Monday, November 30, 2009

National Treasure: Bryan Bros. Reclaim No. 1 Ranking

Greetings tennis obsessed,

Ever since I spent a good chunk of a picture perfect afternoon staring down at the Bryan Brothers playing on the Grandstand Court at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, N.Y, I've been wanting to take a moment to tell the world how truly awesome doubles tennis can be. Not that the world doesn't already know, but I figure it can't hurt to remind the world in case it has forgotten.

On that long hot day in early September I had watched more matches than I could even begin to write about. I had scribbled so many notes on so many different pieces of paper — stuff like, Mikhail Youznhy isn't as big as I pictured him to be, but he is quite a character isn't he?...and... is Andy Murray ever going to stop playing soccer with his mates and start playing tennis over on the practice courts?...and... just who the hell is this very loud girl named Wickmayer? — and I really didn't know how much enthusiasm for the sport I had left in me.

Then it happened. I stumbled upon the Bryan Brothers as they took on Jose Acasuso and Martin Vassallo Arguello on Grandstand. Immediately I was captivated by the action on the court, by the frantic stops and starts, by the intense banter between the members of each team, and by the quick and heated exchanges that were occurring at the net.

This, I thought to myself, is the place to be. The Bryan brothers, heavily favored, played with such passion that it was hard not to fall in love with what they were doing. They were so exuberant, so together, and they were just emanating this grass-roots lust for the sport. Even their opponents, who played brilliantly even as they never seemed to have a chance to win, seemed to be in awe of the Bryan's conviction, enthusiasm, and love for the sport at its most basic level.

There was something about the experience that just made you want to grab a racquet and give it a shot. Watching the brothers bounce around between points made you want to move your feet as well.

This was rapid fire, think-on-your-toes tennis. This was chest bumping, high-fiving tennis. Each point was an adventure, complete with lobs, smash volleys, impossibly angled approach shots, and other plays I don't even know how to begin to describe. I was blown away, both by the beauty of the game of doubles and the brand of unique shot making that it brings to the fans. But more importantly, I was blown away by the Bryan Brothers - by the immense desire and competitive spirit that they bring to the court and how unbelievably passionate they are about what they do.

Yesterday, as they clinched their fifth year-end No. 1 ranking by capping an improbable run at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, the Bryan Brothers were once again on an emotional high. After reversing the results of their round-robin loss to Max Myrni and Andy Ram, the Bryan's now find themselves a mere six titles from the all-time record of 61 ATP doubles titles , which is held by Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde.

The fact that the Bryans have won at least five doubles titles for each of the last eight years means that next year could be really special for the Camarillo, California natives.

They already have the most doubles wins as a team in Davis Cup history (16), so why should it be a surprise that they become the ATP's most winning doubles team of all time?

If their quest for doubles immortality helps make 2010 the year where the beauty of doubles tennis becomes more widely known and respected, than we should consider ourselves lucky. We should also consider ourselves lucky to have the Bryan brothers showing us the way to play the game properly - to lead with your heart and follow with your racquet.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Del Potro V Soderling: They Call It "Clutch".

Greetings tennis obsessed,

In tennis, every match consists of "stories within stories".   Sometimes those stories morph into a colossal work.  Other times there is no rhyme or reason to them.  Eventually, each story gives way to a similar but unrelated version of itself.  Usually, in colossal matches where the stakes are improbably high, the winner is the player who can build his series of "stories within stories" into a larger more forceful work - not built just of technique, but also of desire, improvisation, and belief.

Tennis is like reality TV in the sense that it has no script.  A match is often a contest of how each player can react to the countless number of spontaneous situations that will eventually arise out of the chaos that is being played, freeform, out on the court.

One such "story within a story" took place in the 8th game of the 2nd set today at the O2 Arena in London.  It was one of those unexpected moments that can, in the span of a blink of an eye, explode into a match-altering event that looms forever large to those who participated in the match and the also the lucky spectators who were able to witness the moment blossom into a chess-like execution of a foolproof strategy.

Here's how it happened:  While leading in games 4-3, but trailing against the nearly invincible Soderling serve  (30-40), Del Potro plopped an impromptu drop shot just over the net.  It sent Soderling running in desperation to the forecourt. Out of his comfort zone, Soderling was in no-mans land without a paddle.  He was forced to: a) hit a very difficult shot at a critical juncture of the match while on a dead sprint, then b) try to chase down a lung-collapsing lob that was cleverly placed just over his outsretched racquet, a few feet inside the baseline.

Soderling failed to provide a solution to that lob.  Even more importantly, he was gassed after the two sprints - gassed in a way that he had not experienced all match long - and as a result he missed both ensuing first serves.  This led to Del Potro scoring the break, and eventually, the set.

