrawal of Justine Henin-Hardenne. She had a strong finish to 2006, and comes in as the favorite. It helps that she has a soft draw, as she always seems to. Or she makes it look easy. She could get a good workout from Meghann Shaughnessy, then possibly Vera Zvonareva or Ana Ivanovic. Ivanovic would be the bigger obstacle, but Sharapova should be fine through the semis, where she could get Martina Hingis or Kim Clijsters.
2. Amelie Mauresmo -- She doesn't have to tackle too many "mental toughness" questions these days, but she hasn't exactly reversed her reputation yet, like Justine Henin-Hardenne did. There's a bit of doubt regarding how she'll respond to a challenge from Elena Dementieva or Nicole Vaidisova in the quarterfinals, or worse yet, Jelena Jankovic or Nadia Petrova in the semis. The other issue is Mauresmo's second round match. Olga Poutchkova played here in Pittsburgh a couple of months ago, and she's got a game, and the confidence to shake Mauresmo.
3. Svetlana Kuznetsova -- Kuznetsova is embedded in a tough part of the draw, with sleepers like Serena Williams, Maria Kirilenko, Shahar Peer and Tatiana Golovin, along with contenders like Petrova and Jankovic. I'd bet on a Kuznetsova/Petrova quarterfinal.
4. Kim Clijsters -- Shame on the Womens Tennis Association for robbing fans of a longer career from Clijsters. If they hadn't waited to tackle the schedule problems (and by extension, the injury issue), she likely wouldn't be talking about quitting after this season. Not only is she one of the most talented players of the last few years, but she's managed to be a fighter and a nice personality in the game. (We'll excuse the fact that she almost married Lleyton Hewitt.) She really shouldn't have only one Grand Slam. OK. I'm putting away the soapbox now. Clijsters has had a good warmup to the Australian with wins over Sharapova and Jankovic. She's also saying that she doesn't have a shot at the title. Although she has no chance of sneaking up on anyone, it's a nice try. She can get out of her quarter by beating Hingis or Dinara Safina. But Sharapova in the semis?
5. Nadia Petrova -- She's in the Kuznetsova quarter of the draw, and she may get to face Serena Williams in round four. Is she up to it? Petrova has struggled with injuries despite her solid game.
6. Martina Hingis -- Last year at this time, Hingis was unseeded, and was stopped by Kim Clijsters in the quarterfinals. Well, one year later, she's seeded sixth, and yet, Kim Clijsters is still standing in her way. There's nothing to indicate the results will be any different. And after her inexplicable loss to Virginie Razzano, it's hard to know for sure that she can even beat Nathalie Dechy.
7. Elena Dementieva -- As usual, her downfall will be her shaky service. Of course, the rest of her game can get her very far, even past Vaidisova in the fourth round.
8. Patty Schnyder -- Won't get out the second round, against Shuai Peng.
9. Dinara Safina -- This is her highest ranking at a Slam, which is great. What isn't great is that she's had some big wins against a few of her fellow Russians, but not consistent results. She has an opportunity here with her draw. She'll have a hard time against Na Li, and tougher still against Hingis.
10. Nicole Vaidisova -- After a breakout 2006, Vaidisova finds herself in the top top ten. If she was rusty coming into Australia, withstanding a challenge from Jill Craybas was a good start. (Incidentally, when did Craybas turn into the Incredible Hulk? She's 32 years old, and has muscles bulging out of her muscles. Can somebody say Barry Bonds?) She'd better shake it off in time for Dementieva in round four.

Jelena Jankovic -- I think Jankovic has staying power. I don't see her wilting under pressure of expectations. She may have just missed a top ten ranking, but she can clear the quarters.
Alicia Molik -- The talented Australian has been sidelined since an inner ear infection last year. She's always dangerous if she rediscovers her 2005 success.
Shuai Peng and Na Li -- Is this the Slam where the Chinese players make a Grand Slam singles impact? Shuai could get to the fourth round, if she beats Schnyder. The toughest obstacle Na faces is Safina.
Serena Williams -- In her loss to Sybille Bammer during a warmup event, Williams said "I think she played the match of her life ... You just wish these players would play like this all the time instead of just against me. She played unbelievable." Yes, she's a seven-time Grand Slam champion. She may also on the decline, and better players are cropping up around her all the time. She's still a threat, but Serena should understand that people don't have to play perfect tennis anymore to beat her.

Interesting (remaining) first round matches:
Dechy v. Hingis

How 'bout those second round matches:
Mauresmo v. Pouchkova

The way it'll go down:
Quarterfinals: Sharapova v. Shuai, Clijsters v. Hingis, Jankovic v. Kuznetsova, Vaidisova v. Mauresmo
Semifinals: Sharapova v. Clijsters and Jankovic v. Mauresmo
Final: Sharapova v. Jankovic
Winner: Hmm. Jankovic in three.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Pulling a disappearing act -- before the final

Justine Henin-Hardenne has told Australian Open officials she won't be playing in the year's first Grand Slam for "personal reasons." The jokes come a little too easily, considering this was the tournament in which she pulled up lame against Amelie Mauresmo. Without a specific statement on Henin-Hardenne's reasons, we are left only to guess:
1. Broken fingernail?: Possible. If it goes into the skin, those things can be a bitch, causing minutes and minutes of untold pain, especially if you toss some salt onto it. I usually just go straight to the Percocet.
2. Can't find favorite shoes: That does suck. I know it's not supposed to make a difference, but when your gear doesn't match, it can throw off your entire game. You get self-conscious, thinking everyone's thinking you're color-blind -- it all adds up.
3. Lack of energy: One of her standbys from last year. With a little more than a week before the start of the Australian, this is something you could possibly never recover from. An unspoken pro tennis rule: A two week tournament requires two-week energy storage.
4. Pregnancy: The great thing about this one is getting to take the time off, and looking like a real trooper whenever you do decide to play again. I can just hear Cliff Drysdale now, "You know, pregnancy is a tough injury to come back from."