Wednesday, December 29, 2010

2010, The Year in Gestures

Heartbreak, jubilation, sorrow, confusion, determination, malevolence -- each and more were part of the 2010 tennis season.

Ah, look at Roger in that picture. Doesn't he look so pissed yet so calm? And isn't that one of the best parts of being a die-hard tennis fan -- that we get to really peer inside the tortured and/or ecstatic minds of the athlete and really FEEL what they're going through? I know it's always been one of my favorite things about watching tennis. The voyeuristic element is enticing, the fact that we, as fans, are granted a window into the soul of the athlete.

Sometimes it's ugly and all mishmashed (Vera). Sometimes it's dark and brooding (Fed). Sometimes it's so intense it practically burns right through you (Rafa).

Sometimes it's surprisingly vacuous (Berdych, Cilic). Sometimes it's morose (Dinara, Querrey in Paris), and other times it's uplifting, bubbly, and bright (Baghdatis, Tsonga).

Sometimes it's every single emotion plus a few you've never experienced before, all wrapped into one (Novak).

Other times it's too intense, almost neurotic, insane intense (Henin) and it makes you painfully aware of how tennis is a sport unlike any other, how it is a game that demands perfection in a world where perfection simply isn't possible.

It all makes you wonder if the best players are the best players because they are the best players or are they the best players because they've read every bit of tennis psychology -- aka the MENTAL GAME -- that they can get their hands on. Because when you think about it, there are so many matches that seem to hinge on ONE HUGE POINT.

And with each huge point there is a gesture. A glance. A fist pump. A towel over the head or a racquet embedded in the clay, that says "here I am, naked before you, wanting desperately to be everything that I knew I could be before I stepped out on this court."

And with these gestures, we have further proof that the sport of tennis is a creature unlike any other.

Here are a just a few of my favorite tennis gestures of 2010. There were millions, and I enjoyed them all...

1. The Nadal Somersault at Wimbledon: This was the most unscripted, boyish, innocent, and cute thing Nadal did all year. It was like a brief respite from the slaughter that basically went down, uninterrupted, from April to September. And the double fist pump at the end? Classic!

2. Francesca Schiavone Kissing the Clay: Oh, man I had to go back and watch this a few times because I was crying when it happened live. I'm gonna cross my fingers and hope that something more inspirational than Schiavone's French Open title happens in 2011, but I'm not getting my hopes up.

3. Sampras hammering a serve at Andre during the Hit For Haiti: This one taught me that you can take the player out of the competition, but you can't take the competition out of the player. I think Andre deserved this for sure, and while the whole thing was probably unnecessary, immature, and caddy, it was delightfully fun to watch.

4. Serbian Baldies, Davis Cup Champions: I'm not sure if this fits the classic definition of an emotional tennis gesture, but seeing the Serbs climb to the top of the tennis ladder, collectively rather than individually, then seeing them all symbolically shave each others heads as if to imply that they were all soldiers in the same army, was just the type of boisterous and playful gesture that I expected, wanted, and needed at that moment. I'm sure we are all in agreement about this one, right?

5. The Campionship Chest Bump Into a Love Straddle: What's better than a little doubles love to close out the segment? The Bryan Brothers -- so passionate, so dedicated, so entertaining, and so tough to beat -- have climbed further than any other doubles team ever has before. Here's the vid of their record-breaking match point in their home state of California.

Their milestone victory was about so many things: the importance of family, the coolness of making the most out of your twinship, and it was also a pretty good promotional idea to sell records.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

My Tennis Xmas Wish List

Trivia Question: What string tensions are best when playing on a platform 1,000 yards above the city?
San Francisco --

Dear friends,

In keeping with my year-end tradition, I am going to make another foray into the out-of-the-ordinary year-end list. Except that it's not a list as much as it is not a list.


As Xmas approaches I realize I am not in want of anything more than what I already have -- great friends, great loves, and most of all, great tennis.

It is only during times like these, when the world sits still in repose, that we get to truly contemplate the immense beauty of it all. When the arc of the game rests and the rankings don't change, we can look back at the year that was and feel a glow. We can miss it and also be happy it's gone so we can catch up on what it all meant.

Tennis Xmas List, 2010

1. Nobody Break the longest match record next year: Okay, I'm going to start with one I know I can have. Think about how duped we'd all feel if somebody broke the record we know will never fall. Plus, I don't know if I could take another one so soon.

2. USTA, say you are not touching Grandstand: I don't understand. If the U.S. Open was in San Francisco you'd have bands of protesters running around the grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center with signs, and laying in front of the gates to the legendary Grandstand.

This is just too sad for me to deal with. It is (or should I say, was?), in my opinion, the best place to watch tennis in the U.S.

3. Advise umpires to overrule less: This has always been one of my pet peeves. There are other and better ways to control the integrity of a match.

4. A virtual unknown Slam winner, please: I love excitement, and what better way to get excited about tennis than to see a new fresh face burst on to the scene? Nothing against the unbelievable prowess with which Rafa and Roger have lorded over the competition, but true shockers are always welcome vs. what has become the status quo.

5. A wildcard to the U.S. Open qualies: Judging from the improvements in my forehand in the last few weeks, I can't find any reason not to think I could be the next Blake Strode (except that I'm delusional).

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Year in Random Blurbs, Part 2

Victoria Azarenka's 2010 was full of drama -- but she wasn't the only one who had a wild year.

San Francisco --

I'll start the second edition of "The Year in Random Blurbs" by wishing you all the best. Because really, as much as our tennis obsessions get our competitive juices flowing, at the end of the day we are all in the same boat, loving the sport and -- hopefully -- joining in the camaraderie, sportsmanship, and passion that makes tennis our life force.

Today, I'm going to look at some of the things that went wrong this year, not because I want to dwell on negativity (that's not how I roll). Actually it's quite the opposite. I'm interested in the low points of the season, because when we watch players react to adversity, we can really get a feel for who they are. And when they respond bravely, we can get inspired. Just look how Rafa responded to all his physical problems of 2009. Now that's what I call uplifting.

I'd have to agree with Darren Cahill when I consider what makes tennis great. I asked him about the subject in an interview earlier this year, and here is what he said:

Me: What are a few of the most important life lessons tennis taught you?

Darren: It’s a great sport for problem solving. You’ve got so many times when you’re out on the court where it’s one on one, things are not going well, you feel like the loneliest person on the planet, and you have to figure out a way to fix it. I think that you can take that skill through life as well. If you can take the emotions out of what’s happening, and just learn to fix a problem, then you can get a lot more done. And I think tennis is wonderful for that. Because it is one on one and you don’t get any help. Most of what you do on the court you need to prepare for before the match, you need to go out there and execute during the match, and then you need a run-down of how you accomplished that after the match. It really does set you up in planning and problem solving as you go through life, so I think it’s a wonderful sport for that.

So, without any further ado, let's take a look at some of the harrowing moments of the 2010 tennis season. Here's to hoping that each will prove, in his or her own way, that life is not about what happens to you -- it's about how you react to what happens to you.

1. Vika -- Oh, Vika, poor poor Vika. You can be so damn mystical. What is it with you and Gisela Dulko anyway? Oh, forget it. It's no big deal. We know you can play Vika, and play with anyone. But what we don't know is what we're all dying to find out: Can you do it without the drama? Can you do it with maturity, a sense of purpose, and a firm resolve?

One gets the feeling that Azarenka's window on a "great" career is closing. Titles in Stanford (an amazing performance) and Moscow are no fluke. Vika is a bona fide baseline weapons dispenser. But the Slam results were all so heartbreaking, so deflating, and so, well, sad.

Can she rise above her own fragility in 2011? Sure. Will she? I'm curious to know, and rooting for her all the way!

2. Sam Querrey at the French -- I think Sam's lacklustre effort vs. Robby Ginepri was the low point of the season for fans of American Tennis. Sure, American tennis fans are always busy looking for the lowest of the lows -- it's been a well-documented suffering period -- but Querrey's lack of interest, both during and after the loss to Ginepri, was SHOCKING.

To his credit, Querrey was forthright with the press. He was emotional toast at the time, and we all know that the rigors of the ATP schedule has done that to many a man. I just hope he manages his time a little better in 2011, and peaks at the Slams rather than burns out.

