Monday, August 31, 2009

August 31, U.S. Open Men's Preview: It's Federer's Tourney to Lose

Greeting Tennis Junkies,

Our long and winding journey has led us here - to the gritty hard courts of the U.S. National Tennis center in Queens, New York. Once again the slates have been wiped clean. Sure, if you've been following the sport you know that this is Federer's and Serena's tournament to lose. There's no denying that, but there's also no denying the fact that their are a bevy of drooling competitors with not only the desire, but also the talent to knock Roger and Serena off of their high horses.

Without any further ado, let's begin this year's U.S. Open coverage by previewing the draws.

Men: Roger Chases Bill Tilden

Federer's Quarter: What can the man who has shattered all the records find to motivate himself? How about a record that hasn't been shattered? To do that you have to go all the way back to the 1920's when Bill Tilden won six consecutive U.S. Opens. Strangely, in the Open Era, not one single player has ever won the same event more than five times.

With a sixth consecutive triumph at Flushing Meadows, Federer could increase his stranglehold on the record books. Only a true seer would have predicted that, given that Federer was smashing racquets in Miami in April, and looked like he was more than likely at the end of his reign of dominance. But a lot has changed since spring.

Federer's legacy is intact. And his chances here look much better thanks to a fortunate draw. It could have been a lot different if Nadal or Del Potro were drawn into Rogers quarter, but the draw was once again very fortunate to Mr. Federer.

Federer opens with the barely-out-of-the-womb American Devon Britton, but might be tested as early as the third round by Lleyton Hewitt. He's also got Robin Soderling and up-and-coming American Sam Querrey in his quarter, in addition to an in-form Nikolay Davydenko. None of these names strikes fear into the heart of Federer fans, as he's won his last 37 matches against Davydenko, Soderling, Querrey, and Hewitt combined.

Semfinalist: Federer

Djokovic's Quarter: Odds are that we'll see a repeat of that thrilling quarterfinal match that the Joker had with Andy Roddick in last year's U.S. Open quarterfinal. It might have been the last time that Novak played with a chip on his shoulder as he fought hard to ensure that the New York crowd did not experience the joy of willing their great American hope to victory.

In the chaos of an emotional post-match interview Djokovic made no secret of the fact that he didn't appreciate the crowds unruly support of Roddick. He didn't appreciate Roddick's crass comments about his propensity for injury timeouts during matches either, and he made it known. He left to a chorus of boos and derogatory chides, and emerged in the semi-finals against Federer like the only thing he wanted to prove was that he wasn't such a bad guy after all.

Federer didn't mind, but those who wanted a good match surely did.

Since then it's been a lot of ups and downs for Novak. Roddick, on the other hand, has played superbly. Even in defeat against The Mighty Federer in the Wimbledon finals he raised eyebrows with his determination and ability to dictate against the Swiss maestro on grass.

A possible Roddick-Isner third round match could be compelling for American fans, as is a possible Roddick-Verdasco fourth round match. Djokovic will have to battle Ivan Ljubicic in the first round - no easy task - but if he plays the way he's capable of, he should have no problem reaching the quarters.

It is in the quarters that he'll have to play with the chip on his shoulder again, or be bounced mercilessly into the New York night.

Semifinalist: Djokovic

Nadals Quarter: Shrouded in mystery, the force that is Rafa enters the tournament with relatively few matches under his belt. Even fewer of them have been good, but in the later stages of the Cincinnati Masters event, Rafa seemed to be dialing in his form.

He better be, because the Rafa we saw in Montreal, and for the first few rounds at Cincinnati, was clearly not the in-form Rafa that we became enamored with in the latter phases of 2008 and the early phases of 2009.

The question when it comes to Rafa is very simple: Has he shaken enough of the rust from his game to answer the bell in New York, the only Slam venue where he hasn't sank his teeth into the winners trophy?

I wouldn't put it past him, but I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that it's going to be more of an uphill battle for Rafa than usual. If he can steadily improve over the course of the first few rounds, and manage to tighten up his baseline game, he'll be in good shape. But his serve is even a bigger question. Not only was it slower than usual in the Masters events, it was also not as accurate or lively. He's still the best returner on tour (along with Murray), but if he's getting broken too often it's going to be hard for him to gain momentum.

Possible battles with David Ferrer, Nicolas Almagro, Gael Monfils, and either Tomas Berdych or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga await.

The more Rafa hangs around, the more dangerous he will become. He's become more of a forgotten man with all the hoopla surrounding Federer, and to a lesser extent Murray and Roddick, but with each match the anticipation will heighten.

Semifinalist: Nadal

Murray's Quarter: Muzz will not be mugged at every practice session and each trip to the coffee shop like he was at Wimbledon. He'll also be on a surface that he enjoys more than grass, and he'll be at the site of the lone Grand-Slam final appearance of his young career. The skies are indeed rosy for the newly anointed No. 2 player in the world. There is even the small possibility, with an early Federer loss and a Murray triumph, that the 22-year-old Scot could snatch the No. 1 ranking in two weeks.