It was a quick and decisive sneak attack from a player who is not only a monster from the baseline but a server extraordinaire.  It was a point that turned into a clinic.  The logical progression for a tennis player that not only exerts himself over his opponents, but also thinks his way cleverly around them.

These are the subtle ebbs and flows in momentum that can have everything to say about who wins or loses a match in which both players have equal amounts of prowess.

The drop shot-lob combo was such a clever play at that moment.  And the fact that Del Potro had the presence to use it and to execute it properly proves that he is mature beyond his years.

There it was.  The perfect strategic play at the perfect time of the match where it nets the greatest effect.   Whether it was planned or culled out of thin air makes no difference - the fact that Del Potro was able to harness the magic of the moment with such aplomb is the fact that counts.  

From here, Del Potro looked to have the momentum which would propel him to victory.

But Soderling held fast.  The imposing Swede, long on a commodity known as belief, does indeed seem ready for the big time. He's confident these days, and he can be utterly dominant when he is playing with confidence.   Undeterred by his ill-willed foe, Soderling set out to reconquer. He didn't just find the momentum as the 3rd set began, he grabbed it back.  

Soderling's confidence, exhibit A:  Soderling did not sink beneath the weight of his disappointment in the conclusion of the second set. Instead he stiffened.   He maintained his swagger as the final set began, and proceeded to parlay his big serves into easy looks at winners.   Capitalizing, he drew first blood by breaking Del Potro's serve with two consecutive grade-A returns that put the Argentine on the defensive.

It was impressive stuff by Soderling indeed, but when he was looking for a quick ending to his work, the script flipped.

While looking to consolidate his break, Del Potro grabbed the pen.

When the tennis ball fuzz settled on the hard court, the theme of this match became apparent: Juan Martin Del Potro is getting very good at gutting out victories.  Add to that the fact that he can, at least at the moment, summon his most impressive and otherworldly abilities when the situation most desperately calls for it, and you've got a lethal combination.

They call it clutch, and you're nothing in tennis if you're not clutch. Del Potro has the uncanny ability to reach new heights under pressure. He senses how to steal the momentum and make it his friend.  Once Juan Martin Del Potro has momentum in a match, it's hard to wrestle it back from him.  He got it back in the third set by being clutch and by hitting through the ball when the pressure was on.  He never let it go after that.

Del Potros clutchness, Exhibit A:  In the very first point of the tiebreaker, the gentle giant from Tandil outlasted Soderling in a raging heavyweight-style rally that finally came to an end when Del Potro sent a letter-perfect inside-out backhand winner down the line as Soderling stood at the service hash.

How did Del Potro play so effortlessly there?  What is this special something - this something that Nadal had going for him just 1 short year ago - that brings players through to the other side?

What is it that turns a player's tools into a very compelling tour-de-force who seems made for winning Slams?

Whatever it is - that precious commodity, that je ne sais quoi - it seems that Del Potro has the lions share of it at the moment.

Take no credit from Soderling, this match was a veritable clinic of a match. He did everything he could to get on the winning end of the 6-7-(1), 6-3, 7-6(3) thriller.   Del Potro just beat him to the finish line.
As usual, there was more to the tennis than the score indicates.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Kantarian Deserves Credit, Not Scorn

Why is that every time a prominent figure's income is learned, and that income happens to be about 9 thousand times bigger than the common man's salary, we begrudge this man before ever taking a look at his accomplishments?

Plastered all over the internet yesterday was the news that Arlen Kantarian earned over 9 million dollars in 2008, his last year as CEO of the USTA. Immediately, animosity started to flow.

"They aren't doing anything. This is total crap," wrote Yahoo user, Ray Elarmo yesterday. 'Eliminate people like that and the price of goods would go down. I guarantee that. Hamburgers would be 2 bucks instead of 8 bucks."

But here's the deal: without hard working forward thinking people like Arlen Kantarian, much of whose pay was drawn because of the wildly successful turn in revenues at the U.S. Open over the last few years, I'm afraid that we'd have a less entertaining sport (without instant replay and those thank-god-you-thought-of-that blue courts), in addition to $8 hamburgers.

As an aside, I would like to add that I felt the hamburgers were by far the best bargain of all the fare at the U.S. Open in 2009.

But I digress. My point in taking offence at people's haughty reactions to Kantarian's reported income, is that they really have no business doing so. Well, I shouldn't go that far, it is a free country after all, but it'd be nice if people could, every once in a while, realize that incentive is a beautiful thing. In the economy that those who complain every time somebody's breathtaking mind blowing income is reported envision, there would be little incentive for any of these cutting-edge "idea" people to actually make a difference.

Many a respected journalist knew that Kantarian was good for the sport, and sometimes, much to the chagrin of envious people who would much rather complain about other peoples success than take charge of their own, people who are good at what they do get paid exceptionally well for it.