3. Odesnik -- This was the ugliest of the ugly. Not only was the news of Odesnik's hgh bust in Australia a bummer for all those who loathe the encroachment of ped's on our belovedly pure game, but the way that everybody reacted was equally ugly.

Note to humans: Let's not burn the guy at the cross until we know what the heck is going on. The unabated level of hatred for Wayne Odesnik was a little over the top in my opinion. Please don't mistake me for a drug sympathizer, for that I am not. That being said, I am not one to jump to conclusions and openly chastise people when I don't know them or all the details of their stories.

4. Justine's Tennis Elbow -- I've done a lot of thinking about the psychology of Justine lately. I'm curious to know how she'll respond to the fact that her comeback has thus far fell far short of Kimpossible's. This much we know: Justine is insanely competitive, and as much as she and Kim are amenable to each other of late (very nice to see, imo), you just know Justine is burning up to prove herself worthy of the BBE claim (Best Belgian Ever).

Can she do it? Can she stay healthy, and can she keep the stress of her own expectations from bringing her down?

5. Masha: We keep expecting Maria Sharapova to do two things -- go deeper in a slam, and return to the top-ten -- and we keep getting surprised when she falls just a smidgen short. One things for certain here. It's not for a lack of effort. Maria's added a fiance and a new coach to her entourage -- perhaps it will make the difference in 2011. Let's not forget that her surgery forced her to pretty much relearn her serve. She did some of her best post-comeback serving in the latter parts of 2010, and better serving should improve her chances of overcome her most glaring weakness: footwork.

6. Grigor Dimitrov -- Ah, you punk. Grigor, you had everything going for you, excellent challenger play, the smooth, svelte ground strokes, the net presence, the all-court abilities, the hell-bent-on-moving-up-the-ladder swagger, but you forgot the main rule of tennis in these softer, gentler times: Don't act like a spoiled little baby. (for those not in the know, see this.)

That being said, we all realize, $%!* happens. Just show some remorse, keep gunning for the top-100, and there will be a crowd of crazed fans ready to root for you when you get there.

7. Gulbis -- Deep breath here. Remember Rome, when it looked like Ernests was going to put the hammer down on Rafa in the Semis just a few days after his monumental upset of then No. 1 Roger Federer? Yeah, who could forget.

As we all know it didn't turn out so well for Gulbis. Not that losing to Rafa in a hotly contested three-setter on clay is reason for anything but pride, but Gulbis' follow-up to his near-miss ended up being a huge dud.

He was on many dark horse lists for the French Open, but Julian Bennetteau zapped him in round 1 (a leg injury played a role, if you're scoring at home). Afterwards, a reversion back to the same maddening inconsistency kept Ernests from making a dent in many draws afterwards. He skipped Wimbledon, and lost in the first round of the U.S. Open against Jeremy Chardy.

Though he finished the year ranked No. 24, the 22-year-old still appears a long way from backing up his astronomical talents with consistent results.

But, as is the case with everybody I've mentioned today, hope springs eternal in 2011. Hard work and commitment can take a player further than he or she ever thought they would climb. Anything is possible, for Gulbis, Azarenka, Sam Querrey, or anyone else for that matter.

Just ask Francesca Schiavone if you're not sure of that.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Year in Random Blurbs, Part 1

David Ferrer was the energizer bunny of the ATP tour in 2010. And he made pretty good money doing it, too.
San Francisco --

Like most of you, I'm not really sure when this whole adventure begins or when it ends. I'm just happy to be around to witness some of the grandeur, some of the tennis gospel that goes down over the course of a season. I'm not sure why all of you have chosen tennis as your religion -- as for me, I can only speak for myself and say it was purely random -- but I do know that if you're reading the Fan Child, you've either got issues or you're hooked on tennis. Maybe both, like me.

Whichever one is closer to the truth, I just wanted to take the time to say happy holidays to y'all, and to mention how thrilled I am that we are sharing this moment in cyberspace.

I don't want to write the typical run-of-the-mill year-end piece for my blog, so I've decided to take y'all on a little adventure. Think of this piece as your antidote to a million top-tens gone awry. Call it a quest for authenticity if you will.

Anyhow, the show must go on, so here goes:

1. David Ferrer -- I chose him as the Year in Random Blurbs (YRB) cover boy, because he's a freak of nature and he deserves some credit. At this point and time, it's pretty clear that David Ferrer is a very long shot to win a slam, but that doesn't mean we can't spend a good chunk of our valuable time appreciating the fact that he is a guru of fitness and the epitome of sheer grits.

2. Vera Zvonareva -- Holy crap is she a player to watch in 2011. Vera has been to the finals of two consecutive Slams. If I need to say more, you need to check yo'sef.

3. Sam Stosur -- Sam is pretty much in the same boat as Vera -- 2011 is THE YEAR to get over the hump. Yeah, there's always the chance to pull a Schiavone, but wouldn't it be better to win the next two French Opens and have everybody convinced that you're unbeatable?

4. LaMonf -- What can I say? Once again, while consistently maligned for his perceived lack of "tennis IQ" the guy plays some of the most inspiring tennis in the history of the sport. Monfils is an artiste, end of story.

5. Funky Fed -- What a funky year Rog had, but the plain truth is that he started strong and finished strong, and he cried less. All three are good news. Now is not the time for Roger to cry. Now is the time for him to prove that he can still kick ass.

6. Serena -- Man if I had a nickel for every time I was confused about what was REALLY AND TRULY going on with Serena this year, I'd be rich, but still confused. And still waiting...

7. A Rhetorical Question -- How can you really decide which match was the best of the year when they were all so incredible? I really love tennis on TV but my favorite ones were the ones that I saw in person. I'm a sidecourt kind of guy. Honestly, I watched Blake and Almagro play this year at Indian Wells and it was some of the most remarkable smashmouth tennis of the year. Things like that always get overlooked in these year-end pieces.

8. Give it up for Rafa -- This was his year, one of the most remarkable I've ever witnessed. It's really hard to put it into words, what this guy does. I think the best word I used all year regarding him was SHAMAN.

9. Masha the Masher-- This woman is INTENSE and don't expect marriage to change that.

10. U.S.A. Men -- All that hype about the crestfallen stars and stripes and we finish the year with 4 in the top-20?

11. Elena -- When you watch Elena Dementieva strut her stuff on the practice courts in her short shorts, you realize the type of physical presence she is. She has the body of a world-class athlete, if you were a statue maker, Elena's the one you'd want posing with the racquet in her hand. Her shoes will be pretty tough to fill, that's for sure.

This is the first of 10 installments leading up to the new year -- think of it as the gift that keeps on giving.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Quest for Comfort: Ana Chooses Van Grichen

Ana Ivanovic will pair with Antonio Van Grichen on a trial basis to start the 2011 campaign.
It's been a wild few years for Ana Ivanovic. After we saw her climb to the pinnacle of the sport in 2008 (a NO. 1 ranking AND a Grand Slam -- what a rare and precious combo!), we watched her unravel before our very eyes, quite spectacularly at times, until finally she began a rediscovery period under the tutelage of the legendary Heinz Gunthardt in 2010.

After dropping well out of the top-50 for a spell, Ana engineered a stunning turnaround this season that saw her climb all the way back into the top-20 before the curtains closed on the season. It was a moving rebirth, and it brought joy to the hearts of Ana's legions of die-hard fans (though it isn't just her on-court results that make her so deserving of their affections).

Temporarily, the skies over Ana's camp were as blue as they'd been in a while. But ominous clouds would drift in shortly thereafter. When the news broke that Gunthardt and Ana would not continue their relationship in 2011, many wondered if Ana would be able to continue her resurgence. Sure, losing a coach is not the end of the world, but it isn't exactly a recipe for consistency for a woman who admittedly craves a long term relationship with clearly marked channels of communication.

"The team is very important," Ana said last summer, referring to her tutelage under Gunthardt at the beginning of a stretch of improved play that fueled hope that she might soon return to her former greatness. "Confidence comes from yourself but also it helps if you have a good team around you."

She went on to say that she longed for stability, and that she was finding that with Heinz and her new fitness guru, Marija Lojanica. "I was surrounded with so many people, and I changed a lot of people, but I feel that for me I don't need a lot of people. A fitness coach and a coach -- I think that's all you need. With three people it's much less people to communicate to."

