Saturday, January 28, 2017

What's Up Down Under: Aussie Anomaly?

I gotta go to sleep soon so I can watch the women's final in the middle of the night, my time. But. Let us discuss the time warp we find ourselves in, and let us just appreciate it.
First, the Williams sisters. Sorry, I meant The Williams Sisters. Serena Williams will likely go down as one of the best tennis players in history, and certainly the best woman to ever play the game to date. She's ranked No. 2 in the world, and that's seriously underachieving to her. You could see her getting this far. Her draw was full of potential minefields and she navigated the ones she faced. Her opponent, though? Well, it's been a rough few years. Venus Williams has had to cope with a chronic disease that leads to fatigue and once she figured that out, well, the women's game had come up a bit. She was seeded 13th, and that seemed about right. Except if you were paying attention to Venus toward the end of 2016. Karolina Pliskova almost won the U.S. Open, but she barely managed to get past Venus to do it, which was plenty surprising enough. Also, Venus is 36 years old.
Oh, and is Roger Federer isn't far behind. Venus has been building up toward a result like this. Federer took the last quarter of the season off because of injury. With the exception of a warm-up tournament, he came into this tournament cold. He is seeded 17th (same number of the Slams he's won ...) and handled business, meaning Kei Nishikori and Stan Wawrinka.
And Rafa Nadal. Nadal showed at the Olympics that yes, he still has it. But will the body cooperate? I guess so. I don't know if you saw the semifinal with Nadal and Grigor Dimitrov (who picked a heckuva time to live up to his potential), but Nadal got outhit at times. The ball didn't bounce his way. But when he did at 3-4, 30-love down, was a life lesson. You go for it. You could be tentative -- play not to lose. Or you could step inside the baseline and hit a perfect backhand and leave your opponent flailing.
What does this mean? Is it an anomaly? Who knows. What it is -- to me -- as the real world slowly drifts off its axis, it means that there is one constant, one thing that is true. It means that if you want something, and put yourself in the position to get it, you can get it. You can only control you. The draws fall where they may and the people left standing put themselves in that position. This time, it true. It's the beauty of sport. I'm gonna let Venus take it from here:

Sunday, January 22, 2017

What's Up Down Under? Seriously. What Is Going On Down There?

Truth time: I have been out of commission for the better part of this week with a doozy of a cold. ASIDE (I don't like to align ailments with current events, but I felt really bad on Friday, but better on Saturday, when I had to go exercise my First Amendment rights. By the way, if you're reading this in another part of the world and did the same thing, thank you. Also, just to let you know, most of us had nothing to do with this. Honestly.) END OF ASIDE. The only thing that's kept me from coughing are cold meds and cold meds have me in la-la-land before 11 p.m. This is really not ideal if you're watching the Australian Open in the U.S.
I'm feeling better. Thank you for asking! But I thought for a second that the meds were messing with me. So I thought I'd run these draws by you to see if I'm crazy or not:

OK. It's 2017 and Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal have a legitimate chance of playing in the Australian Open final. The same is true of Venus and Serena Williams.
There is so much here that I don't know where to start. Like I said, I haven't seen a good chunk of these matches, so I literally have no earthly idea how most of this happened, but I will be catching up! Let's start with what I woke up with this morning. Angelique Kerber lost to Coco Vandeweghe. THE SCORE WAS 6-2, 6-3. I just want to point out that Coco barely beat Genie Bouchard in the second round. So can someone explain this to me. It's almost as if young Americans are trying to be a presence in pro tennis again!
OK! Moving on. We got Venus Williams in the quarterfinals. I picked her to go that far. But barely, because of Simona Halep, who did not make it out of the first round. I'm not even going there right now, because if she had come that far, it wouldn't have made a difference. I have seen a couple of Venus' matches, and she is lighting it up! She is playing the best tennis she has ever played. That's up for debate, but you'd have to bring me some indisputable evidence.
Let's move to the red-stained bottom half of the women's draw, populated by unknowns (American Jennifer Brady), up-and-comers (Johanna Konta) and Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. Yes. The same Mirjana Lucic who upset Monica Seles at Wimbledon. SEVENTEEN YEARS AGO. This is like Back to the Future XIII, or whichever one they're up to now. Here, in 2017, she's beating Agz Radwanska, the third-best player in the world.
And then there's Serena Williams, who had a nasty-looking draw ahead of her. Had. Because she's in the quarterfinals against Barbora Strycova now, who holds a doctorate at the University of Tennis With Attitude. She is definitely not intimidated by Serena. I'm not saying she won't get her butt kicked. I'm just saying she's doesn't really care who Serena is.
I got to see the tail end of Dominika Cibulkova and Ekaterina Makarova and I had to chuckle at the idea that two people who usually mess with top seeds in early rounds had to play each other. And of course, the lower seed won. Maybe it's just me who finds that funny.
Now the men. Like what the actual hell. This is what I wrote last week about the most probable final:

Novak Djokovic? Lost to Denis Istomin. See what I'm saying about Back to the Future?
Andy Murray lost to the lesser-regarded Zverev brother, Mischa in the fourth round. (Oh. We'll get to the higher-regarded one in a minute.) So yeah. Not so destined to rumble all the time.
Meanwhile, Federer is gliding through the draw like it's five years ago, beating the fifth- and tenth-seeded players with relative ease. People have been asking Federer about retiring the last year or so. Roger, your thoughts?