But there could be a fly in the ointment. The tall imposing figure of Juan Martin Del Potro, the man none of the big four wanted to see in its quarter of the draw, awaits a rematch. And if Murray is content to play his defensive style where he waits for the opponent to make the mistakes, he just might find himself waiting for his plane back to Miami with the way Del Potro can produce winners and aces.

The Argentine, ranked a paltry 65 after last year's Wimbledon, has quickly become a permanent fixture in the top-ten. And he still seems to be building momentum. While he's tough on clay, he's even nastier on the hard court. The youngest player in the top-ten boasts a world class serve to go with penetrating ground strokes and a surprisingly deft touch with volley. He's also deceptively quick.

The only knock on Juan Martin is his fitness level. In his loss to Murray in the finals at Montreal, he needed the trainer to work on his shoulder and he limped to the finish line against Murray, who was clearly the superior athlete when it came to stamina. In his three-set victory over Andy Roddick in Washington, Del Potro looked lethargic at times in the oppressive heat, but there he managed to take the title.

Del Potro is definitely right on the cusp of another breakthrough, and if history is any indication he won't want to wait until next year. He skipped Cincinnati to work on his conditioning and over-all health, and he'll undoubtedly benefit from the fact that this years Open is getting it's latest start in the history of the tournament. Less heat and humidity might mean more Del Potro winners.

Other possible contenders in this quarter are Dr. Ivo, Ivo Karlovic, who is slated for a third round match with Andy Murray. Marin Cilic, Stan Wawrinka, Gilles Simon, and Juan Carlos Ferrero could also do some damage if they can get hot.

And don't forget about Marat Safin, playing in his last U.S. Open. It's unlikely, but you never know.

Semifinalist: Del Potro

Semi Finals: Federer over Djokovic, Del Potro over Nadal

Finals: Del Potro over Federer

Friday, August 21, 2009

August 21, Is Muzz a Pusher?

Greetings Tennis Junkies,

Andy Murray's quarterfinal squeaker over lucky loser Julian Benneteau was an interesting match. Was it a good match? Was it a bad match? I'd say it was both.

After Murray double faulted the first set to Benneteau by missing the T by about 10 feet, there was no doubt that Muzz had to come back and win the match. The newly anointed No. 2 simply couldn't afford to head into the U.S. Open on the heels of a disgraceful loss to a player that by all accounts makes his living a few rungs down the ladder of ATP success from Murray.

When Murray was broken in the 2nd game of the 2nd set things seemed to be going from bad to worse for the man who won his first masters shield in Cincinnati last year and used the victory as a springboard to a U.S. Open final appearance.

But Murray remained at least partially calm, even as he did seem a bit perturbed by his lacklustre play. And when an opportunity to break came about Murray did what he did best - he played it safe and ran his ass off, engaging Benneteau in what must have been an infuriating 56 stroke rally (count 'em above), which finally ended with an exhausted Benneteau shanking an overhead smash wide of the tram lines, giving Murray the break, the psychological edge, and for all intents and purposes the match.

It was such classic Murray. Love it or hate it, the guy knows how to disassemble his opponent on court. The young Scot was playing horribly for the first hour, and yet still he was buoyed by the belief that he was the stronger animal. I'm not sure how this match would have played out if it had been one of the ATP's venerable sluggers (Gonzo or Roddick?) that Murray was up against, but I'm not sure that it matters either, because Murray seems to always bring something different to each match.

Today it was a steady diet of slice, topspin, lobs, and tantalizing retrieving. And the fact that it was barely enough to get by Benneteau is belittled once again by the fact that it was good enough to win.

Murray isn't always the prettiest dancer at the ball, but he quite often finds a way to snag the most desirable debutante, in spite of all the drooling muscle bound competition that lies in wait. He's the guy that the other smoother and more perfectly sculpted swingers watch hold trophies over his head. He's the guy that climbs steadily up the rankings while they look on in envy. He may not be the prettiest player, or the most powerful, but I'm quite sure that he is the smartest. He knows his enemy and he kills him slowly, and quite often with kindness.

Call him a pusher. Many of you will. And you may be right at times, but there is a lot more to Andy Murray's game than just pushing. The kid can drill the two-hander, and he can angle the passing shot like nobody else in the game. He does seem to be a little enamored with the fact that he can beat most people by feeding them balls and running down their shots until they finally wilt, either from fatigue or frustration.

It is a little concerning to see him do this on a consistent basis, because inevitably someone is going to zone in on that hittable ball and crush it for three straight sets.

Will he be content to let that happen, or will the pusher push back and defend his No. 2 ranking at the U.S. Open? What he's done with what he has is remarkable, but is what he has enough to get him over the hump when the competition is going for broke in a Slam?

I think the jury is still out on Murray. He's walking the fine line between being crafty and being unnecessarily passive. If he keeps leaning in the direction of being passive he might have a rude awakening coming to him in New York. If he leans in the other direction he might have a title.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

August 20, Rafa is short on time and Long on Rust

Greetings tennis junkies,

After watching Rafa Nadal labor through two straight tiebreakers against Italian Andreas Seppi yesterday in Cincinnati, it has become obvious that nobody in the draw needs these matches more than Rafa does.  