Read this piece by Bonnie Ford
to find out some of Kantarian's contributions to the sport.

While his reported income may seem high for a supposedly grass roots National tennis program, anyone who read beyond the headline can see that the bonuses were performance based. In other words, the terms of the contracts were clearly stated, and Kantarian was payed by those terms.

Americans need to stop turning their heroes into villains just because they earned a pretty penny in the process of fulfilling their obligations. There are wrongs in the world that need to be righted, I'll not argue that, but people need to let go of their envy and realize that Kantarian has nothing to do with the price of hamburgers.

He does, on the other hand, have a lot to do with the fact that tennis has kept pace with the other media-savvy sports in the world. By creating the U.S. Open series, by helping to immensely boost revenues at our signature tennis even (the U.S. Open), and by changing the way the sport is viewed on television and perceived by the media, Kantarian has turned the USTA's investment in him into a victory for all American Tennis fans.

People who get paid well for doing exceptional work are not the problem in this country. On the other hand, people who do nothing but complain, well, maybe we're getting a little closer to the heart of the matter now.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Soderling Confidently Keeps Nadal Under His Thumb

Greetings WTF watchers,

Robin Soderling said that he "liked his chances" heading into the Barclays World Tour Finals.

To some that may have been a funny way to put it for an alternate who wouldn't have gained entry in the tournament if it hadn't been for Andy Roddick's ailing knee. But with a very strong indoor record of 3 career titles in 9 career finals on his resume, the hopeful Soderling was looking to find the positives about his game instead of the negatives. That, in a nutshell, is the difference between the old Soderling and the one who beat Rafael Nadal for the second consecutive time today in London.

Alternate or not, now that he's here, and now that he's taken out Rafael Nadal in straight sets, his chances do look a lot better than they did about 10 days ago, when the 25-year-old Swede was on the outside looking in.

Whether it was good luck that got Soderling to London, the fact of the matter is that his emergence as a top-10 player has been the product of something much more valuable than luck in tennis: Confidence. With Soderling, who was regarded by many as an underachiever until 2009, their is little doubt that he is a different player now than he was when his Grand-Slam season began with a thrashing at the hands of Marcos Baghdatis in Australia.

In that match Soderling showed the world why, in spite of his obvious physical gifts, that he was unable to gain consistent entry into the latter rounds of slams. He was rattled by the rowdy Cypriot supporters and proceeded to melt down mentally in a match that could have been his for the taking.

Not that there is any shame in losing to Baghdatis, who has played some of his best tennis down under, but Soderling let the crowd get under his skin in that match, and because of it, he took himself out of a match that he could have won.

It's hard to tell which came first for Soderling, the confidence or the victory. How does, all of a sudden, a player who has never been beyond the third round of a Slam upset the best clay court player of all-time and then proceed to roll to the finals at Roland Garros? Something clicked in Soderling's mind at some point. Maybe it was a storm that was brewing throughout his professional career, and the 6'4" Swede just needed a reason to believe.

My theory is that his contempt for Nadal fueled him to play like a raging beast in that 4-set earth-shattering match that set the tennis world on its ear. When it was over it was like the demons that had been plaguing Soderling for his whole career had been exorcised.

Once Le Sod realized just how much damage he could do while in "beast" mode, he decided that if he just kept that ornery mindset, but coupled it with a sense of calm, he could compete with anyone

And he has been more than just competitive. Since that loss to Baghdatis, Soderling did not lose to anyone other than Federer in the last three Slams of the year. And each of them (Finals in Paris, 4th round at Wimbledon, Quarter finals at U.S. Open) bested his previous best at each Slam.

The old Soderling is gone. He became the new Soderling on that crazy day in May, in what was perhaps the biggest upset in Grand-Slam history. It was also an exorcism of sorts.

The new Soderling just outplayed World No. 2 Rafael Nadal in a tense straight set victory that puts him, at least momentarily (he plays Djokovic today, and he's 0-5 against him), on the top of Group B.

What a difference six months makes.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

8 is Great: Barclays ATP World Tour Finals Preview

Next week at this time London's O2 Arena will be popping with the sounds of tightly strung racquets and fresh yellow tennis balls.

For the tennis obsessed, there is no sweeter music.   Beyonce Knowles (Last weeks O2 Arena headliner) may be quick, but she's got nothing on the likes of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray.

The Basement Jaxx  (Upcoming act) may be cutting edge, but not nearly as cutting edge as a Federer slice backand or Soderling paddling a winner crosscourt.  And they don't groove as well as Nadal's inside-out forhehand, either.  Ah, that souped-up finish-at-the-ear forehand.  Picasso couldn't have painted it better than Nadal can hit it.  Is there another man in the land that violates the rights of tennis balls better than Nadal?  And if so is his name Nole?