Ana will still have two people to communicate to in 2011, but one of them will be a slightly unfamiliar voice. News broke Tuesday that Antonio Van Grichen will begin working with Ana (in fact, he already has) on a trial basis for 2011.

Van Grichen, known most for helping deliver Victoria Azarenka to the doorstep of greatness, has been through a lot in the last few years as well. After parting ways with Azarenka (he left her firmly planted in the top-ten, thank you) he ran through two short-lived pairings with Vera Zvonareva and Sorana Cirstea, until he was forced to take a hiatus for a back surgery. After a long rehab stint he had a quick spell with Alize Cornet that also lead to a dead end.

But when the news broke of Ana and Heinz' split, Van Grichen's name was considered by many in the know as a possible replacement. It's hard to know what kind of a working relationship a player and a coach will have until you put them together in the same cage for a while, but when you think about it, Ana and Antonio seem like a good match, both tactically, and more importantly, psychologically and emotionally.

And, after turbulent periods in their careers, each is searching for a comfortable union that might create a shed of security in an environment where there seems to ever hardly be any.

Van Grichen obviously knows the game, and he is revered by many for the wonderful job he did with Azarenka, in terms of quieting her fragile psyche while simultaneously creating the perfect tactical blueprint for success with the weapons she had at her disposal.

His new player has quite a few weapons at her disposal too. And she's looking for some stability as well. On the surface, it appears like this could be a great match for both Ivanovic and Van Grichen, but the results that follow in the first few months of the year might have a lot more to say about the long-term possibilities of the pairing than their comfort level as human beings.

Their union presents an interesting storyline to start the 2011 season. Two young superstars in their respective fields pairing up to reclaim their places at the top of the tennis pecking order.

Van Grichen's presence in Ana's life could be just the thing she's looking for. An overlooked role of the tennis coach is his or her influence on the emotional well being of a player. Alleviating stress and boosting a player's self confidence are major ingredients in the coach-player dynamic.

Ana has all the tools to make it to the top of the game, and if Van Grichen can help her see herself as the champion that she once was, perhaps this trial will turn into something far more satisfying.

That, no doubt, is something that Ana's legion of fans have been waiting patiently for since her rise to glory in 2008.

For now, at least, the glass is half-full.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Year In Adjectives, part 1

By October, tennis writers were running out of ways to describe Rafa's domination. But true scribes always find a way.
The 2010 tennis season was very similar to the Nile river -- before it reaches its destination (in the Nile's case the Mediterranean Sea, in the ATP's case a well-deserved month off), it passes through a bunch of countries that aren't quite superpowers, and undergoes a lot of twists and turns in the process.

Now that the season has finally dumped its waters into the seas of history, we're left with a whole lot of memories, a sizeable number of shattered records, some fragmented nerves, and the vague recollection that if only we had a deep enough vocabulary, we could make some sense of the season.

On that note, I'm going to try to do just that.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the year in adjectives, tennis-style (part 1).

1. Terrifying, Juan Martin del Potro - He's a pretty scary guy in general (would you want to play him?), but 2010 was terrifying for different reasons for Juan Martin del Potro. When he started the season with a lacklustre Australian Open it was worrisome. A near loss in a 5-setter to James Blake (awesome match, btw) and then a frustrating beatdown at the hands of Marin Cilic in the quarters were enough to have us worrying about the kid from Tandil. At the time it seemed like it might be Marin's coming out party, but now that we look back it was actually the end of the rope for Juan Martin.

In 2011 the Argentine with the albatross reach will begin the long hard climb from an ATP ranking of No. 257. We won't know for a while how this will turn out, but part of me can't help being deeply afraid that delpo will never be the same again. It's hard to explain exactly why we need delpo so bad in our sport (he adds a whole new dimension to the game is the concept that comes to mind), but tennis people are unanimous at the moment in agreeing that we do.

2. Magnanimous, Rafa Nadal - Oh man, the guy was a veritable tour de force from the day he broke his eleven-month title drought in Monte Carlo until the evening he clinched the career Grand Slam on Ashe after a hard fought 4-set win over Novak Djokovic.

Remember Rafa lying on his belly and sobbing like a baby while Djokovic climbed the net and trotted over to give him a hug? To me, that sliver of the season -- the camaraderie that Nadal and Djokovic exhibited, was another fine example of tennis as a sport of dignity, respect, and charisma. I'll lay off comparing Rafa to heroes of other sports, but I will say that tennis certainly doesn't long for a genuine hero at the moment.

3. Ecstatic, Serbia - Davis Cup naysayers were quickly converted when they watched the Serbian team celebrate with a lustful pride of accomplishment after they dispatched the French in the final. For those unfamiliar with the history here, this was a victory of epic proportions for a country/ region that has endured more than its fair share of hardship in the last 15 years.

We are talking constant bombings, political turmoil, and economic disarray. But the spirit of the Serbian people is what we are talking about now. Their fire, their emotional flair, their intensity, and most all, their success. How sweet it was to see, and how lucky tennis was to feature this storyline in 2010.

4. Perplexing, Serena Williams - She stepped on what? She'll be out for how long? She embedded what in her walking boot? She's going to play again when?

I don't know if perplexing does what Serena has gone through -- and put us through -- justice, but I do know that I can't wait to see her play again.

5. Inspirational, Francesca Schiavone - The day Francesca Schiavone won the French Open I realized that life is a miraculous journey. You can go years without any excitement, without growth so to speak, but if you keep battling, keep fighting, and keep believing, the time will come for you to shine.

Francesca Schiavone was there at the door when opportunity knocked. She let it in. She gave herself fully to her dreams, and she harnessed all the magic of the moment to produce a moment that will forever transcend the lore of Italian tennis.

This was one of those anything-is-possible moments that goes down as the highlight of the year for me, and maybe the highlight of the last ten years. And no, it's not only because I'm Italian!

More to come, so stay tuned -- and happy holidays everybody!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Djokovic and Monfils: Men on a Mission

With huge wins in Belgrade on Friday, Novak Djokovic and Gael Monfils set the table for a monumental finish to the weekend.

It may be just tennis in December for the rest of the world, but for France and Serbia it is so much more. For Novak Djokovic and Gael Monfils, the charismatic leaders of their Davis Cup squads, it feels like each is at a very crucial point in their development as a tennis player.

For Djokovic, the 2008 Australian Open champion who has developed a reputation as an enigmatic yet superbly talented player -- one who stands perpetually one rung below where we think he should be on the ladder of tennis success -- his impassioned Davis Cup season just may be a new high water mark in his already fantastic tennis career. After struggling with mysterious heat-inflicted maladies and coming up short against the top two players in the world more often than not, Djokovic has engineered a massive turnaround in fate over the back half of 2010.

Could this be the emergence of the Djokovic that we all expected when he stormed the upper tier of tennis in 2007 and 2008? It certainly appears that way. While his immense will to prove himself provided the impetus for his original climb to the No. 3 spot in the ATP rankings, now it appears that another immensity is guiding Djokovic's efforts: His love of country.

Djokovic has gone 6-0 in Davis Cup singles in 2010, and it's clear that he relishes being depended upon to provide massive wins for a Serbian squad that is hell bent on winning its first Davis Cup title in the same year that it won its first World Group match.

While it would be a huge mistake to discount the contributions of the other Serbian players -- Janko Tipsarevic, Viktor Troicki, and Nenad Zimonjic -- it was once again made clear on Friday that Djokovic will have to be the one to pilot the Serbs to victory.

During his straight set win over Gilles Simon, Djokovic was the epitome of a world class player -- calm, authoritative, remarkably skilled, and clutch -- today.

And make no mistake about it, his task of revitalizing his squad, and the shocked partisan crowd who bore witness to Janko Tipsarevic's shellacking, was no small feat.

Djokovic played it so cool in the first set, all the time displaying a look of focus and calm while he and Simon walked a virtual tightrope deadlocked for the first six games of the match. One mistake at this point and the air might have fully left the building, but Djokovic stayed patient, assessing his foe and choosing the perfect moment to strike.

He closed the set with two breaks of serve in three straight games and the rest of the day was saved for Serbia.

