Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Feet of clay

Why can’t an American win in Paris?
Americans don’t play the same tennis that the French do. In the States, kids train on fast, concrete courts, and it’s wham, bam, up yours, ma’am. The recent crop proves this, with Andy Roddick, the Williamses, Lindsay Davenport, and James Blake taking that flight for untold years to Paris, only to come home empty-handed. This year is no exception. All the men, including Roddick and Blake, who completed a match on Tuesday went down in flames, making Mardy Fish's decision to kick a field goal that waylaid his trip to Paris the best move on clay made by an American.
Coincidence? Neither Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors, nor John McEnroe, all American tennis legends, ever won the French Open. The Americans have patented a kick-ass brand of tennis that is definitely effective, but it’s not exactly the approach of the Europeans.
Growing up, Europeans play on red clay. It mutes the speed of a ball, and limits the effect of a power game. The clay makes tennis more like a chess match, a game of strategy. At the French Open, rallies can go on for 20 strokes, and the spoils do not go to the strong. They go to those who use their brain, those who can move their opponents around like rooks, and strike when they have the chance.
Not that the Americans are stupid. It's just that like all American kids, the only clay they know is Play-Doh. Who the hell plays tennis on Play-Doh?

Monday, May 28, 2007

French Open women's preview

Part deux:

1. Justine Henin: She looks good for a win here, but I won't be picking her. Keep the Rolaids fully stocked, guys.
2. Maria Sharapova: A shoulder injury has limited her play since the Australian, and since then, she's racked up losses to folks like Serena Williams (that loss in the Australian final has got to be the stuff nightmares are made of), Vera Zvonareva and Aravane Rezai. This is a grueling two weeks of tennis, and she doesn't do well here anyway. However, it's hard to imagine her screwing up this cupcake draw, even on clay.
3. Svetlana Kuznetsova: After struggling since the U.S. Open, she's had a really strong year so far, except for one small thing: Four finals this season, and no trophies. She's the in-form player in her half, more solid than Ana Ivanovic, Mauresmo, and Sharapova.
4. Jelena Jankovic: Much has been made about Jankovic's turnaround after the beginning of 2006, and for good reason. She comes here knowing she can beat just about all her peers. Just about. Three times since the U.S. Open, she's played Henin and found herself with the chance to win. Three times, she's come away with a big "L".
So the good news for her is that she's not in the same quarter with Henin. The bad news is that she's in the same half. She can take care of Venus in round 3, Dementieva in round 4 and Vaidisova in the quarters. But beating Henin on clay at her favorite tournament?
5. Amelie Mauresmo: Most people, facing the idea of playing in their own Slam would say, "Home, sweet home." Mauresmo would probably say, "Oh, can't I play at Wimbledon instead?" She's never done well at the French, and don't expect that to change. She struggled through her entire clay warmup period, and with the possibility of meeting Lucie Safarova (who beat her in Australia) in round three, a tough opponent in Anna Chakvetadze and Sharapova floating in her quarter, it's not looking great.
6. Nicole Vaidisova: Roland Garros was the site of her big breakthrough last year at a Grand Slam, but she, too, is coming back from injury. If she's healthy, the quarterfinal between she and Jankovic could be really good.
7. Ana Ivanovic: Not bad being a 7 seed at a Grand Slam, but in terms of her young-gun contemporaries, she's an underachiever. Beating Kuznetsova last week is a nice start, but she needs success on a big stage. It's hard to think that she can beat Kuznetsova again if they meet in the quarters, though.
8. Serena Williams: The big-match Serena's back. One would say that after playing only 3 clay-court events, and withdrawing from Fed Cup with injury, Serena doesn't have much of a chance. She's already proven that those things matter little to her. But what she hasn't proven is her ability to play clay-court tennis -- with patience and placement over lacing the ball. She also has been unable to prove her ability to beat Henin at the French. And let's just own the fact that we look forward to that quarterfinal, just to see what new lows Henin can achieve in gamesmanship.
9. Anna Chakvetadze: A dangerous floater. She's doing better every year, but the only thing she's lacking is a big win against a good player. You couldn't ask for a better chance than Amelie Mauresmo at the French Open quarterfinals.
10. Dinara Safina: I sense in the quarterfinals against Williams, there'll be a racquet-breaking party. BYOR.