Now that we've gotten that straight, let's move on Federer's good friend, Nadal. He has recently begun receiving AARP mailers as well. But then I woke up yesterday with this match still looking at me, a few hours after I had dozed off watching Nadal getting his butt kicked. Because Nadal is also not really ready for retirement. He's got some schooling of Zverev boys to do. It hurt me last week to pick Alexandr Zverev over him when I was filling out my draw, but I just didn't see how Nadal, riddled with injury, could mount a real challenge to anyone in form right now. Guess it's time to get the crystal ball back into the shop.
And then there's Gael Monfils and Jo-Jo Tsonga, who are apparently still not receiving the memos that their time as Grand Slam threats are over. Also Andreas Seppi. Like, what is happening here? Have I taken too many meds? Am I actually in the 2007 Australian Open? Next, you'll be telling me that Grigor Dimitrov has advanced further into this tournament than Djokovic and beat a wily veteran to do it.

OK. I am going to sleep now.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

What's Up Down Under with the Gentlemen?

Sometimes, you see something happening for a long time. Like, you see it, but you don't see it. I'm referring, of course, to the evolution of the men's tennis landscape. It has changed. Did you know that? Let's take a look at the men's draw:

Some things worth noting:
1. Roger Federer is ranked 17th in the world. Right, right. I know he's been out with injury and while he's been gone, other men have climbed the ladder, the one he used to occupy alone (with occasional company by Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic). But there is a 17 next to Federer's name at this tournament. Like, what. What does this mean, in relatable terms? It means that Federer's quarter is not really his. It's Kei Nishikori's. It means that Federer's third round opponent is Tomas Berdych, not some tomato can who's wandered in off the street. It means that if Federer wants to get into the semis here, he has to possibly beat Berdych, Niskikori and the world No. 1, Andy Murray. So. The landscape is changing.
2. Have you ever seen "The Dark Knight?" You know that part where the Joker is talking about how he and Batman are destined to lock horns forever?

Damn, that is a good movie.
Anyway, after watching Murray and Djokovic face off in that Brisbane final, I think that they are destined (this season, anyway) to rumble for a lot of titles. Murray lost their most recent match, but not other recent matches. I used to get the sense that Murray didn't really believe he could beat Djokovic before, and now he absolutely believes it. Djokovic acknowledged how important it was for him to win that match, because if anyone is wanting to blink here, it would be Djokovic. This is like watching Federer/Nadal all over again -- one proven dominant player, one dogged aggressive challenger who says really nice things once the match is over, but is not nearly as deferential on the court. I don't know how everything before the final will pan out, but I do believe Murray and Djokovic will be the last ones standing. And there are plenty of obstacles for both men, but it's safe to say they're watching each other closely.

3. There are a couple other players that could bring some ruckus to this party. One of them is Milos Raonic. I still cannot believe he has shed himself of Carlos Moya after the best season of his career. (And it's not like Moya hasn't found himself some other work.) Raonic is now working with Richard Krajicek, who could probably help young Milos take it another step this year at Wimbledon. Raonic has a pretty tender draw. Sort of. There's Nadal, who is an unknown quantity at this point. Gael Monfils? Really, who knows with that guy? Alexander Zverev has promise, too. But this looks like Raonic's table to run. I'd really be interested to see him face off with Djokovic.

4. The other ruckus person is Nick Kyrgios. I have a crazy theory about Little Nicky. Now his season didn't end in the best way last year, and he's not exactly what you would call a fan favorite. If I were going to characterize his status in the eyes of tennis fans, I would say he is basically the opposite of fan favorite. But this is why I think he could pull something off here. It seems to me that he is fueled by haters. There are no more passionate haters of Nick Kyrgios than Australian tennis fans. They think he's a rude punk -- he's no Pat Rafter, and he shows no signs of mellowing into what Lleyton Hewitt has become. And Australians are almost as delusional and desperate as Americans these days for their next big hope. Bernard Tomic ... er, no. Sam Stosur? Hm. Sam Groth? Thumbs way down. Kyrgios is the next big hope and they hate him. So how to really get under haters' skin? Win the home slam and make sure they never forget you. Kyrgios can beat anyone in his quarter and maybe the top half. The operative word is "can." But will he? Is he interested enough? These are things we don't know.

First-round matches to watch:
1. Ryan Harrison v. Nicholas Mahut: Mahut versus a big-serving American? What could go wrong?
2. Mikhail Youzhny v. Marcos Baghdatis: Hello, everyone! Welcome to the 2008 Australian Open!
3. Tommy Haas v. Benoit Paire: TOMMY M&@^(*@(F(#***# HAAS.
4. Dmitry Tursunov v. Radek Stepanek: Hello everyone! Welcome to the 2006 Australian Open!
5. Novak Djokovic v. Fernando Verdasco: Well. This is a nice, easy match to start.