Djokovic's next singles opponent has also done his country proud in 2010. Much maligned for his disappointing Davis Cup loss last September to Thiemo De Bakker, Gael Monfils had a lot to prove to his captain, Guy Forget. Many thought it was a lost cause, assuming that the young flamboyant Frenchman was too self-centered to truly embrace the art of playing for the flag.

Man were they wrong.

Monfils' perfect record in Davis Cup play in 2010 has been the biggest reason that the French are now seeking their 10th Davis Cup title, and their first since 2001. True, Michael Llodra has been a small miracle to the French team, and yes, the depth of the French is second to perhaps only Spain, but does anybody in their right mind think that the French could have gone this far without Monfils coming of age?

Monfils' wins over Kolschreiber, Ferrer, and Nalbandian set the tone in each of France's last three wins, and Friday's romp over Janko Tipsarevic on enemy turf,erased many doubts that Monfils wouldn't be the same player with 16,000 rowdy Serbs hooting and hollering for the other guy.

While Djokovic's ascent in the back half of 2010 was more noteworthy than Monfils, the two players both enjoyed a better-than-expected run in New York, and followed that up immediately with a monumental Davis Cup semifinal victory two weeks later. They are completely different personalities, each captivating in their own way, but they do share a similar bond now.

Both knows what it is like to play for a cause, and to thrive under that pressure. No matter what comes of the next two days in Belgrade, both will be steps ahead in their maturation process when all is said and done.

It's only fitting that Monfils and Djokovic will duke it out on Sunday in a live rubber that will be perhaps the biggest match in each player's career.

Only then will we see which player has come the farthest.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Home Cooking and National Pride

Nationalism and tennis are poised to intersect as France and Serbia prepare for their Davis Cup final in Belgrade this week.

Sometimes in life things just fall into place -- they call it serendipity. That's what this year's Davis Cup final between Serbia and France is looking like from where I'm sitting.

I want to take a moment before things get rolling this weekend to direct a huge salute in the direction of the host nation. I'll get to France -- whose accomplishments, both individually and collectively, are not to be overlooked -- in future posts, but right now it seems appropriate to take a moment to reflect upon what Serbia means to tennis these days.

Ah, where to start? How is it that this war-torn nation has taken it upon itself to embrace the sport of tennis, and how lucky are we to bear witness to their maturation?

To say that what Serbia has done over the last ten years to emerge as a world tennis power is mindblowing would be a drastic understatement. I'll spare you the history lesson and another "tennis in a swimming pool" anecdote but I will say this: The Serbians are a godsend for tennis -- they are the embodiment of the type of spirit, perseverance, and character that the sport demands of its participants, and we the tennis fans of the world should view this Davis Cup final (Serbia's proud first) not only as a monumental event for tennis but also a testament to the type of mettle that the people of Serbia are made of.

I've always had a theory that the Serbs wear their hearts on their sleeves, and that theory is consistently backed by the way their stars interact with fans, media, other players, and each other. It may not fit the definition of Western European decorum, but that, I believe, is why it is so refreshing to watch the Serbs go about their business.

It takes courage to open yourself up to the public, to put yourself out there, and yet, time and time again, the Djokovic's and the Tipsarevic's of the world have done it with a beautiful and eclectic flair. They've gone out and layed themselves on the line, for better or for worse. The results haven't always been perfect (Spain they are not), but it has always been joyful, emotional, and honest.

In 2010 it has all come to bloom, and here they are united for the cause in Belgrade, ready to rock the rafters and bring the nation the accolades it deserves.

Win or lose, this weekends festivities in Belgrade will give us all a chance to reflect on what Serbia -- both in theory and in practice -- means to tennis. Our sport is far more entertaining and compelling because of the willingness of this proud nation to emerge from the ruins of war as a unique and impassioned contributor to the sporting world at large.

That's something we should all be thankful for. I know I am.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Style points: Give Them All to Lamonf

Gael Monfils possesses the type of genius that you can't teach. But will he ever learn how to win ugly? If he does, watch out world.

I want to start this piece by enumerating all the flowery adjectives that might aptly describe the beauty of Gael Monfils on a tennis court. Electric, captivating, fascinating. I am doing so, not because I am on assignment. Charged, frenetic, impassioned. Nobody is paying me to do this. Inconceivable, illimitable, combustible. I am doing so because I have been moved to do so -- dexterous, exquisite, gorgeous -- and because the stride and the spirit of "Lamonf" has inspired me to do so.

If you're like me -- a person who eschews normal levels of social activity in order to take in and digest as much professional tennis as possible -- you know what I am talking about. Sure, some of you might be rolling your eyes as you read this. Some of you might be saying "oh no, not another ode to Monfils, and especially not after the flamboyant Frenchman was denied his first Masters title by a far superior and more mature player named Soderling."

But hang on a minute. Those of you who've read my blog before know that I've given Soderling his due on many occasions, and I'll more than likely do it on many more, but as far as I'm concerned, the Paris Masters event was more about Monfils that anything else.

That's just the way it is when Gael gets on a roll like he did in Bercy last week. His efforts are colored with this almost inexplicable joie de vivre, this magnetic lust for the sport. It's a beautiful thing, and damned if it doesn't remind me of the fact that tennis is supposed to be fun.

I know it's far-fetched, but there are those few rare and precious individuals who manage to not get caught up in the maddening elements of the game of tennis and instead seem to focus on the joy of just being there. Monfils is one of them, and in my opinion, he is the symbol of better living through tennis.

Yeah, I know purists will not want to hear any of this. They'll take comfort in pointing to the fact that for all of Monfils' highlight reel material he's yet to win a major or even a Masters crown. They'll frown upon Monfils for his exuberance -- "how dare he enjoy his profession that much!" -- and they'll not give him the credit that is so clearly due until he proves to them that he can throw a big rope around that screaming euphoric mess of emotions that he possesses, and force the whole clutter to submit.

But that would be a travesty because there is simply nobody better at entertaining crowds and lifting the spirit of a tennis competition to another level than the 24-year-old Paris native. I'm sorry, but not even the two greatest players in the game -- Rafa and Rog -- can do what Monfils does out there. Nobody can. The guy is a veritable phenom, a jumping, lunging, chest-beating miracle of physics.

And that is why I'm sitting here trying to find ways to salute Monfils, loss in the final notwithstanding, inability to break through and win a Masters title notwithstanding.

It's strange, I know. I've always been the first person to say things like "I don't care how pretty you play, it's how effective you play," or "style points don't do crap when you're down a break in the third set." But Monfils will always get a pass from me. And he should get one from you as well. Sure, it's okay to want more for him. But it is silly to get all hung up on results when we are talking about tennis artistry in its purest form.

And besides, it's not our job to worry about Gael's title count -- or lack thereof. His new coach Roger Rasheed is doing everything he can to get Gael to realize the type of gold that he has in his vaults. There is no better athlete in the game today, and if, with the help of Lleyton Hewitt's former coach, Monfils can get his heart and his head on the same page, big-time success is sure to come.

At times last week, while catching glimpses of Rasheed in his box, I couldn't help thinking that the tides were slowly changing for Monfils. Under the Aussie's tutelage Monfils has seemed a little stronger mentally, and a little stronger physically as well. And while Rasheed is militaristic, he's also unabashedly positive, and has professed that he is not interested in making Monfils fit his round pegs into any square holes. He wants Monfils to be himself, because he's smart enough to know that quashing his instinct would more than likely take the life out of Monfils.

Monfils needs to breathe, and Rasheed knows this. Now, if only Rasheed can get Monfils to understand that there is a time and a place for leaving skid marks on the court (ideally not at 5-0 in the first set, maybe at 4-4 and deuce in the second?) and that there is a type of underlying calm that has to be in place to keep those unbridled emotions from ruining an otherwise perfect match, Monfils may be able to keep on wowing the masses who have fallen in love with his athletic prowess while satisfying his staunchest critics too.

But the point of this piece is to appreciate Monfils for what he currently is -- an absolute physical phenom, an athletic superstar with mad hops and soft hands and world-class speed, and the game's finest showman -- rather than lament what he has yet to become.

Because whether Monfils fulfills his promise or not, he'll always be a pleasure to watch on so many levels. So few of today's stars have that certain je ne sais quoi that makes a regular tennis match turn into an athletic spectacle that transcends the sport. Monfils has it, and whether he's winning, losing, soaring, or stumbling, his contributions to the sport should be held in the highest regard.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Looking Back: Taylor Dent's Magic Moment

Taylor Dent has announced his retirement at the age of 29. Luckily for us the impression he left on Grandstand in '09 will last forever.