True, the legs look fine, and Rafa is in pretty good physical condition, but the rust is thick on the young Spaniards game, and if Rafa doesn't get a few more matches under his belt in Cincinnati, he'll likely have his capable hands full in New York when the U.S. Open begins on August 31.  

Unlike his arch rival Roger Federer, who seems to be able to summon his magic after long lapses in activity or even after several bad performances, Rafa is an animal who needs far more repetition to recreate his full arsenal of breathtaking shots.  

This was apparent yesterday, as Rafa struggled mightily against a player that he would have cast aside as if he was wiping a bead of sweat from his brow about four months ago.  It wasn't that Rafa's knees were bothering him.  It wasn't that he was out of shape in the oppressive Midwestern August heat.  The fact of the matter is that Rafa doesn't have his feel back.  

Feel breeds confidence.  Lack of feel breeds indecision.  Take a look at Rafa hitting his backhand slice, a shot that was coming along so nicely for him several months ago, and you'll see exactly what I'm referring to.  Rafa's slice used to bite and slide.  He didn't look beautiful hitting it, but the results were deadly.  Yesterday, Rafa's slice was fluffy.  It hung up in the air and bounced lazily when it hit the hard court.  Seppi took notice and pummelled it every chance he got, and as he did, I couldn't help but think of what one of the top-20 players would do to that shot.  

Thankfully for Rafa, he's still match tough - he escaped the match by winning two consecutive tiebreakers, and he'll get another chance to regain more of the "feel" that made him so good -and so confident - over the last few years.  

"I don't know if I play very well, but I was there all the time, no?" Rafa told the press after the match.  "I was fighting every point, and that's the important thing, no?  I don't know if it was a very good match for me, but it was very important, because these matches help me a lot to get my best performance and to get physical training too."  

Evidently Rafa knows what's at stake here in Cincinnati as well.  

"So everything is positive.  And, you know, the most positive thing is that I gonna be tomorrow another time on the court.  That's important for me continuing to improve."  

Clearly, Rafa knows what he needs to do.  But the question is whether he can play well enought to continue to win and get the matches that he needs.  He's desperate for more reps and he can't afford a loss today against Paul-Henri Mathieu, because it will leave him with too much unfinished business before the U.S. Open begins.  

As great as Rafa is, he is trying to accomplish a lot in a very short period of time.  The feel that he's demonstrated and put to use over the years was something that took a massive amount of commitment to develop.  Judging from his play in Montreal and Cincinnati, Rafa can't simply snap his fingers and play the type of tennis that we're accustomed to seeing him play.  

He's a work in progress again, with the key work being work.  Rafa needs work today, and he'll need it again tomorrow if he's to have a legitimate shot at contending for a U.S. Open title.  

A loss in the next two rounds won't be catastrophic for his career, but I have a feeling it will be catastrophic for early September.  For that reason I'll be pulling for Rafa this week in Cincy - each win that he procures will make the U.S. Open that more interesting to watch.  

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

August 19, Jockeying for Slam Position

Greetings tennis fans,

As the 2nd week of Masters 1000 competition approaches it's midpoint, there are many players who, while present in body, seem to be absent in spirit. 

Mr. James Blake, the former world No. 4, is the perfect example of a spiritless body at the moment.  As Blake battled to a three set defeat against Igor Kunitsyn of Russia, the lack of joy was so obvious on Jame's side of the court that it was painful to watch.  Even when James sealed the 2nd set with some impressive tennis he wore the same look of stoic disinterest on his face as he walked to his chair.  

I'd never go so far as to speak for Blake, but it seems to me that he's unhappy out there. Perhaps he's feeling the weight of our expectations for him, or the weight of his own expectations.  Perhaps his toe is killing him and he's just playing because it's the only thing he knows how to do in August, less than two weeks before the U.S. Open starts.  

Whatever the reason, it's difficult to watch Blake these days, and not because he's losing (and we all know he's doing plenty of that), but because he seems to hate being on the court.  He wears this perpetual scowl and it appears that his soul is being squeezed in some sort of vice.  

I hope that for Blake's sake he can learn to smile again.  He's a sweet guy who should just tap into the unbearable lightness of being a little more.  Stop worrying about what American tennis fans want from you James.  Just enjoy playing your game, and if you can't, well maybe it's time to hang up the headband.  

And Blake isn't the only lonely soul seeking tennis sustenance.  

Marin Cilic, frequently thought of as the next 6'6" behemoth to enter the top-10, appears to be dead set on taking his time at the moment. After a tough 5 set loss to Tommy Haas on the grass at Wimbledon, Cilic was instrumental in Croatia's Davis Cup victory over the Americans when he beat Mardy Fish in a come from behind thriller, and then finished off James Blake in 4 sets.  Since then he's gone horribly cold however.  A first round loss to No. 153-ranked Somdev Devvarman in D.C. was a harbinger of things to come.  After No. 65-ranked Mikhail Youzhny thumped him to the tune of 6-1 in the third set in his opener in Montreal, it was apparent that Cilic was indeed in a funk.  

The youngest player in the draw in Cincy, Cilic did manage a first round win against Juan Carlos Ferrero (6-3, 6-4) but he quickly got back to his losing ways against David Ferrer yesterday, losing 7-6(4), 6-2.  