Tennis obsessed: the stage is set. The best racqueteers in the world have come to one of the finest facilities in all of Europe to show us what they're made of.  

The Prize:  More than you can imagine, unless you can imagine $4,450,000. 

Each round-robin win is worth $120k, the semis are worth $380k additional, and the finals are worth $770k.  Visa and Mastercard accepted.  

Understatement of the week:  "Whoever you draw is going to be tough." - Andy Murray

The Rules:  Two Groups of 4 play one another for the right to make the semis.  

Group A:

Roger Federer:  Normally the master of the cupcake draw, Mr. Federer will have his hands full with Andy Murray and Juan Martin Del Potro in group A.  If that's not enough, Fernando Verdasco will be there to give him a lefty to deal with.  

Verdasco vaulted into the top 10 on the strength of his off-season commitment, but to his credit, he remained there in all but one week (10 August) of 2009.  While he didn't break through like many who were spellbound by his run to the Semi's in Melbourne, he did manage 52 wins and nearly 1.6 Million in prize money.  

This is the 25-year-olds first ticket to the WTF.  

Murray, who has been dealing with a wrist issue since the U.S. Open, comes in on a sort of high.  His return with Valencia netted him his tour leading 6th title of the season.  Like Verdasco, only to a larger extent, many wanted more from Murray this season.  Murray Mania turned into Andymonium in July, but a determined Andy Roddick kept the Dunblane, Scotland native from the Wimbledon final by spiriting him away in the semis.  

Murray ran the table at the WTF's last year in the round-robin, then got dusted by a money-hungry Nikolay Davydenko in the semis.  But that was Shanghai.  This is London.  Murray may not be as good at playing the home crowd as Monfils, but he is no stranger to dealing with, and capitalizing on, the energy of a partisan crowd.  

Del Potro is limping in to London.  But much to group A's chagrin, Del Potro, even while limping, is a dangerous and worthy opponent. After a physically exhausting and emotionally gratifying dethroning of Roger Federer in the 2009 U.S. Open Finals, Del Potro has yet to regain the belligirence that enabled him to become the most difficult player in the world to play against for the New York fortnight.  

His summer results bring Del Potro's autumn slumber to light:  After losing in straight sets to No. 189-ranked Edouard Roger-Vasselin in Tokyo, then retiring to Jurgen Melzer in Shanghai, Del Potro again retired in Paris, after losing handily in the first set to Stepanek last week.  Still, the quarterfinal appearance was his best of the fall.

It is becoming apparent that Juan Martin may need a bit more of the local Tandil cuisine before he reaches his peak again, but I wouldn't put a miracle past the firebombing 21-year-old. Remember the conclusion to the 2nd set in the U.S. Open final?  None of us expected that either.  

Group B:  

Novak Djokovic is playing like he's found god.  Or maybe he's found love.  Whatever it is that he's found, it certainly isn't hurting his performance on the court, as he ran roughshod over the entire field last week in Paris, securing his tour-leading 76th win and his 5th ATP title of 2009.  
The Serb seems to be trusting in his nature a little more on the court, and when Djokovic is playing instinctively he can truly dominate opponents.  

He has the hottest hand coming in, and he'll certainly benefit from experience.  But last year's champion was able to escape without playing Federer or Nadal - that won't happen this year. 

Rafael Nadal, of all the qualifiers at the WTF's, may have the most to prove.  After winning his first and only hardcourt Slam in Australia he has been on an emotional roller coaster that unceremoniously started when he suffered the worst sneak attack in tennis history at Roland Garros, at the hands of suddenly invincible Robin Soderling.  

The Spaniards wild ride pushed him off the tracks when he missed Wimbledon and the chance to renew his rivalry with the newly deified Roger Federer, and when Nadal finally got on the tracks again he hit a major bump in the road by the name of Juan Martin Del Potro in New York.  

Rafa's health is better, but he has had trouble finding that 5th gear as early and as often as he did before he went down with knee tendinitis and the subsequent abdominal strain.  It is only a matter of time before he does find that crusing gear, and if it is this week, Rafa may improve upon his previous best in the WTF's, which were his semifinal losses to Federer in '06 and '07. 

Make no mistake about it, world No. 7 Nikolay Davydenko belongs in this event.  He scored wins over Tsonga, Del Potro, and Murray to gain a finals berth against Djokovic last year, and in 2005 he won all three round-robin matches before losing to Nalbandian in the semis.  Make no mistake about it, the diminutive Russian affectionately known as Kolya can play with the big boys.  Anyone who is not up for running this time of year is going to have a hard time dealing with the precision that Davydenko hits with when he is on.  He doesn't garner much attention around the star power of the rest of the top-10, but when the money is on the line, Kolya is frequently the player who you want your money on.  