Most of you already know that Taylor Dent, who is known, among other things, as being a part of the first father son duo to own Open Era ATP titles, announced his retirement yesterday.

The news comes as a bit of surprise to the many fans who just recently welcomed Dent back from a two-and-a-half year layoff that featured three back surgeries (including seven months in a full body cast) and many doubts that he would ever step on a tennis court again.

In his brief return to the tour, Dent not only played the signature brand of smashmouth tennis that had made him a force to be reckoned with ever since he had turned pro -- he also connected with his fans in a way that very few players ever do.

While the former No. 21-ranked player in the world and Olympic semi finalist never attained his previous highs on paper after returning to the tour in '09, he did climb over 800 spots in the rankings to reenter the top-100.

During his inspiring comeback, Dent managed 24 tour level wins, one of which will be forever remembered by those who witnessed it.

It was pure magic, and there are scores of fans who'll enthusiastically agree that watching Dent defeat Ivan Navarro on Grandstand at the 2009 U.S. Open was the best moment they've ever had watching tennis.

On that night, not only did Dent display the ferocious brand of serve and volley tennis that was his calling card over the course of his 12 year career, he also brought forth a torrent of emotional gratitude the likes of which we rarely see from a player.

Speaking from a fan's perspective, Dent's joyous post-match celebration and impromptu microphone-yank from the umpires chair will forever go down as one of the most captivating acts of fan appreciation ever seen on a tennis court.

In order to see the true beauty of his behavior -- and consequently glimpse into the soul of Dent the man and Dent the player -- you have to empathize with the plight of the fan first.

How many times have fans wondered if the players really care about them or consider them an integral part of the tennis experience? Sure, there are always the obligatory "without you guys this wouldn't have been possible" comments that players throw out there in their post match interviews before they whack three balls into the upper deck and call it a night.

But what Dent did transcended the previously established meaning of fan appreciation. He obliterated it and set the new bar ineffably high.

When the 6'2" 195 lb. Dent grabbed the microphone and thanked the fans who had gone crazy on Grandstand he was basically telling each and every one of them that they matter more than they could ever imagine. It was a moving display of player-crowd synergy that may never be matched again.

If you watch the video, you'd think that Dent won the tournament and had just given the each member of the crowd an equal portion of his prize money. Or you'd think that he just scored the winning goal for U.S.A. Hockey to defeat the Russians in 1980.

In reality he had only won a 2nd round match, but the circumstances of his victory -- the long road back, and his ability to comprehend the meaning of it all as it was happening -- made this an affair to remember.

For his comeback, and for his rare ability to connect emotionally with the fans, Taylor Dent will be sorely missed on the tour. But the memories, thankfully those will always be there.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Fed Cup: What did we learn?

Italy showed why it's the boss of Fed Cup. But what did we learn about the U.S.?

The outcome wasn't surprising, but some of the details of the Fed Cup Final between the United States and Italy were definitely unexpected. Yes, Italy tightened its stranglehold on the trophy for a second consecutive year, and really, you'd have to be a little bit crazy if you didn't see that one coming. The Italian squad, with two former top-ten players in Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta, simply had too much experience and too much talent for the younger and far less proven American squad.

But, between the lines, there were some pretty interesting story lines -- especially for the Americans.

Coco? Two months ago, many thought this tie was going to be a heavyweight battle between one or two of the Williams sisters and the Italians. Now, in the events aftermath, we realize that it was really a training ground for some of America's youngest and brightest stars. So, how did they do?

Coco Vandeweghe, the tall and powerful youngster from Rancho Sante Fe, California, was given the nod by U.S. captain Mary Joe Fernandez, replacing a slumping Melanie Oudin against Francesca Schiavone in the first round. Vandeweghe had scored big wins this summer and fall against Vera Zvonareva and Aravane Rezai, but to expect her to be able to do anything to derail the determined Schiavone in a match as big as this was asking a bit too much.

Predictably, Vandeweghe lost both matches without grabbing a set.

Still, the very promising kid with the athletic pedigree was able to take the proverbial measuring stick to her game -- even though she was beaten and beaten soundly, she can now go back to practice with a higher understanding of the big match dynamic.

Was MJ hoping that her decision would be the spark that set a new career aflame for Vandeweghe? Sure, that was the idea, right? But on the other hand, the fact that the kid endured two shellackings at the hand of superior Italian players can only help her in her development. That which does not kill us can also make us stronger.

Oudin: Perhaps the plan all along was for MJ to snub Melanie in a desperate ploy to finally wake Melanie out of her year-long slumber? Even if it wasn't, it worked.

Melanie scored her first top-ten victory of the year against the indomitable Francesca Schiavone, and she did it by playing inspired tennis and taking it to the Italian. It would be a drastic injustice to not give Melanie the full credit for snatching this win from her higher ranked adversary. She came, she saw, and she conquered, and she deserves credit for the win, and for rising above the obvious disappointment of being left off the day 1 lineup.

Let's not forget that Oudin finished the Fed Cup 2010 campaign at 4-1 this year. Now that she knows that she can be cast off just as quickly as she can be embraced, maybe Melanie will start to take a little more ownership of her career from this point forward.

Venus and Serena: Regardless of the issues with the sisters' health, I can't help feeling just how much of a ship without an anchor the U.S. Fed Cup team is without them. Wouldn't it be nice if the Williams Sisters took a greater interest in mentoring some of America's younger players? They've got such a wealth of knowledge -- so much talent, so much experience -- and it pains me to think that they aren't sharing it with a core of young players who would benefit so much from being taken under their wings.

I just don't get it. I don't know who to blame, or even if there IS ANYONE TO BLAME, but I do know that a tremendous resource (two of the greatest women to ever play the game) is being completely under utilised.

Where do we go from here? The weekend was disappointing for the U.S, but in the scheme of things, the fact that the women have reached two consecutive finals says a lot about the spirit of the younger players on the team. The contributions of Melanie Oudin, Bethanie Mattek-Sands were a godsend. Youngsters Christina Mchale and Coco Vandeweghe have stepped in when asked and left their hearts on the court.

From that standpoint, there's not much more you can ask for. Even thought the U.S. has gone a full decade without a title at Fed Cup, the fact remains that the young Americans have built something special over the last two years.

Here's two hoping that they can keep it up.

Viva Italia! Ah, now to the real story of the weekend -- the Italians. They're tremendous and they deserve every ounce of credit that they get. And they are not just about Schiavone and Pennetta (did you know that Roberta Vinci has never lost a Fed Cup doubles tie in 15 tries?).

In winning their third title since 2006 they have once again proven that good team tennis is about more than great players -- it's about camaraderie, inspiration, and emotion. The Italians have cornered the market in these three Fed Cup intangibles, and because of this, one of only four nations to have played in every single Fed Cup since the inaugural in 1963 is standing tall again.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Searching for Stability

After parting ways with Heinz Gunthardt, the search for a long-term solution continues for Ana.

Ana Ivanovic has been riding a roller coaster in 2010, and just when it looked as if the ride was finally going to be over, it has begun again.

Her decision to part ways with Heinz Gunthardt after less than a year has introduced a few clouds of doubt into the otherwise sunny skies that have been shining on the Ivanovic camp of late.

After sinking to a five-year low in the rankings in June of this year (as low as 65!), Ana showed great resiliency in the face of adversity this summer, and, with the help of her team of Gunthardt and fitness trainer Marija Lojanica, recaptured the winning formula that made her such a lethal opponent in 2008 when she stormed Roland Garros and ascended to the WTA's No. 1 ranking. Things improved so much that Ana had climbed all the way back into the top-30 in October, and now, as she prepares to play the semis against Kimiko Date Krumm in Bali tomorrow, she's knocking on the door of the top-20 again.

Now this.

As amicable as the split with Gunthardt seems to have been, the fact that Ana is now coachless again means that she is at another major crossroads in her career. This summer Ana spoke a lot about how much she enjoyed having stability in her team. She mentioned that the coaching carousel had been weighing on her mind in the past, and that she was thrilled that she was training and playing in a world where she knew what to expect from her team. The emotional availability and stability seemed to enable her game to blossom, and it was hard not to deny that Ana also gained confidence from having a legend of coaching in her corner.