Time is on the side of the 20-year-old Croatian, but for a kid who has the potential to dominate with his lethal serve-forehand combo, his late summer results are a clear indication that a much anticipated run on the top-10 will have to wait until next year, if it is to come at all. His high risk forehand is resulting in more errors than winners, and when it goes awry, Cilic seems to have nothing else to fall back on.  

The two Masters events that lead up to the U.S. Open give players an excellent chance to build some momentum heading into the American slam.  Unfortunately for Blake and Cilic, both will have to step on the court in Flushing meadows devoid of the confidence that is so integral to a successful run at the open.  

Saturday, August 15, 2009

August 15, New World Order

Greetings tennis freaks,

Are the winds of change blowing across the ATP tour? Or are we just experiencing some temporary turbulence on our ATP flight as Rafa and Roger stiffen their resolve for yet another assault on the rankings in early September?

Regardless of what your answers to those last two questions are, the fact of the matter is that Andy Murray's straight set win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga today in Montreal has lifted the 22-year-old into the No. 2 slot in the ATP rankings. Murray now becomes the first player other than Rafa or Roger to hold the No. 2 spot since Lleyton Hewitt was No. 2 on July 18, 2005.

Could this be the beginning of the end of the Roger and Rafa reign of terror over the ATP rankings? While it may not seem like an earth-shattering achievement, Murray has accomplished a feat that Novak Djokovic never could. In stepping between Federer and Nadal, Murray has essentially reached another level of legitimacy. Unlike Djokovic, who won the Australian Open in 2008 and has been a disappointment ever since, Murray has mounted his surge slowly and steadily. Much like the style of play he's crafted for himself, his rise to the top has been calculated, precise, and persistent.

In addition to his 10-4 record against the top-10 in 2009, Murray is 6-2 against world No. 1 Roger Federer (winning the last 4). He's struggled with a 2-7 record against Nadal, but he has managed to split the last four. In other words, the two-headed monster at the top of the ATP's rankings may have just grown another head.

The fiery Scot didn't play his most beautiful tennis today, but it was good enough to defeat a very dangerous opponent in Tsonga. Serving 42 percent is normally a recipe for disaster in a Masters semi-final, but somehow the versatile Murray was able to cull all the other odds and ends in his delightful repertoire and find a way to keep the flying Frenchman at bay.

The new No. 2 ranks 35th on the ATP in first serve percentage, and that is something that he'll undoubtedly need to improve upon if he plans on climbing another step in the rankings. Still, Murray saved 5 of 6 break points against Tsonga and he somehow was able to win 68 percent of his second serve points. He was fortunate to be playing the worst returner in the top-10 today — Tsonga wins a lethargic 19% of his return games — but he won't be so lucky tomorrow against Del Potro.

Speaking of the new world order, does it not seem that Juan Martin Del Potro is on his way up as well? The Argentine, just a baby-faced giant last year when he won his first four ATP titles in succession, is now playing like he belongs in that "Who's going to win the U.S. Open" conversation that everybody is starting to have right about now. His last two wins against Nadal and Roddick have brought his record against the top-10 to a respectable 6-6.

It came down to the nitty-gritty once again on Saturday. As he and Roddick entered the business end of the third set, it was Delpo who looked like the more mature player. Facing a match point while serving to stay in the match, the lanky Argentine fired a service winner to draw to deuce, then hit two aces in the next four points to even the set.

When it was Roddick's turn to wiggle his way out of trouble, he wasn't so calm. He double faulted on game point and left it to the wiry Del Potro to serve out the match. Bad move.

The monster who seems to have the wingspan of an albatross from the baseline hit his fastest serve of the match (142 m.p.h) and proceeded to hold for his first-ever trip to a Masters 1000 final.

Del Potro is also the first player outside the "big 4" to make it to a Masters final this season.

Whoever said that the more things change the more they stay the same was clearly not talking about men's tennis.

Here is the Murray v. Delpo H2H.

Enjoy the final!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

August 13, Kimpossible!

Greetings tennis-crazed hooligans,

Man, what a week it has been so far. I for one, did not see this coming. How about you? I guess I was just too myopic to get my head wrapped around the idea of Kim Clijsters making the WTA's top-20 look like a bunch of, well, a bunch of wildcards. I guess it's better than making them look like a bunch of lucky losers though. And now that she's got her Belgian jaws locked on some Grand-Slam winning top-10 flesh and bones, who knows how this improbable tale might end.

Rarely if ever do our wildest dreams come true in life, but this week at the Western and Southern Financial Group Women's Open, we have been given a taste of just how wonderful life can be. Of course, we knew that Clijsters had it in her, and we knew that she was still young. But we didn't know she had THIS MUCH in her, or that she would play this well.

But she has, and she's left signs of wreckage strewn about the Cincinnati hard courts for all to see. First it was the WTA's No. 13 Marion Bartoli, fresh off her stunning victory over Venus Williams at The Bank of the West Classic. Clijsters had her struggles in the match, but in the end when she saved 8 of the 10 break points she faced, it looked as if she'd been playing tough points in big matches for the last 27 months.

Next was No. 20 Patty Schnyder, who got served a bagel in the 2nd set. Kim seemed to shake off whatever rust that might have been clinging to her motherly frame in this breeze of a match.