Le Sod a.k.a Robin Soderling is filling the spot that an ailing (and off-season craving) Andy Roddick left vacant when he announced his withdrawal  from the WTF's due to a nagging knee injury.  

Soderling has nothing to lose and 1.6 million to potentially gain, so he may be the loosest of all the players in the bunch.  The Swede seems to be enjoying his now address in the nice neighborhood known as the ATP's top-10, and he is living proof that if you come out with attitude and strive to play with gusto, fire, and belief, you just might make the headlines.  

With a 47-19 record in '09, Soderling was also impressive in that he wasn't beaten by anyone but Federer in the final 3 slams of the year.  Don't you remember watching him implode against Baghdatis in the Australian Open (he lost in the 2nd round).  Back then we were sure that he was his own worst enemy.  

Now Soderling is his own best friend.  What a difference a friend can make.  

Here are my picks for next weeks throwdown at O2 Arena in London:  

Group A Semis:  1. Murray 2. Federer
Group B Semis:  1.  Davydenko 2.  Soderling

Semis:  Murray over Soderling, Federer over Davydenko
Finals:  Murray over Federer

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

For Roddick, This Curse May Be A Blessing

Greetings Tennis Obsessed,

The news that Andy Roddick isn't fit enough to participate in The Masters Cup came officially yesterday, but things have been headed in that direction since early October, when Roddick made his feelings known about the Ridiculously demanding ATP schedule.

If you've forgotten, I'll remind you: "It's ridiculous that you have a professional sport that doesn't have a legitimate off-season to rest, get healthy, and then train," said Roddick. "We finish around 30 November and then have to be Grand-Slam ready by 4 January, year after year after year."

"I don't think it's coincidental that you see Roger and Murray a little bit hurt now, or Rafa missing four months in the middle of the year, or maybe some odd results from Del Potro and myself last week."

My intentions are not to write another post about the fact that the ATP's season is long. We all know that it's a haul, particularly for the top players, and we've all been hearing about it and talking about it since the U.S. Open concluded in early September.

But while the ATP's player council gives lip service to the idea of actually shortening the schedule (they'd like to figure out how to do that without shortening too many important bank account ledgers), the player's dilemma continues.

And until the issues are resolved it will be up to players like Roddick, who are in their late 20's, to do a very careful job of scheduling their appearances, and managing their health. While it is disappointing that Roddick — a player whose pedigree includes qualifying for The Masters Cup for a seventh time this season — cannot attend, his absence might be the best thing for his health in 2010.

For Roddick, and other players like him, managing a personal schedule has to be a question of priorities. In the past a player like Roddick, who chases the ball around the tennis court like an NFL Linebacker chases slot receivers around the gridiron, might have opted to play hurt just to avoid missing a prestigious and potentially lucrative event like the Barclay's ATP World Tour Finals. But after enjoying a great rest and relaxation propelled run this summer that featured his best ever performance on the Roland Garros Clay followed by his valiant near miss at Wimbledon (they came after a six week layoff that featured his marriage and a whole lot of track work), Roddick knows that the key to his success, at 27 going on 28, will be finding that ever elusive sweet spot that will enable him to be both well rested and warmed up.

In other words, Andy's not keen on heading to Australia on a bum knee, mate.

While it would have been great to see the svelte Nebraskan represent America across the pond next week, I think it is even greater that Roddick is getting the chance to experience a legitimate off-season.

A big part of winning at 27 and beyond for Roddick will rest on his ability to channel the immense wisdom that he has gained from being on the tour for so long, and from knowing what it takes to find his best form at the times when it really matters - the Grand-Slams.

Roddick was oh-so-close to bringing home that coveted 2nd Grand-Slam this summer. His ace in the hole was his fitness, which was probably as good this year as it has ever been. By making a prudent decision to skip the Masters Cup, Roddick keeps his ace in the hole.

By giving himself the off-season that every player so badly needs to build a base of fitness to pull them through during the arduous months on the ATP tour, Roddick may have just turned the ATP's curse into his own personal blessing.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Oudin and The Big IFs

Greetings Tennis Afflicted,

In every champion tennis player there is a failure, or rather, a long list of potential failures that have somehow been avoided. The odds are surely not stacked in favor of anyone becoming the best in the world at their craft, or even one of the best in the world. For many, a birth in a Grand-Slam draw would be a minor miracle that one could hang her hat on for a long time, maybe even a lifetime.

If that were the case for Melanie Oudin - if making a slam, or even blasting her way into the quarters of a Slam, were enough - America would forgive her. In a sense, recently turned 18-year-old Melanie Oudin, recent Fed Cup drubbing notwithstanding, has already lived the type of charmed tennis life that most toiling juniors would give their service toss arm for.