The stragglers
Anastasia Myskina: The company line is injury for her. The real deal is probably that you can only get so far by being a non-aggressive backboard.
Venus Williams: Venus is practically out of the conversation when it comes to women's tennis. If this were Wimbledon, you'd give her a free pass to the quarters, regardless of her draw. If this were five years ago, you'd give her a free pass to the quarters for the French. Even though she is returning from another injury, it's a little disturbing that she can't take out any top 10 players anymore. Oh, well. I sure hope she has something to fall back on in case tennis doesn't work out for her.
Elena Dementieva: Poor serving aside, she's got the kind of groundstrokes that could do some damage at the French. What she doesn't have is the ability to beat Jankovic in the fourth round.
Nadia Petrova: Last year, she was the in-form player coming into the French. She lost in the first round. She could give Vaidisova some problems in the fourth round.

The way it'll go down
Quarters: Henin v. Williams, Jankovic v. Vaidisova, Ivanovic v. Kuznetsova, Chakvetadze v. Sharapova
Semis: Henin v. Jankovic, Kuznetsova v. Sharapova
Final: Henin v. Kuznetsova
Winner: Dammit!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

French Open preview

Roland Garros, the person the French Open is named after, was not a tennis player. He was a fighter pilot in World War I. He's best known for creating a method that made it easier for pilots to fly and shoot at the enemy at the same time by attaching a machine gun to the front. He was shot down and killed just before the end of the war, in 1918.
Another war angle for the hardest tennis major to win: The clay is also called terre battue, which translates into "battleground."
"You said it. And I'm losing," says Andy Roddick.
"Damn right," says Justine Henin.
"I don't think it's so bad, no?" says Rafa Nadal.
"This red crap is all over my shoes," says Maria Sharapova.
All right, kids, pipe down. Time to break out the Ouija board.

1. Roger Federer: You. Meet me at number 2.
2. Rafael Nadal: It's hard to believe that Nadal, twice a French Open champ, loses to Federer on clay by a third-set score of 6-0. I'm not saying he rolled over. Because even rolling over gets you a game. Never mind that, I guess. Nadal comes back to the French Open with the pressures of a defending champion, but minus the pressure of adding to some ridiculous 81-match winning streak. Perhaps Nadal had that in mind in tank -- er, losing to Federer in Hamburg. It's likely that he'll start another streak, and get it to at least 6, which is where the world number 1 likely comes in.
Federer's had some tough matches on clay this season, and obviously, some good wins, but as good as he's becoming on clay, it's always going to be hard for him to play someone in Paris who likely had to have red clay wiped off their ass at birth. The atmosphere, and importance, of a 3-set Hamburg final versus a 5-set Grand Slam final played on heavy legs and an anxious mind is totally different. Federer always has a shot, more than a shot. In the final, you always have that. These two have a near-concrete date for June 10.
3. Andy Roddick: Hey, did anyone see the cover of Mens Fitness this month, where they altered Roddick's picture to make his arms look more buff? If they're into fiction, maybe he can hire those guys to get a picture of him and Photoshop the French Open trophy on it. He's got a cushy draw, but I nominate him for "Most Likely to Lose to Someone You've Never Heard Of."
4. Nikolay Davydenko: Not a strong clay-courter, but he's had a decent season on the battleground so far, the most impressive result a hard-fought three-set loss against Nadal. He could see Monfils or Nalbandian in the third round.
5. Fernando Gonzalez: He showed something in Australia that you don't see from Gonzalez a lot: control. It's barely been seen since, with hit-or-miss results since January. And worse, he's in a really tricky section of the draw, with names like Monaco (who won a warmup in Austria), Canas, Nalbandian and Davydenko.
6. Novak Djokovic: Ah, the mouth from the south of Serbia. What a difference a year makes, from yapping about having Nadal under control (while down two sets) in the quarters in Paris last year to actually beating the guy in Miami. Djokovic is obviously a rising talent, and a guy to watch, if only for the entertainment value. Thanks to a high ranking, he could have a nice tournament, and it's not hard to think that if he does get Roddick in the quarters, Djokovic would come out on top.
7. Ivan Ljubicic: Last year, he lost to Nadal in the semis, and he's not been the same since. His results have been spotty, especially on clay. If he makes it past Robredo in round four, he could draw Federer in the quarters. Have a nice trip home next weekend.
8. James Blake: Can he be the last American male standing again, like last year? Sure. He gets Ivo Karlovic in the first round, whose serve will likely be muted by the clay. Then he gets Old Man Bjorkman. In round four lurks Carlos Moya, who just beat Blake in Hamburg, or Tomas Berdych, who also recently beat him on clay in Davis Cup. I know! You and Ivan can split a cab on the way to the airport!
9. Tommy Robredo: He usually doesn't play above his seeding, so the ride will likely stop for him in the quarterfinals against Roger.
10. Tomas Berdych: Not quite sure how he gets such a high seed, but it's good enough to get him in a section of the draw with a former French winner near the end of his career (Moya) and an American (Blake). If he feels like getting his act together on clay, his reward could be Nadal in the quarterfinals. Congratulations.