And now today, the biggest and greatest surprise thus far: French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova has ran into the bullet train also known as Kimpossible. That bullet trains next stop appears to Safina station.

And won't that be a perfect storm for those who've chosen, instead of relishing in the power and glory of Kimpossible's impossible comeback, to use this as another excuse to bash the WTA for it's lack of depth in the higher rankings?

After Safina defeated Shuai Peng of China this evening, the stage is now set for a heavily anticipated Clijsters-Safina duel tomorrow. It's a win-win for Clijsters who has won all our hearts this week regardless of the outcome, but for Safina, it's a small win- big lose situation.

If there ever was a chance for Safina make a claim for her legitimacy, this would be the perfect opportunity. Why the No. 1 player in the world should have to make claims for her legitimacy is another and more convoluted story entirely. Marat's baby sister has been the object of much undeserved derision since she climbed into the top spot in the rankings without ever winning a grand-slam. Week after week she's been forced to endure constant inquiries about whether she feels she deserves the ranking. Unfortunately for Safina, she's become known more for what she hasn't achieved than what she has achieved.

And it will get worse if she becomes the next speed bump beneath Kimpossible's tennis shoes. Not only will Safina's legitimacy be in question, but many uneducated pessimists will feel that the legitimacy of the whole tour will be in question. Of course they'll be missing the point in doing so — the real story here is the amazing play of Clijsters. If it happens that Safina is the one to finally take her down, then Safina should be given credit for beating a tennis player who has been on fire all week and is clearly inspired. And if the wild ride continues for Clijsters, then we should be rejoicing in her amazing return to the game instead of asserting the ineptitude of the players that she is defeating.

Either way you slice it, Kimpossible's return is a win-win for women's tennis.  Too bad it couldn't be the same for Safina, whose steadily improvement and dogged enthusiasm for the sport shouldn't be worthy of anything but praise.  

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

August 12, Vamos Montreal!!!

Today's Rogers Cup order of play is a who's who in men's tennis, but it's hard not to look right past all those great matches (Juan Carlos Fererro vs. Monfils, Roddick vs. Andreev) and skip right to the night session that has the tennis world holding their collective breath.

Think back to the U.S. Open, 2007, 4th round. It was the first of two consecutive hard court victories for David Ferrer over his compatriot Rafael Nadal. Rafa was struggling with knee issues even then, but his legacy was small compared to what it is now, for he was known primarily as a clay courter whose game was the equivalent of trying to ride a mountain bike against Lance Armstrong in the Tour De France.

The swashbuckling Ferrer, clad in red Lotto gear and many necklaces, grunted and groaned his way to a four set victory over Rafa at Flushing Meadows, and while Nadal's ailing knees were definitely part of the story, the real theme to me seemed to be that Rafa was simply in over his head on the cement, even against a fellow Spaniard like Ferrer, who by the way played out of his head that match.

And what have we learned in the meantime? Well, Rafa's game, after a bit of tinkering with the help of Uncle Toni, and a lot of blood and guts poured out in the form of practice, is just fine on the hard court. Or on grass. Heck, it would be fine in the Pyrenees. The guy is born to win - hand him a broom and he'll hand you a forehand winner. He proved that in his tear jerking defeat of Roger Federer in Australia earlier in the year.

But there is an asterisk when it comes to Rafa's domination. He's not the same when he's not healthy enough to play with reckless abandon. Rafa is a player who feeds off his movement. It's almost as if he has to be playing with a certain out-of-this-world intensity in order to execute his game plan. When his body is unencumbered he is capable of breathtaking feats on the tennis court. He can switch into Tasmanian devil that spins, contorts, reacts, and crushes anything that he can reach with his racquet.

But one thing that is unclear after a long layoff and two doubles matches. Will he be the same Tasmanian devil character that we've come to know and love?

How healthy is he? Rust is one thing, and that's to be expected, but will he possess the same visceral aptitude when he motors around the court this evening at Stade Uniprix, or will he be weighed down by worry, not wanting to push the knees back over the cliff that he was up against just prior to his unceremonious thrashing at the hands of "Le Sod" on that fateful day in Paris.

That my friends, is the $443,500 question.

Rafael Nadal vs. David Ferrer, 7 P.M.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

August 11, Wonder Woman!

Greetings tennis nuts,

Yeah, she's back.  And with authority. 

Nothing like a swift thumping of the worlds No. 13 player to get the rust off. 

Kim Clijsters, in her return to the sport that she left behind while ranked No. 4 in the world just two years ago, has opened the eyes of WTA fans and mothers all over the world and made us wonder - could her straight set victory of Bartoli be the beginning of something big, or was this win just the product of adrenaline and the topsy turvy nature of the WTA these days?  

"Without playing a match for two years it's pretty amazing the level she had right now," said a stunned Marion Bartoli, who was on the short end of the 88-minute affair.  "The level of play, yes, it's in the top-10 already."  

Serena Williams had this to say about Clijsters:  "I look like I'm the one who had a kid more than her...she looks amazing."

Sensing strong support from everyone on tour, players, media, and fans included, Clijsters seized the opportunity, igniting a fire that must have been smoldering deep within her since she stepped away from the game in 2007.  