Now that Gunthardt is gone, it's easy to wonder: Will Ana keep up her torrid pace, or is she in for another rough ride?

Confidence is key

One of the other primary buzzwords for Ana was confidence. She talked incessantly about the process of regaining her mojo, and of how she was feeling it more and more, even in matches that she lost. By the end of the summer there was little doubt that Ana was starting to believe in her game a lot more. There's no way to measure how much of a role Gunthardt played in Ana's game both tactically and philosophically, but it's certainly hard not to surmise that he had a very positive effect on Ana.

As Ana moves into yet another phase of her career in 2011, the big question will be: can she find a coach who provides her with the stability she longs for and the confidence she thrives on?

Things seem alright at the moment. Ana just obliterated Russian teenager Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in Bali, and there are sure to be a long line of coaches eager to play a role in furthering Ivanovic's return to glory.

But will the right person for the job be in that line? And, will Ivanovic have the wherewithal to choose that person when he or she does emerge?

There's no doubt that Ivanovic has the tools to reach the top of the game again. She's young - turning 23 tomorrow (Nov. 6) - and she possesses a rare and electric power game that simply cannot be taught. In addition to all her natural abilities, she's also shown a maturity this season, a willingness to stare adversity in the face and to rise to the challenge. She could have easily let things get out of hand this summer, when the organizers of the Montreal event not only denied Ivanovic the wildcard that many thought she deserved as a former champion, but they also made some petty comments about her in the process.

To Ivanovic's credit, rather than let the episode drag her spirits down, she went on to have a fantastic summer, and hasn't looked back since.

For Ivanovic, there is a lot riding on this off-season. She needs to find that stability that she longs for, and that she can operate confidently in.

Roller coasters can be a lot of fun, but there comes a point where you just want to get your feet on some solid ground. The sooner this wild ride stops, the better off Ana will be.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Unconventional and Unbelievable

At 40, Kimiko Date Krumm is proving that less can be more than enough on the WTA Tour.

She's old enough to be your mother. She's tiny enough to be your kid sister. Her anachronistic forehand is more retro than Lenny Kravitz covering Bill Withers, and at the ripe age of 40 she's playing a game that is made for lithe and limitless teenagers -- not mature and aging technicians. But none of these incongruous facts seem to hinder the engine that drives this phenom to rewrite the WTA's record books practically every time she plays a match.

She's Kimiko Date Krumm, and if you underestimate her, you might find yourself wishing you hadn't. Oh, and you're probably gonna lose, too.

Spectators in attendance at the Pan Pacific Open in tokyo in September couldn't be blamed for doing a double take when they glanced out onto to the court to see the vivacious and somewhat giant Maria Sharapova towering over Date Krumm. Sharapova is ten inches taller than Date Krumm -- and 17 years her junior -- but Date Krumm, who turned 40 last month, is undergoing a Renaissance that makes seemingly telling numbers like these fade into the distance.

She's making a lot of top players fade into the distance of late as well.

You can cook the numbers any way you like, and measure the power of each individuals stroke as well, but when a tennis match is over and the diminutive 40-year-old is celebrating another shocking yet inspiring victory, it becomes clear that there is so much more to winning in the WTA than just bombing away from the baseline.

"It's incredible," said Sharapova after that aforementioned match in Tokyo. "It just shows you how she has stayed in great shape while away from the game. She is incredibly fit."

She's incredibly smart too, and incredibly accurate. Those who wish to degrade Date Krumm's resurgence as unimpressive because she is winning solely with her legs and her defense are not doing her or the level of play on the tour any justice. While Date Krumm plays a very reactive brand of tennis, she does so in a highly aggressive manner. Just ask the seven top-20 players and two top-10 players that she's defeated over the course of 2010. The 40-year-old doesn't simply camp out on her baseline and wait for her opponents to implode -- she uses a lethal combination of redirection and angles to put her opponents on the defensive, and once she's done that she's one heck of a finisher.

It's natural to look at Date Krumm's simplistic stroke production and assume she's going to get bombed off the court by all these women with big backswings and textbook follow throughs, but you'd be very wrong to do so. What Date Krumm's game lacks in aesthetics it more than makes up for in what many other top players seem to lack -- accuracy, consistency, and a certain maddening flatness that keeps her shots low to the ground and screaming through the court.

And the fact that she's done it all with that rudimentary backswing and her very abbreviated service motion should send a message to a lot of young players out there. Big powerful swings are great, but sometimes hitting harder doesn't necessarily equate with hitting smarter.

She was one set away from becoming the oldest women to ever win a WTA title in a week where she became the oldest women to ever defeat a top-ten player. She's the real deal. And as long as she keeps showing up to play, records will keep falling like dominoes.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Andy Murray: One Small Step from Immortality

Not many people envy Andy Murray at the moment, but that will change in a heartbeat if he wins a Grand Slam.

He can do it. He can't do it. He's got to do it next year. He'll never do it next year.

Everybody has their own personal opinion on whether or not Andy Murray will eventually become the first player from Great Britain to win a Grand Slam since Fred Perry in 1936, but we can all agree on one thing: If he ever does it, he'll be set for life.

Think about it. Guys like Federer and Nadal spend their whole lives trying to collect Grand Slam hardware, but all Murray has to do is win one and he'll become an instant hero whose legend will more than likely never be tarnished.

The point that I'm trying to illustrate is that Andy Murray actually has a pretty good deal being a Brit. Really, he does. Most people feel sympathy for the strapping young British buck because he has had to deal with a ridiculous amount of media attention and scrutiny ever since it became obvious that he could be "the guy."

That's a fate I wouldn't wish on any young athlete, but the flip-side of the coin more than makes it worth while. Murray has been handed a very realistic challenge, and if he should succeed in fulfilling his promise (all we need is one Grand Slam, Andy) over the course of the next several years, he'll go down in tennis lore as the bona fide superman of British tennis.

Just one Slam, and the keys to the castle are yours, Mr. Murray. But if you should fall short, you'll forever be relegated to the back pages of those history books, in the index under "almost, but not quite."

There is no doubt that Murray's quest for glory has been somewhat hindered by fact that the media puts a target on his back each and every time he goes out to play a Slam. Professional tennis players thrive on challenges, and every time one of them faces Andy Murray in a Grand Slam, the media basically dares them to spoil the moment that a whole nation is loudly longing for. Guys like Stan Wawrinka are more than happy to go out and play inspired tennis to see if they can be the one to hit the target and make tennis' biggest headline for the day, and sometimes they do.

But can Andy Murray's string of failure in Grand Slams last forever, given the sheer and impressive amount of talent and moxie that the man possesses?

There is still the very undeniable fact that Murray has been to a Slam final in two of the last three years in spite of the madness that surrounds him (And a few Wimbledon semis to boot). And if you judge the 23-year-old by his words - press conferences in which he sounds genuinely patient and unperturbed by the expectations - he's getting better and better at ignoring the press and just doing what he does best on the court.

One point at a time, one game at a time, one match at a time, and one day, presto, we could all be watching Andy sipping tea with the Queen while paparazzi stumble over themselves to snap a picture below.

As difficult as it must be to concentrate on tennis with a media maelstrom tracking his every move, his every pending coaching decision and Playstation-induced breakup with his girlfriend, his every tweet and his every quip with the LTA, Andy Murray actually has an incredibly low bar to immortality in front of him.

He just needs ONE lousy Slam and he'll become a national hero for the rest of his life, even if he shows up at the next tournament fifty pounds overweight with a six-pack of Guinness by his chair where his bottle of energy water used to sit. Even if he dumps Kim Sears and tells the world that he's in love with his mom - none of it will matter.

Yes, it's that simple: For Murray, one Slam equals immortality. Meanwhile, geniuses like Federer and Nadal have to try and rack up as many Slams as possible in order for them to continue in this unwinnable quest for GOAT-ness. It's a never-ending treadmill that Murray will never have to deal with.

And perhaps, now that we are all expecting it a little less in 2011 than we were in 2010, things will fall into place for Murray, and he'll get it done.

He's given an awful lot of himself to this game, and it'd sure be nice if the gods of tennis gave a little something back to Andy, and to Great Britain for that matter. Just one Slam would be more than enough.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Art for the sake of tennis

Rafa and Roger may be rivals, but that doesn't stop them for getting together for the sake of art.