The stragglers:
Anyone whose home country is Spain, Argentina, Chile and other clay-speaking countries.
Guillermo Canas (19): Apparently, a two-year ban from the game gave this guy the itch. He's beaten Federer twice since his return, and as mentioned, is from one of those countries.
David Nalbandian (15): Why, David? Why not use your powers for good, instead of for self-destruction? What he needs is a good therapist, like Stuart Smalley, of Saturday Night Live fame. He could hold a mirror up for David to look into and have him repeat, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, I did choke here last year against Federer, but I'm not going to beat myself up about it." Then take a deep recovery breath.
Gael Monfils: Including Amelie Mauresmo, the French person most likely to win the French Open in the next few years. There's a lot of game in that Gumby-esque frame, but is he ready?
Marcos Baghdatis (16): His game hasn't exactly crashed since his breakthrough season last year, but don't expect much from him here. By "much," I mean him getting out of the first round. Sebastien Grosjean in a tough one.
Carlos Moya (23): He'd better do well here, since it'll probably be his last tournament until after grass season. I sense a, oh, let's see, a low ankle sprain right after the French.

The way it's going down
Quarterfinals: Djokovic v. Grosjean, Blake v. Nadal, Federer v. Ljubicic, Monfils v. Gonzales
Semis: Djokovic v. Nadal, Federer v. Gonzales
Final: Nadal v. Federer
Winner: Gotta go Nadal. He's got his lucky pirate pants, and he might as well be playing in his backyard.

If I Only Had a Brain
And a TWA shout-out to Mardy Fish, who made a move so dumb I had to create a category just for him. Fish was all set to play the French (or as set as an American can be) until he visited the NFL Europa team while he was in Germany playing the World Team Cup tournament. He tried to kick a field goal, and injured his foot, and is now sitting out the French. If this were anyone else who had a legit chance at a run, I'd feel sorry for them, but it's hard to believe that the thought that he could injure himself didn't occur to him once.

The ladies preview, as well as the TWA premiere of the doubles preview is upcoming. I need a nap.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Great Pale Hope?

From the wires:

The Lawn Tennis Association completed the sale of the Queen's Club to members for 35 million pounds ($69 million), with the money being used to help develop a first British Grand Slam champion in 30 years. The deal comes about five months after members agreed to buy the 121-year-old venue in west London to avert a court battle over whether the governing body had the right to sell.

Wow. $69 million. That might even be enough to throw in some braces.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

League Watch 2007: A season on the brink

My husband, by trade, is a coach. He has likely coached hundreds of children in basketball, and in taking me on as a tennis student, he calls me his "most uncoachable." I don't listen to him, he says, which is not true, but I'm a visual learner. I need to see it to get it.
Then he tells me that I don't look at him when he's showing me something. That is not altogether false. He likes making fun of my shots, and likes to say, "This is how you hit the ball," then offers an exaggerated imitation. So, I don't like looking at that.
Anyway, his biggest qualm is how long it takes me to understand certain things, like the value of good footwork, and how to hit topspin (that only took 2 years). I have to admit he's right on this count. Last Saturday morning, on my drive to our league match in the South Hills, the real problem with my game finally dawned on me.
"You think playing your game is going for broke on every shot and that playing safe is for wimps," I thought to myself. "You can play smart, keeping balls deep and refraining from net skimmers, and still be aggressive when you get the opportunity. That's not playing like an old lady."
I took my new game plan on the court, and shockingly, came off with a win. This is big, folks. I haven't won a league match at the 3.5 level since June 18, 2005, and that was in doubles. I shocked myself in the patience I showed in waiting for my chance to finish at the net, and more surprised that I didn't botch my volleys and overheads. I'm still pretty jacked up about it, I have to say. I feel like I might have picked up another level in my game. But, of course, now the pressure of "Can I do this again?" is probably going to mess with me for a bit. Especially because my next match probably won't be for two weeks.
Now, whenever I have these "revelations," I tell Coach about it, and he sighs, with nearly tangible pain. "How many times have I told you that?"
"What?" I usually respond absently, thinking that my fingernails need to be painted.