The fact that she stormed out to a 4-0 lead in the first set was surprising, but what was more surprising is that she was able to recover after blowing that lead.  Saving 8 out of 10 break point opportunities against the return game of Bartoli shows that not only is Clijsters tough, she's also match tough, much in the same way that our other favorite comeback player, Maria Sharapova, has proven to be.  

Fighting back to get an additional break after Bartoli tied the set at 4-4, and coming back to serve out the match after being down 0-40 in the final game, are clear signs that Clijsters hasn't lost the feistiness that led her to a U.S. Open in 2005.  

She did commit 31 unforced errors, and only served 49 percent, but her commanding 28-5 edge in winners says a lot about the way the 26-year-old was able to control the tone of the match.

Questions inevitably will arise about the legitimacy of the WTA's talent pool if Clijsters can continue her remarkable comeback this summer.  Those questions will be asked by the same people who are puzzled by how the sports No. 1 player can keep getting blitzed out of grand-slam tournaments.  To them I say read between the lines.  

Clijsters is only 26, and she's had the last 6 months to train with very little pressure due to travel and tournament play.  She's fresh as the proverbial daisy while these other girls have been slogging around the globe for the last 9 months in an attempt to improve their rankings and prepare for the Grand-Slams.  

This match says a lot about Clijsters, there's no doubt about that, but Clijsters victory does not in any way make a mockery out of the rest of the players on tour.  And if Clijsters can stay hot and actually become a force this summer, the WTA will benefit from all the attention that the story will undoubtedly receive.  

In fact I think that all this so-called negative attention that the WTA is receiving about it's whacked-out rankings forumula and it's lack of depth in the top-10 is actually increasing the popularity of the Woman's game.  With Sharapova fighting through her troubles this summer, and now the inspiring return of a mother who couldn't stay away from the game she loves, I'd say that the WTA makes for some pretty compelling entertainment at the present moment.  

Clijsters will take on Patty Schnyder tomorrow in Cincy, and I'm sure there will be lots of people in the seats who agree with me.  

Saturday, August 8, 2009

August 8, Sharapova: The Pleasure and The Pain

Greetings Tennis Fanatics,

A big weekend of semi final action in the U.S. is headlined by perhaps the most recognizable name in all of Woman's tennis. I might be going out on a limb here, but I'd say that there might be more people worldwide who are familiar with Maria Sharapova's Pomeranian, Dolce, than they are with many of the names in the WTA's top-10.

I'm not a fan of little yappy dogs (I prefer the larger breeds who tend to bark less), nor have I ever been a fan of service yips. Dolce wasn't present last night, but Sharapova's yips certainly were.

This blog post says a lot about the state of Maria's comeback from shoulder surgery. In case you missed it, Maria had a horrific (and that's being generous) 2nd set yesterday against Urszula Radwanska. 20 2nd serves, and 11 double faults.

Amazingly, Sharapova eventually recovered to win the set from Radwanska — she was clearly the better player in all other aspects of the game — and, in spite of her obvious difficulties adjusting to her new serving motion, advanced to the semi finals where she will face Italian Flavia Pennetta today.

Sharapova had this to say about the new abbreviated serving motion that she's been using since her comeback from shoulder surgery began in may: "I was hitting from so many different positions, and I created so many bad habits...eventually it's going to work itself into place."

Clearly Maria is having issues. She's double faulted 40 times in her last 3 matches (12 vs. Azarenka, 15 vs. Bondarenko, and 13 last night) — and amazingly she's won them all. If she does get things worked out, the rest of the tour better watch out.

One thing that hasn't changed about Sharapova, however, is her feirceness. She's able to overcome her very real serving issues (issues that would cause a lesser player to crumble) with an incredibly sharp mental focus. She's hungry to win, and she's eager to assert herself over a field that clearly lacks the power to do anything about it.

While Maria's comeback has been ugly at times, one things for sure, fans are behind her. They may be coming for a spectacle more than they are coming for a clinic, but they do come out. You could of heard a pin drop during the afternoon matches at the Home Depot Center — there were probably 200 fans in the stands to watch Sorana Cirstea play Urszula's big sister Agnieska in the quarters yesterday — but that was not the case when Maria took to the court.

Clearly Maria is good for the game. Fans, whether they love her, hate her, worship her beauty, or revile here screeching howls, show up to watch.

If she gets that serve under control, there will be plenty more chances to see her play this summer. It might not be good for Dolce, who probably enjoyed cuddling with Maria during her 10 month rehab, but it is most definitely good for the WTA.

Friday, August 7, 2009

August 7, As the World Turns, Tennis Style

The captivating soap opera that chronicles that monstrous two-headed monster known as Roger and Rafa, or Rafa and Roger, depending on your allegiances/ opinions, is going to be the focus of today's Two Cents post. It's not that I'm not completely enthralled with the Legg - there will be more on that tomorrow - but the news of Roger phoning in his commitment to next weeks Rogers Cup coinciding with Rafa's two hour practice session at Uniprix Stadium in Montreal is just too juicy to ignore.