Whether you like artful tennis or whether you like smashmouth tennis, it's pretty hard not to enjoy the ATP's idea of putting stencils of action shots on canvas and letting Rafa and Roger have at it. There will be six other commissioned pieces to come from the other six World Tour Finals qualifiers, who have yet to be determined, making eight in total.

"It was a little bit like a challenge to put the balls in the silhouette," said Rafa. Sure, I guess it's easier squeezing that backhand pass through an opening as wide as Paris Hilton's hips while a flummoxed Novak Djokovic prowls the other side of the net, right?

"This I could do every day," says Roger Federer. "It's not so easy to hit from a long distance away, but I think I did a good job and the results are gonna be nice."

All of the signed artwork will be on display in London in a major gallery come November, and the proceeds will go to charity.

It isn't exactly Picasso or Van Gogh, but I think the ATP is doing a wonderful job with the project. They've chosen creative stencils that convey the essence of the players, and they've found a way to make the works personal by having the players color the canvases with their own personal strokes.

This is a fantastic idea, no doubt inspired by Martina Navratilova's similar experiment in 2008 with Slovak artist Jurak Kralik. But whether the approach is entirely original or not is of no consequence. The important thing is that the ATP and it's top players have proven that their priorities are where they should be. In embracing art and fostering charity, the ATP is ensuring that the Barclays World Tour Finals will transcend the sport by adding a healthy dose of philanthropy and creativity to the mix.

I hope that the ATP takes it one stop further and issues replica prints of the original canvases so that die-hard tennis fans can obtain a copy of their favorite player's artwork, and I'm sure demand would be high if the price was reasonable enough.

Monday, September 27, 2010

London Calling

Will David Ferrer, Mikhail Youzhny, and Jurgen Melzer make late runs at the World Tour Finals?

Well, the 2010 Slam season may be behind us, but that doesn't mean that we can all take a long snooze and set our alarm clocks for the Australian Open. As the Asian swing gets underway, there are still a lot of reasons for the world's top players to put their best hardcourt shoes forward - nearly 2 million to be exact.

With only 54 days left until the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals begin at the sleek and sophisticated O2 Arena in London, there are still six spots up for grabs. While Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Robin Soderling appear to be all but a lock for the event, numbers six, seven, and eight in the rankings (also known as Berdych, Roddick, and Verdasco) might want to get a few wins under their belt because a man by the name of Dah-veed is more than likely going to make a run at one or all of them.

David Ferrer made good use of his one and only trip to the WTF's in 2007, when he won four consecutive matches on his way to a loss in the final to Roger Federer. The relentless warrior netted a cool $700,000 for his showing, and the way that Ferrer has played in 2010, there is absolutely no reason to believe that he couldn't sneak up on the field and do some damage under the bright lights of the O2 Arena.

Others on the outside looking in at the moment are Mikhail Youzhny and Jurgen Melzer, but both in-form players are a few good tournaments away from making the likes of Verdasco, Roddick, and Berdych have to work for their spots.

In Berdych's case, given his recent form, and the amount of energy he expended over the spring and summer, I'm not sure what he has left in the tank. Roddick too, has been in a funk.

In other words, the top-8 at the moment may not be the top-8 on November 21. It could make for some very interesting matches and tournaments as the long river of tennis that is the ATP season finally makes it's way
to the River Thames.

Both Berdych and Ferrer will be in Malaysia this week at a 250 event, and they could meet in the quarters. Youzhny, Soderling, and Davydenko will be there as well.

Who do you think will come out with the most points?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Take it slow, Delpo

This is what I found when I searched the internets for word of Juan Martin del Potro's current form. - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

If all goes well in the Juan Martin del Potro camp, we'll likely see the 2009 U.S. Open champ returning to top form around May of 2011. He needn't sweat the small stuff in Thailand this week - it's far too early for that.

If you haven't heard, del Potro has entered the draw in Thailand, and will be playing his first matches since January. If he makes the quarters, he could face Rafael Nadal, but I don't want that to happen. I hope the two don't meet in Bangkok, and here's why:

The tall Argentine needs to build stamina, especially in the muscles around the surgically repaired wrist -- he's only capable of so much tennis. Competing against a juggernaut like Nadal could force him to push it too hard. That is the precise opposite of what del Potro needs to be doing in his first live play in 9 months.

Let's not hurl our heavy expectations on the man until he's had at least 20 matches under his belt, with plenty of rest in between.

The last thing tennis needs is this phenom over exerting himself against Rafael Nadal in his first week back on the tour. The worst possible outcome right now is another injury of the wrist -- I hope delpo and his team make this the biggest priority until 2011.

For these reasons, I am officially hoping that two of the most exciting players in tennis DO NOT MEET in Thailand.

What do you guys think?

I wish I was there: Toray Pan Pacific Draw

Maria Sharapova is one of sixteen top-20 players that is ready to play the Toray Pan Pacific next week. Her 1st round opponent? Kimiko Date Krumm.

Just wanted to check in and let you all know that the stakes are about to get considerably higher for the women of the WTA next week in Japan. This Premier 5 event offers 350k to its winner, and a hefty 900 rankings points to boot.

On Twitter, I was asked to pick a winner, and I deliberated for quite some time before finally going with the No. 10 seed Kuznetsova. But don't bet your house, car, or boat on this one.

Without Venus or Serena (or Kim Clijsters, for that matter) in the draw, the tournament could come down to who is is the most prepared. You can also expect those players that are within striking distance of the top-8 to pick up their play a bit here. Na Li, Elena Dementieva, and Victoria Azarenka are all nipping at the heels of the final few spots for Doha, and there's only a month to go.

Jelena Jankovic and Francesca Schiavone are the No. 7 and No. 8 players respectively in the race, and each will more than likely play with a sense of purpose because of it.

Additionally, we could have a race for No. 1 as Caroline Wozniacki, the top seed at Toray, has only 6 (you heard me right) WTA rankings points to defend at Toray and Beijing, combined. Serena has 140 points in Beijing and 1500 in Doha, in case you were wondering. She currently leads Woz by just over 1000 points in the overall rankings.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Stats in Tennis: Who Wants More?

Where can I learn how many times this guy served and volleyed while facing a break point?
More stats. Fans want 'em and coaches do too - still, our collective yearning for them doesn't seem to change anything. The list of available tennis stats is stuck in neutral at the moment.

Sure, cool stuff like break points won, and return games percentage won/lost are available, but there isn't a whole lot beyond that.

Think...what if we could log on to a players profile and look at their record in deuce games, or the amount of second serves they hit out wide while serving against lefties? The possibilities are endless, and who knows, maybe coaches would really be able to mine the data for game-changing clues about certain opponents.

But at the moment, it doesn't look like the days of tennis sabermetrics lie just around the corner. It feels more like they are in the next country over.

Why? Maybe the ATP or WTA tours don't possess the budget to expand their current level of statistical analysis, but I often wonder why some enterpriser doesn't just up and form a company that monitors obscure yet useful emerging trends in tennis? That company could then package them all into a neat little series of graphs, charts, and lists so that everybody who wanted them had them at their disposal.

Tennis is a cerebral game that demands that players implement strategies that takes into account strengths and weaknesses of opponents. Sure, you can look at a player and see what he does or doesn't do well, but it's never as simple as it looks. Concrete numbers never lie, but impressions gained from sight sometimes do.

Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim is a regular campaigner for deeper stats for tennis. Yahoo Sports (Chris Chase) and the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective have brought up the subject in recent posts.

Now it's my turn.

Here are five stats I'd like to see made available by the ATP, WTA, or an independently operated company that takes up the cause.

  • Ratio of forehands to backhands by 1) balls put in play 2) winners 3) errors
  • No. of rallies extended beyond 8 or more strokes, and who won them.
  • M.P.H of ground strokes, so that average pace could be calculated by player and by shot (forehand, backhand).
  • Error counts that contain backhand errors, volley errors, forehand errors. overhead errors - basically every error goes into a category.
  • Shot selection stats, i.e. how much of each did a player hit per match? Forehand flat, forehand topspin, backhand slice, backhand topspin.
What are your five?