What's Up Down Under with the Ladies?

The 2017 pro tennis season is underway and fraught with dramatic story lines, in both the men's and women's games. Can Angelique Kerber defend her title and her status as the world No. 1? What about Serena Williams? What about the upstarts? And what value can we place on warm-up tournaments?
Let's get right into it.

A few things worth noting:
1. If Serena Williams is going to win the Australian Open, it might have to be one of the most legendary performances she has ever orchestrated at a major. And she just started her season with a loss to Madison Brengle. This Madison Brengle.

So. Serena's first round opponent is definitely Belinda Bencic, who has already beaten Serena before and has a really good game. She struggled with back injuries last year, and if she's feeling better, well, yeah. I don't know. But let's say Serena gets out of the first round. She's likely to face the tricky Lucie Safarova, and up-and-comer Timea Babos. Looming in just her quarter: young gun Naomi Osaka, Dominika Cibulkova (who's always down to ruin someone's run at a major), Caroline Wozniacki and, well, Ekaterina Makarova, who has beaten Serena at the Australian Open before. Now, to be fair, Serena has a dominant head-to-head with Makarova, but, again, Madison Brengle. Should Serena navigate her way through that quarter, I think she's likely to face Agz Radwanska. But there's also Karolina Pliskova up there, and Sam Stosur. Obviously, in the final, she'd be seeded to face Kerber, but it could be Svetlana Kuznetsova, or Elina Svitolina, or Venus Williams or Simona Halep or even Garbine Muguruza, if she's finally recovered from the biggest win of her career, the 2016 French Open. Actually, if she could get out of the first week, you could say Serena's chances are pretty good in the second. But Madison Brengle. I just don't know.

2. A lot of people are really big lately on Johanna Konta, even going as far as saying she could win this tournament. Well, her draw's not real friendly, either. She gets Kirsten Flipkens in the first round. Now, if you are trying to ease into a tournament, work your way into it, getting better incrementally as you play, Flipkens is not really someone you want to see in the first round, as Venus Williams can attest from their match in Rio. Konta's second-round match would likely be against Osaka, who has a ton of firepower. Even if you think Konta could win that, she's in Serena's quarter. She has the same problems! But someone has to navigate them. Maybe it will be Konta. I don't know if I'm buying her yet, though.

3. Ms. Kerber. Sometimes, I watch her play and ask myself, "Does someone actually practice hitting like that?" Sigh. You know what they say, though -- there's more than one way to skin a tennis ball. Wait -- that's not right. Anyway. So Kerber is the obvious pick to advance to the semis here. There are dangerous opponents, but no one that should give her issues before the quarters. (Unless you count Genie Bouchard. I do not. Yes, I know she just beat Cibulkova.) It really does depend on where Muguruza's head is these days. If it's on right, then I'd choose her to win the whole tournament. But Kerber's head appears to be on just fine. She lost her first match in the warm-up event in Sydney, but her thoughts about the result (a straight-set loss to Daria Kasatkina, who is in Kerber's quarter in Australia, by the way), showed some pretty good perspective.

That's light-hearted and cold-blooded kind of all at the same time.

4. There is a lot of talent in the bottom quarter of the top half of the draw. I was buying Halep stock about a year-and-a-half ago. I'm selling now. She's No. 4 in the world, which is good. It's very good. Here's my question about Halep: Would she be top 4 if you couldn't get on-court coaching in WTA events? I'm not going to go on and on again about how much I hate on-court coaching again, but Halep does a lot better when Darren Cahill is talking her through a match. But what about Grand Slam events? Last year, she failed to get past the quarters in any major event, losing in the first round in Australia. But she won three tournaments, including Madrid. So it's a thought -- a thought that if you use a crutch long enough, it becomes hard to remember how to stand on your own feet. Like I say, a thought.
I have thoughts about Venus Williams, too, and they're a bit more upbeat. It looked like Venus really began to build points and consistency last year. Some of her losses last year were spectacular -- not in a "wow, that was a trainwreck" sense, but more in a match quality sense. She started her career as a wrecking ball, hitting through everything and then she seemed to falter when people began to handle it. But in her fourth-round loss to Pliskova, she showed some real balance in her power and strategical skills. Just enough balance that she deserves mention here. She doesn't tend to do well here, but I'd love to see what happens if she and Halep play in the fourth round. And then there's the barber Svetlana Kuznetsova. Her kind-of comeback (she's always sort of been around) has been great to watch. She's a great player and pretty entertaining in case you hadn't heard.

OK. So some first-round matches to watch:
1. Laura Siegemund v. Jelena Jankovic: Just because it's Jankovic. It's the same reason you watch any Alize Cornet match -- for the drama.
2. Kristina Mladenovic v. Ana Konjuh: Konjuh is the one who crashed onto the scene last year at the U.S. Open. Mladenovic has been playing great doubles and not so bad at singles, pushing Serena hard at the French Open last year. Should be good tennis.
3. Sam Stosur v. Heather Watson: Who knows which Sam Stosur will show up? Who knows which Heather Watson will show up?