According to this piece in the Montreal Gazette, Rafa still has a very long way to go if he plans to return to form by August 31 (the day the U.S. Open starts). In the words of Gazette reporter Stephanie Myles, Rafa's session consisted mostly of forehands, and Nadal was "spraying the ball all over the place." While it's unbelievably great to hear news of Rafa warming up for a tournament, the unpleasant reality of the situation is not necessarily cause for celebration. Questions linger about his ability to overcome the blow to his confidence from the loss to "Le Sod" in Paris combined with the long stretch of inactivity.

In other words, it's a vastly changed set of circumstances for the worlds No. 2.

Should this really come as a surprise, that a player who is accustomed to long and grueling practice sessions combined with a long and grueling playing schedule might be having some trouble finding his range in his first week back after a two-and-a-half month respite? The answer is a resounding no - it's normal, even for super humans like Nadal - and yet it is still difficult to fathom. Will he be bounced in the first round? Is his confidence going to be as rusty as his forehand?

And what about the other half of the two headed monster, Mr. Federer?

In addition to posting pictures of his lovely twin girls on his Facebook page (Charlene Riva and Myla Rose), the Mighty Fed also found the time to put in a call to Montreal tournament director Eugene Lapierre at 8 A.M, to confirm his participation in next weeks event.

Hallelujah is the first word that comes to mind. My guess is that Mirka doesn't feel the same way. Postpartum depression, I hope, isn't factoring into the equation.

So, there you have it, Federer and Nadal, present and accounted for. Beyond that, your guess is as good as mine in terms of what kind of tennis we can expect from the pair.

Back with more thoughts on the Legg Mason Tennis Classic and the L.A. Women's Tennis Championship tomorrow.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

August 6, Roddick looking for 500

Greetings tennis fanatics,

It's been a solid three days of tennis at the Legg, and the dog days of summer have been relatively kind to the Americans (get them off that European clay and they don't look half bad, do they?). While the competition has strengthened considerably compared to what it was in Indy and L.A, the young missile firing Americans haven't seemed out of sorts at all.

6'9" John Isner battled back from a one set deficit against No. 7 ranked Jo-Wilfried Tsonga last night to force a deciding set tie breaker. When the dust settled it wasn't Tsonga, who entered the match at 21-9 in tie breaks on the year, and 46-28 over his career, who got it done. Instead it was Isner (obscure stat alert: Isner now sports a remarkable 7-0 record in deciding set tiebreakers in Washington) who pulled the shocker, and proved once again (like Querrey did against Haas in L.A), that you better watch out for Americans when you are playing them on a hard court in the states.

It's a great win for Isner, the University of Georgia man who many patriotic Americans have very high hopes for. At 6'9" he isn't the best mover on tour, but with his sizzling serve, and his ability to excel under pressure, he surely will find himself higher than No. 80 in the ATP rankings, and probably sooner rather than later.

If mother nature cooperates (showers expected in D.C, with a predicted high of 77 degrees), fans will be treated to a gem of a match between Andy Roddick and Sam Querrey today.

Roddick was imperious in his straight set deconstruction of German Benjamin Becker yesterday, but he'll undoubtedly meet a bit more resistance from Querrey, who just recently became the first American since Andy Roddick to take part in three consecutive ATP finals.

With Mardy Fish already unceremoniously knocked out of the draw, and James Blake incognito, Querrey is looking more and more like the consensus no. 2 American these days.

But all eyes will be on Roddick, our perpetually patriotic bacon-saver, the man who has single handedly kept American men's tennis afloat since the days of Sampras and Agassi. The svelte Nebraskan will try to become the 4th active player to reach the 500 win mark on the ATP tour today. In case your curious, the others are Federer (657), Moya (573), and Hewitt (511).

And the milestone victory opportunity comes at time when Roddick, under the tutelage of Larry Stefanki, just might be playing the best tennis of his career. It has only been a month since Roddick's heartbreaking defeat against the Federer Express (July 5th to be exact) - enough time for him to realize that if he keeps doing what he's been doing this year there could and should be more opportunities to win slams.

Roddick, at 40-9 this season, has showed a level of commitment and intensity that has further endeared him to his loyal fan base. At 26, he appears to be adding layers of tactical prowess to his game. He never looked so good from the baseline in his win over Murray in the Wimbledon Semi's, and the same goes for his epic and heroic defeat at the hands of Federer.

There couldn't be a better time for fans of Roddick to sit back and revel in his sublime accomplishments - when he hits the magic number, whether it be today or next week, the achievement will be accompanied with the burgeoning belief that Roddick is a player once again on the rise. He's no longer content with being (or being considered) a one trick pony, and unlike the disinterested and disgruntled players on tour (Safin, Blake, etc...), Roddick loves the sport enough to want to honor it by being the very best he can be.

Across the net from him today, will be a player who could learn a lot from the type of soldiering that Roddick has been doing in 2009. Querrey, as good as he has been and as good as he can be, could surely benefit from dialing up his determination the way Roddick has.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

August 5, Clay-less in D.C.

Dear friends and tennis junkies,

Finally, a glance around the ATP schedule for this week yields zero (count 'em) clay court tournaments currently happening. Not that clay isn't a worthy surface, but it's summertime in the U.S. — and when it comes to summertime in the U.S. the theme is cold beer and hot concrete.