But forgiveness may not be necessary when it comes to the spunky type-A kid from Marietta Georgia. Perhaps the best has yet to come? If she learns to channel that intensity a little better. If she can learn to play as well with a lead as she does when she's trailing, we just might have something here, America.

It is the big IF that is captivating about Oudin: If she really does have that special something that we all seem to see in her; If she is not satiated by her dramatic rise to relevance during 2009; If she has the patience and the wherewithal to know that whatever she did to get to where she is - however many drops of blood, sweat, and tears she left on the court - she'll have to do more of it, and with a greater sense of purpose, to remain where she is.

But there is something about Oudin that makes Americans believe in her ascension, that maybe the IF cloud will indeed give way to golden rays of tennis achievements. Her feistiness makes us remember where we came from. There was a time when we had to fight for our own freedom, not just our notion of everybody else's, and Oudin has this pre-super-power aura about her - she plays tennis more like a woman who is fleeing religious persecution than a woman whose daddy bought her too many stuffed animals for her birthday.

If she can keep it up, she just might be the one.

Venus and Serena will be 30 and 29 next year, respectively. Like the psychology of a woman who approaches her late 30's childless, American Woman's tennis is starting to feel the void of having no safety net behind the Williamses.

If Oudin can do more of what she already has been doing for a year now, American tennis may stay on the map. If not, Dark days are sure to follow.

It's a tall order for a relatively short girl, but Oudin's dogged determination and fierce persona make her larger than life in all our eyes.

If she can turn her most humbling losses into logs and throw them into the fire in her belly, then the future looks bright for Oudin.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Ljubicic: The Man Has Heart

Greetings tennis nuts,

In a day and age where it is becoming too easy to identify just what precisely is wrong with the world, where mass murders, drug cheats, and sex scandals litter the front pages of the globe's finest newspapers, where paparazzi expose the ugliest truths and the sordid character flaws of today's heroes, where the theme is not to compete on equal footing, but to cheat, lie, and do whatever else it takes to win, to get ahead, to profit, Ivan Ljubicic has shown the world that there is another way to conduct oneself.

It will probably be lost on many who watched the 6'4" Croatians match (a 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 loss) with Frenchman Gilles Simon in the Paris Masters today, and by some it will not only be lost but ridiculed and considered an inexplicable lack of finishing ability.

But there was a moment there, where the world, in spite of all it's harsh realities and materialistic misgivings, was right again. It happened at 3-3 in the third and final set, just after Simon had blew a break point and in the process reinjured his always temperamental tendinitis afflicted right knee.

As Simon limped towards the chair umpire Carlos Bernardes, he was met with one of the harsh realities of life on the ATP tour. Bernardes told him "If you are injured, you finish the game, then you talk to the trainer." Simon, nonplussed, and more concerned with his money-making knees, abruptly told Bernardes that he would either see the trainer or retire.

That was, just at the moment when yet another tennis crowd was going to be told to go home early a-la Serena sending thousands of New Yorkers home in September, when help came from the most unlikely of places: Simon's opponent.

Ivan Ljubicic. Taking a page from the books of old, when men were men and they respected the competition more than the money, more than winning or losing; from a time when respect was a common theme rather than a term that gets hurled around in the same fashion that most obscenities are today.

13,700 euros and a trip to the third round could have been Ljubicic's if he'd only just stood at the baseline and played dumb. If he sat there like a 20th century greed monger, preparing to serve, knowing full-well that Simon was not going to play those two points until he had sought the attention of a trainer.

But he didn't. He told Simon he was fine with letting him get looked at, and Bernardes deferred to Ljubicic's sentiment, and the trainer came to assess the damage to Simon's knee at deuce, 3-3.

Some of you will call Ljubicic stupid for extending his respect and compassion to another man. 'Why would anyone do that?' You'll say. 'You have to kick a man when he's down. Grind him to a pulp. Take the money and run.' But Ljubicic must have other ideas about how people should behave towards one another, even if they are adversaries. Perhaps he has parents who took the time to teach him not only about tennis but about life. About doing what is right.

In a world, and in a sport, where we read about too much of what is wrong (think crystal meth, parents gone wild, and Fernando Gonzalez Olympic debacle), Ljubicic, win or lose, showed us today that all is not wrong in the world.

Thousands of Parisians got their money's worth, Simon got his chance to finish the match, and most of all, Ljubicic showed that he, win or lose, has a champions character.  

As he walked off the court and was hardly acknowledged by the Parisian crowd, I couldn't help but think that he deserved a standing ovation and a few roses thrown at his feet.  

Monday, November 9, 2009

Is WADA Getting it Right?


I was already feeling a little drugged-out this week, with all the talk of Andre Agassi's crystal meth exploits and Tim Lincecum being caught with a bag of weed while driving his Mercedes on an Oregon Freeway.