(P.S.: The Season on the Brink refers to my team overall, which lost the tie Saturday. We are now 0-4.)

Let the healing begin

The French Open withdrawals begin in earnest today. The biggest hit is Andy Murray, finally confirming he won't play because of a bad right wrist. This after decidedly mixed signals from he and coach Brad "Talk with the Hand" Gilbert. Murray said over the weekend that he still needed to see a specialist, while Gilbert was saying on his Web site that his boy was O-U-T. Good to see everyone on the same (Web) page with that.

Tommy Haas has a bad shoulder and Vera Zvonareva apparently is all cried out (and happens to have a bad wrist), so they're out. Spaniard Alberto Martin has an ailing elbow. But the strangest withdrawal was Xavier Malisse, who cites, in part, a wrist injury. The other part? Here's the press release (or so I had heard:)

I have a sore wrist, which isn't terrible, but my coach points out that the distance from Belgium to Roland Garros is a long way to go to play one match, or two, if I'm lucky.

Sometimes, I guess, you gotta know your limits.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

League Watch 2007: %#@*!^~@*#&!

So, my first couple weeks of USTA haven't gone very well. Not exactly the start I'd envisioned. Last year, I managed to win not a single match all season, and now I'm 0-2.
Week 1: The Upper St. Clair team, on their home courts. My opponent: a woman who's hitting floaters. I'm moving in well, trying to take them out of the air, looking for put-away volleys. They find the net. I go down swinging, though (into the bottom of the net) 6-2,6-2.
Here's the best part: We shake hands, and she immediately launches into why I lost. And this is what I love about USTA. Why on earth would you need a coach when every week, you get a different one? Anyway, she goes on about how I made too many mistakes (really?) and how I went for too many "pretty shots" -- which is what I tend to call "topspin," but whatever. She tells me that she just tries to get them over, and then starts bragging about how solid her backhand is. My basic response to that was "Well, I had plenty of opportunities with it." That pretty much, mercifully, ended that coaching session.
I have no problem owning that I'm a sore loser. I'm not a bitch about it, but I'm usually not thrilled about it, especially since I feel like I'm a better player now than I was. And if I ever do win a match, I don't think I'd tell my opponent why they lost. I would assume they don't want to hear it.
Anyway, on to the "grudge" match: Even if there were no sister-in-law thing, I have a real gag reflex when it comes to the country-club types, the ones who wear makeup while they play. And I really hate losing to those fuckers. Apparently, I don't hate it enough. Our home match against Lakevue ended up a whitewash, a 5-0 team loss. I had the #1 singles line, and I admit to making the mistake of checking out their #1 singles player. All her wins so far this year included at least one 6-0 set, and I was no different. I started the first set down 2-0, and managed to get it to 3-4 by holding serve in a game that went to at least ten deuces, and I felt pretty good about myself, and hopeful I could break. It was the last game I won. 6-3,6-0. And who shows up to watch the last game of my collapse, but my sister-in-law? Yep, this loss left a pretty nasty taste in my mouth.
I'm at a real crossroads here. The real battle I begin to fight within myself is "Do I want to win so bad that I'm safer with my shots, playing an old lady game? Or do I want to play my game, win or lose, even if I lose to an old lady who couldn't swing at a ball if it swung first?" Honestly, I want to swing out. And I think that if I did, it would be more than enough to win, but I'm too worried about losing. So I start out playing my game, and I make a mistake. Then I start check-swinging, to an extent. And this is the part of the game that really sucks, when you've improved your physical game so much, but then you realize that the real problem's between your ears. The only way to get past that, in all likelihood, is to lose until you're tired of it. I thought I was. Maybe I've got more losing to do before I start swinging like I swing against my husband, nice and loose.
Alas, next week, my team's on the road, against the team I was on last year. I'm on #2 singles. At 9 a.m. Maybe I won't be alert enough to choke.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Cat Scratch Fever