Which takes us to the nations capital, Washington D.C, the site of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic.

And my oh my do we have a nice looking draw this week. Andy Roddick, a three time champion at the Legg, will be playing his first ATP matches since his Wimbledon heart stopper. Fresh off of yesterdays tour of the White House (follow him on twitter if you don't already, Roddick will be taking on German Benjamin Becker. Becker handed Robby Ginepri his second consecutive loss yesterday, but it was no walk in the park. The German found himself down 4-1 in the third set tiebreaker but stormed back to win the next six points.

Roddick, who is two wins away from his milestone 500th victory, is 2-0 vs. Becker in his career.

While this match may not be the most enticing of matches, the fact that a win by Roddick will more than likely set up a 3rd round clash with red hot Sam Querrey (if he can get by Russian Igor Kunitsyn) is huge. Think about it. Roddick going for 500 and Querrey, now ranked a very solid 26, looking to provide further proof to the world that he has indeed arrived on the scene.

And if it's up and coming Americans that get you fired up, you must take note of the fact that John Isner, a semi finalist in Indy, is set to do battle with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga today. It'll be their first head-to-head meeting, and while there is huge disparity in their individual rankings (Tsonga is 7 and Isner is 80), Isner's booming serve always makes it difficult to play against him.

Tsonga, if you'll turn your memory back to Wimbledon, had a lot of trouble with Dr. Ivo Karlovic's serve — the fact that he's drawn Isner so early in the tournament (in his first match since Wimbledon no less) must seem like a bad omen to him. Keep your eyes on this one.

It's only Wednesday, but, weather permitting, the William H.G. Fitzgerald Tennis Center should be abuzz, as Robin Soderling, Fernando Gonzalez, Ivo Karlovic, Lleyton Hewitt, and many others are all set to compete.

What did I tell you — too much good stuff. Throw in a cold beer, a thunderstorm, the sound of tennis shoes squeaking on the hard court, and you've got yourself the perfect summer day.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

August 2: Querrey Rides Hot Hand

Greetings friends and tennis fans,

Life after Wimbledon continues, and even as only 1 male top-10 player is in action this week (Nikolay Davydenko in Umag), there is still tennis to get excited about.

A friend asked me today over coffee the unanswerable question: "When does tennis season end?" And as I contemplated this rhetorical and slightly confounding question it made me think about just how lucky we are, as obsessed fans, that the answer to the question is "never." We are fans of a sport that has no beginning and no end, it is a circle whose point of origin is also it's point of departure. Well that's not exactly true. December is a pretty light month, but you get the point.

Even as most of the heavy hitters on tour are more focused on rejuvenating their ailing bodies from the effects of a long and grueling spring on the European clay and grass, the beginning of the U.S. Open hard court series has presented those eager enough to partake with an opportunity to build some momentum on the summer's surface of choice.

Sam Querrey, much to the delight of his hometown buddies aka Samurai's (some of which are pictured above), and the rest of America for that matter, is one of these eager players.
After thumping Tommy Haas in straight sets last night, the 21-year-old has secured a spot in his third consecutive final (before you get too excited realize he's lost the first two). Querrey, who in the process of three weeks, has ascended to a career high No. 32 in the ATP world rankings, will play an inspired Australian qualifier by the name of Carsten Ball.

After losses to Rajeev Ram in the Newport final, then Robby Ginepri in the Indy final, it was nice to see Sam play himself into a situation to take another shot at getting the monkey off his back. After his virgin ATP title in Las Vegas last year, Q-ball has lost his last three finals. A win today will not only get him another career high ranking tomorrow but will also give him a little taste of winning on Sunday - an experience that he'd no doubt like to savour for a little while and perhaps keep in the back of his mind when the big boys start showing up for tournaments again.

While some might argue that Querrey is having his success in minor tournaments against a field that is diluted, last nights win over an in-form Tommy Haas is anything but inconsequential. Haas had won 16 of his last 19 matches, dating back to May (all 3 losses to top-10 opponents), and he's also a two-time champion at the L.A. tennis open.

The fact that Querrey is in the finals again is one thing. The fact that he got there by outplaying the savvy veteran Haas in straight sets is entirely another. Add to that the fact that he overcame his nerves, closing the match out after being down 0-40 in the final game, and we've got a 21-year-old American who is not only learning on the job, but climbing the rankings as well.

Today's final against Carsten Ball, a player who Querrey claims to be about 5-5 against in their "10 or so" previous junior meetings, should go to Querrey. Ball may have been able to hang with Querrey in Juniors, but Sam has been growing into a man over the last year, he's ready to take another title now. Meanwhile Ball, the tricky lefty with a nasty serve, is just happy to be in his first ATP final.

This is the hump that Sam Querrey must get over. If he doesn't he heads into the meat of the hard court season on a down note. He'll be a good kid who can't win a final. That would be good, but not as good as the alternative.

Big matches, big points. The margins are razor thin when you start sniffing the rarefied air of ATP finals. Querrey has sniffed enough of this air to know that he can still breathe on Sunday, when all the camera lenses are focusing on just two players. Or has he?