Perhaps you were too?

But those stories, while controversial, and perhaps symptoms of a larger issue (the issue being that recreational drugs are eating at the very core of our once moral and virtuous society - okay, at least it was more moral and more virtuous, right?), didn't produce the same effect as the very harsh 1 year suspension that was handed down to Belgian 20-year-old Yanina Wickmayer.

In violating the ITF's ultra-rigid whereabouts rule three times, Wickmayer has found herself in very real and exasperating situation that should have been avoided.

I am not here to bash the ITF, who enforces the policies of WADA (World Antidoping Agency), for they are merely standing firmly by the guidelines that they have set forth and made available to all the players. Nor am I here to bash Wickmayer, who has captivated me with her energetic brand of tennis in rising from World No. 67 to World No. 16 in less than a year.

And maybe that is the true problem here, the true grist of my anger and frustration with all of this. It is unclear who is to blame, and it is unclear as to whether Wickmayer is an innocent being unnecessarily led off into tennis purgatory or a sneaky doper who tried to skirt the ITF's rigid drug policy, but failed.

It is, unfortunately, one of those questions that will forever remain unanswered.

And it isn't the only question that will remain unanswered. Here are a few more:

Why wasn't Wickmayer given proper warning by the ITF regarding her whereabouts infractions before things had gotten to this point? In other words, is there ongoing communication taking place between player and governing body, or is there a detached sort of bureaucratic animosity that lends itself to these kind of unnecessary violations? I ask this question because Wickmayer is a young girl. She's barely turned 20. If you've leafed through the copious and perhaps senselessly rigid instructions of the whereabouts policy like I have, you can probably imagine a similar scenario existing for yourself.

Which brings me to my next question: What the hell was coach and father Marc Wickmayer doing during all of this? Again, I don't know the whole story, and as I mentioned earlier I probably never will, but isn't it safe to assume that the coach and father of a 20-year-old girl would be making sure that her daughter didn't accidentally commit a doping violation?

Wickmayer has expressed surprise at the suspension, and claimed in this piece that is was not until June that she learned that her whereabouts were out of order. Since then, she says, she has gotten her act together.

Of course, there is a part of me that says everyone else complied, so why couldn't she? I've heard Wickmayer's claim that she was having password problems, but the real problem here seems to be a lack of communication between Wickmayers' coach and father and the ITF.

So in the end, the sport loses a fiery competitor who seemed destined to make a run at the top 10 and maybe higher next year. Now it looks like she is destined for a grey period full of bad press, accusations, and the frustration of having to watch Grand-Slam championships knowing full well that she should have been competing in them.

I love the idea of the sport of tennis being clean, but I hate the idea of it becoming so stubborn in it's mission that it takes down innocent bystanders with stray bullets made of righteousness.

Is that we're were at now?

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Fourth Point

Greetings tennis nuts,

It only took me 4 points of the Gasquet-Chiudinelli match to get the feeling that Richard was going to have a tough day. After a fairly lengthy cross-court backhand rally, Gasquet was caught by a down-the-line backhand by his Swiss Opponent. The young Frenchman, he of the prettiest backhand in all the land, did not seem to realize that in tennis, players are frequently forced to move to the other parts of the court to retrieve shots. Sometimes you have to travel great distances that might seem more like treks across unyielding terrain (like riding a camel across the Sahara with no water if you want to get dramatic). Sometimes, you just aren't up for the trek.

Very often the trek, and the willingness with which a player embarks upon the trek, make the difference in a match between 2 ridiculously gifted opponents. Today was such a day.

As the tepid winner from Chiudinelli rolled to the back fence, Gasquet was facing a break point before he had even noticed that his alarm clock was going off. This was the prevailing theme of the match as a fit and well-fed (lots of home cooking for the Swiss this week in Basel) Chiudinelli deconstructed the lackadaisical Gasquet with surprising ease.

Gasquet, while gorgeous to watch, is quite simply not producing very much inspired tennis. He strokes the ball exquisitely when it is in his zone, but doesn't seem willing to do the dirty work that it so often takes to get it in that zone on a more consistent basis.

At No. 57 in the world, Gasquet is in that dangerous place that pits him against very high level ATP competition in the early rounds of the events he attends. He's going to have to burn through a few more pairs of track shoes if he wants to sniff the top-20 in 2010.

His current 3 match losing streak puts Gasquet at 6-7 since his reinstatement. He's treading water in a sea that is filled with very hungry ATP sharks. It's kill or be killed, and Gasquet's troubling lack of competitive fire doesn't bode well for a player who should have some of the best-rested legs in the sport, having missed the middle of the season.