Hot off the presses:
NBC’s new dating reality show 'Age of Love' premieres Monday, June 18. NBC’s previously been quite mysterious about the show's premise, promising only that it would present "a new twist on the reality dating show format." Finally, more details have been revealed about the concept of the show, as well as the identity of “one of the world's most eligible bachelors.”The “twist” of the show is that the women are divided into two groups, the “Kittens,” women in their twenties, and the “Cougars,” in their forties. The two groups of women will not know about each other at the beginning of the show. Both groups, plus the man whose heart they’re hoping to win, will live in a Los Angeles high-rise leased by NBC for the series. As in The Bachelor, at least one woman will be sent home each week. Age of Love’s bachelor is Mark “Scud” Philippoussis, a 31-year-old professional tennis player from Melbourne, Australia, who currently lives in Las Vegas.

Move over, Marat Safin. I cannot wait to see Philippoussis' friends box at Wimbledon this year.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

There's just no wrong way to retire ... unless you're Greg Rusedski

A fond farewell to Belgian Kim Clijsters, who announced her immediate retirement today. She'll be missed on the WTA tour, without doubt, but she has already been missed for some time. Clijsters is so good, and had so much fun on the court that I'd label her career's end premature. I'd go a step further and label her injuries as a direct result of the busy tour calendar. Now, the powers that be have finally decided to address it, but the writing, the damages, are already on the wall. About five years ago, it seemed the womens tour could go nowhere but up, with deep draws and personalities and rivalries. Now, we have players at home, alternately icing and heating an inflamed knee.
As bad as it'll be to see Kim go, it's a lot better than her withdrawing from events. I say, if you're going to go, just go. And to her credit, she did it right. At least she didn't go the route of Greg Rusedski, waiting about ten years until he could win a match to retire. Dude, I could've sworn you were already retired. And unlike Kim, who'll retire with many honors (former world #1, former doubles #1, Grand Slam winner) we'll remember Greg as the guy who always put his foot in his mouth.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Oh, yeah. It's game time, baby! (Plus, a poll question!)

Now that I've returned from my Florida vacation burned to a crisp, it's time to concentrate on the important things.
It's league season here in the Allegheny Mountain region. And for those of us who will never see the grand stage of the U.S. Open, this is war. I participated in a similar war last year, and suffice it to say that I was ... defeated. I managed to lose every match I played. But, alas, that is the past. This year, my tennis bag is full of new weapons, including a tire iron (in case I'm losing). The first battle takes place on Sunday, and I'm pretty psyched.
But it's the match next Saturday, one I'm not even sure I'm playing in, which is the big test for me. A little picture-association game for ya: What do you think of when you hear the word 'Lakevue'? Yeah, man. If it ends in 'vue' instead of 'view,' that's classy as hell. Anyway, I think of my sister-in-law, who apparently is still nursing a grudge against my husband and I because she was hit (accidentally!) with a tennis ball 2 YEARS AGO!!! My husband hit her in the hand with an overhead (come on people, if you or your partner hit a short ball in dubs, you have to get away from the net! Or at least turn around!) but I defended him, which is why we're on the outs. The last two years, I've been getting all geeked up to kick her team's ass, just to prove that I can, and I end up playing the worst match of my entire season. Not this year, dammit. I've got the tire iron, and if I win one match this season, this has to be it.
What's also interesting about the ball-hitting incident:
1. I was playing on the same team with my sister-in-law that day, (twas girls against boys) and she hit me in my back with the hardest serve she's probably ever tried to hit. I did not stop talking to her, but I'm now considering a lawsuit.
2. Some women hear this story, and their responses suggest that they WOULD ALSO BE MAD! Sorry. Yelling is totally rude, I know. But folks, getting hit with a tennis ball is a rule of engagement. It happens to all of us at some time, and unless it's part of my tennis bag for this league season, it's not going to cause any real damage. So, to the masses, (or the four people who read this blog) I unveil the first-ever TWA poll question:

In playing mixed doubles, is it all right to hit a hard ball to a woman at the net?

I, of course, say yes. If you can't hang, don't hang at the net. Others? Well others are wrong. But tell me what you think anyway.
And if you're in a league, swing away, folks. Have a great season, everyone, and have a good time.
Oh, yeah, and apparently the pros are getting ready for some Grand Slam in May. More on that later, I guess, if I can find the time after training.