Perhaps there are larger forces at work. It can't be easy emotionally to go through the roller coaster ride that Gasquet has been through. He's only 23. He's got so much ability. His artful brand of tennis can be electric when there is some emotional content to spark it. I hope he finds his groove and overcomes his malaise.

Otherwise the sharks will get him. Chiudinelli chewed him up and spit him out today. It was an impressive display. It's too bad that Gasquet didn't show his teeth when things got tough.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Serena Gets Her Swerve On

So Serena finishes the year with a comfortable 1,275 point lead over No. 2 Dinara Safina and I dare to beg the question - was there every any doubt?

And then I proceed to beg another question: If you watched what Serena did to Dinara in the Australian Open finals (way back then, when the year was young), were you at all in doubt then?

If you were in doubt, and if you were questioning the meaning of all this rankings talk throughout the course of the year, the time is now ripe for putting a lid on it.

One stroke has helped Serena more than any other to put an exclamation point after the Number 1 in today's WTA rankings: The Serve.

Slice it or kick it or hammer it any way you want, but there is not another serve in the women's game even near as lethal as Serena's. You may not love her, you may be afraid of her, and you may not believe her when she tries to apologize to you, but you can rest assured that Serena Williams is the real no. 1 in Woman's tennis.

And would you want it any other way?

I, for one, would not. Serena, as questionable as her etiquette may be at times, has an unquestionably scary serve, whether on Halloween or the 4th of July. And I respect that about her.

It is because of that scary serve that she deserves to finish the year at the top. The fact that she excels at what is so obviously the most difficult stroke in all the game to master assures me that there is more to Serena than meets the eyes. If you find determination scintillating than in Serena you may have found your muse. She isn't simply a glammed-out overpowering fake-similing book promoter (like some detractors might claim). No, there is substance to Serena, and there is game to Serena. 11 Slams and counting pretty much says it all.

You don't get to where Serena currently is without having remarkable fortitude. Great servers are great disciplinarians as well. They have taken the time, through repetition, to remove doubt and sometimes even thought from the equation. When she booms that serve there are decades worth of hard work that are transferring from strings to fuzzy yellow ball. Serena shows no fear when she is serving. She knows no doubt. She's become a memory machine. She's willed herself to be one. She believes she will hit her spot and she's practiced hitting her spot and therefore she does.

Unfortunately she is in the minority at the moment.

If there is one stroke that the whole Tour should attend a seminar on, it is serving. Yes, Venus and Svetlana can bring it when they are on. But both can be prone to double faults and too much inconsistency. From the rest of the top-10 it might be only Wozniacki and Zvonareva that get a C-grade or above. Safina and Dementieva reside in meltdown city and everybody knows it. Jankovic and Radwanska could open a lollipop store and make very very good money. Vika, much to her chagrin, seems more likely to bench press 1,000 kilograms than to serve out a match.

Please don't take this as a diatribe from someone who doesn't have an immense amount of respect for the current state of the women's game. I don't deny that the women's game may be more entertaining than the men's game at the moment. In terms of drama it is second to none. And I don't deny that the women on tour are absolutely TREMENDOUS athletes. The speed, power, and grace from the baseline across the professional ranks is perhaps the best it has ever been.

But what gives with the serving?

In terms of serving acumen it is clear that the women don't embrace the chore the way the men do. Naturally genes and sheer size play a part. And I'll admit that today's returners are far more dangerous than ever. But today's WTA world-beaters are approaching the service line with such trepidation that they have basically muffed the shot before they have tossed the ball. In my opinion the women must realize that whether you are 5'4" or 6'2", attitude in serving is everything.

Just ask Serena. She serves to kill. I'm sure her big sister Venus, who was denied a break point opportunity in their SEC Championship match yesterday, would agree. All week Serena was banging down aces, and not just when she was front-running. Serena used the serve in the way that Marat Safin uses it. She digs herself out of trouble and gets herself into a position to front run with it.

In a user run message board on the Tennis Week website this week, I posed the following question: "Hey all, who do you guys think is the most effective female server of all time?...As far as today's game, it has to be the Williamses - are Venus and Serena the best of all time?"

Though I am no L. Jon Wertheim in terms of popularity, I'm proud to say I got a few responses. Here is the one that most accurately summarizes my point:

"Serena is the best server I've seen in person," said RP. "She has proven herself to be a tremendous situational server - being able to pull out the service winner or ace when she needs it the most," he went on. "That's very, very rare in women's tennis - especially now. And she's the best at it."

That comment was posted on October 27th, just as our favorite linesperson berater was beginning a 5-match rampage through the rest of the elite women's field at Doha that left her as the definitive No. 1.

It was clear before the end of the year and it is now even clearer: When Serena gets her serve on she also gets her swerve on. If I was one of her rivals in the WTA, I'd be asking her for lessons.