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Best of the Rest

Before Rafa and Nole tussle for the men's title, here's some thoughts on all we've seen thus far at the U.S. Open.
Man, can two weeks ever feel like a lifetime. Remember when it was hot and players were sweating profusely during warmups? Remember when 25 M.P.H winds wreaked havoc on a full week of tennis? Remember when Nole's Parent's t-shirts spiked in value on Saturday afternoon?

I do, but that will not stop me from reliving it right now. Call it a pre-final post-tourney memorial celebration. I promise to be brief.

Enjoy the men's final y'all!!!!

  1. Ryan Harrison - Let's not overhype him but let's not forget how refreshing it was to see an American display that kind of variety and court sense. Sure, he coughed up a big opportunity vs. Stakhovsky, but I'm guessing it will only serve to make him a hungrier animal.
  2. King and Shvedova - Can they comeback and win a second consecutive title? Either way, starting their Grand Slam career with a Wimbledon title and eleven consecutive wins absolutely rocks!
  3. Wawrinka - This was most I've ever enjoyed watching Stan the Man do his thing. His chip and charge to finish Querrey off in the round of 16 was classic.
  4. Maria Sharapova - Yeah, another tough draw for Maria, but I absolutely loved the way she played this year. I think when we look back on her career, we'll say that 2010 was the year that made Maria stronger than ever.
  5. Kimmie - 21 straight wins at the U.S. Open? That would have been tough to call last summer. U-n-b-e-l-i-e-v-a-b-l-e.
  6. Youzhny - Every time I see his salute, I love him a little bit more. The Youzhny-Wawrinka QF was classic old school tennis. Juicy rallies, one-handers, guts, and instinct.
  7. Gabashvili and Istomin - These guys stepped up on the big stage and kept the night sessions very interesting. Sure, we all want to see Rafa seek and destroy, but it's nice when he has to work a little in the process.
  8. The Heat - I love to watch tennis in oppressive heat. We get to see who has put in the hard yards over the course of the year, and we get to see shotmaking that is unaffected by gale force winds.
  9. Gasquet - Hey, the guy played his best tennis in a while.
  10. Monfils - Nice run for Monfils, and the new K-Swiss commercial is fun. But seriously, Gael, just get serious about winning please. There's a time and a place for all that amazingly cool stuff you do on court - and we love you for it - but just keep your eyes on the prize kid.
  11. The wind - Yeah, it sucked, but it gave us a chance to see just how amazing the pros are. It was blowing like a hurricane, but it was actually hard to tell when you saw the amazing tennis that pretty much everybody managed to play.
  12. Wozniacki - Disappointment against Vera, but a fantastic win against Maria, that was my match of the tourney for a few days.
  13. Federer's dad - The look on his face after Nole took Roger out was moving. If you saw it you know what I am talking about. Pretty heavy stuff.
  14. Schiavone - She played some amazing tennis and I thought she was on another magical run until Venus got her in the quarters.
  15. Bopanna and Qureshi - These guys need to win a Slam next year - they deserve it, and the world needs it.
  16. Verdasco and Ferrer - The type of classic match that you would expect from the Armada.
  17. Spain - the type of tennis, with 9 in the 3rd round, and 6 in the 4th round, that you'd expect from the global leader in tennis domination.
  18. Directv - Watching the first week of a Slam with a clicker in one hand and a tape recorder in the other, while typing with my toes, has become my new religion. Special thanks to the following: Darren Cahill, Cliff Drysdale, Jeff Tarango, Luke Jensen, Al Trautwig, Virginia Wade, Barry MacKay, Justin Gimelstob, Brad Gilbert, P-Mac, Johnny Mac, Tracy Austin, Martina, Bill Macatee, Jimbo Connors, Bud Collins, Doug Adler, and so so so so many more. We tennis fans are truly blessed to have the type of coverage and dedicated commentators that we have.
  19. Grandstand - IMHO, the best court in America - BY FAR!
  20. Armstrong - Not too bad either.
  21. Ashe - mixed feelings on the super-sized colossal wind tunnel - but nothing but admiration for the man that it was named after.
  22. Llodra - Poetry in motion. I wanted him to win the whole damn thing after two rounds.
  23. ESPN's SpiderCam - I love unique camera angles and slick production for tennis. This camera rocks, and I can't wait to see how many cool shots they bust out for the final.
  24. Sam Stosur - Finally past the second round in New York, and won a big match vs. Elena. My heart goes out to her, because I think she played the worst set of her entire life against Clijsters in the 3rd, but she'll be a force next year if she can conquer her stagefright.
  25. Ryan Harrison - So what if I already mentioned him? The kid is mature beyond his years, and he's humble in that Nadal-like way.
  26. Beatrice Capra - Her big upset of Rezai on Grandstand made me feel all mushy inside. Her post-match comments after getting blitzed by 'Pova show that she's a good kid with a sense of humor to boot.
  27. Andy Murray - Well, he didn't make any excuses. He'll get there.
  28. Janko Tipsarevic - His stunner over Roddick is still one of the top-5 matches of the tournament, don't you think? He played lights out in that match and it was fantastic.
  29. Troicki - It took all Nole had to knock him out of the tournament. Man, when he ratchets up that serve it is pretty impressive. I hope he gets a DC title to ease his pain.
  30. Querrey - Kudos to Sam for picking up his play after his childish episode at the French. He had a great summer and turned in his best U.S. Open performance (in spirit, and in result) to date.
  31. Jim Courier - This guy is an excellent commentator, and it was a pleasure to watch a few matches called by him and Johnny Mac (my personal fav) together.
  32. Roger Federer - Federer is god. And the tweener is his gift to the minions. Enough said.
  33. Tweener's in General - Schiavone hit a tweener? What?
  34. Sweaty Fans and cold fans - Hey, this show wouldn't go on if we weren't all so obsessed with it. I myself prefer the sweaty fans.
  35. The Bryan Brothers - 9 Grand Slams, 65 Dubs titles, and counting.
  36. Dudes like Bob Brett and Heinz Gunthardt - they go on and do interviews and totally increase my understanding of tennis.
  37. All the interviewers - Interviews are learning experiences. Thanks to dudes like Justin Gimelstob and Brad Gilbert, who work tirelessly to bring the players to us.
  38. Esther Vergeer - What she does is pretty inspiring, but it would also be inspiring if she let someone else win, just for once. She's on a 396 match win streak - WOW.
  39. Jack Sock and Daria Gavrilova - Your boys and girls junior singles champions!
  40. Charlize Theron and all the other celebs who attended - Thanks for me!
  41. Nole's mom and dad - Rock those t's, RF's got nothing on you guys now (except a few majors, but who is counting?)
  42. Venus - She came in cold, got hot and stayed hot, but in the end Kimmie was hotter. Her effort is still - by far - the best American singles effort, and she deserves some cred for that for sure.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Wozniacki: Ready to Rumble

Caroline Wozniacki turned in her best performance of the year against Maria Sharapova yesterday. Can she top it?
The worn out knock against Caroline Wozniacki was the reason she was so damn awesome against Maria Sharapova yesterday. If you don't know what I'm talking about I'll give you a hint: It starts with a "D" and ends with a Sharapova error.

Not that there was a whole lot that Maria could have done.

"I felt like, you know, I was playing well out there. I made her do those errors," said Wozniacki when asked if she felt that Maria handed her the match. "I knew she was trying to be aggressive," added Wozniacki. "For me it was important to keep as many balls in the court but still try to and move her around and try to dictate, as well."

It was a strategy executed to perfection, as Wozniacki enticed Sharapova into several 20-plus stroke rallies that served to wear Maria down, while Wozniacki only seemed to get more dialed in and energized.

Wozniacki was so steady yesterday, and so focused, that it was easy to envision her winning the Open, in spite of the fact that she's primarily a defensive player who prefers to let her opponents beat themselves. We've all been watching the exploits of Kim Clijsters, Samantha Stosur, and Venus Williams over the first eight days of the Open, and each is a prime example of how important an aggressive attack can be on the Grand Slam stage.

But every player is different, and must base their approach to the sport on their strengths. Wozniacki's strengths at this point are obvious, and it's a credit to her and her coach/ father that she has stuck with her guns (or lack thereof) throughout this year's Open.

After making her first Grand Slam final at last year's U.S. Open, the Great Dane (also tabbed "the golden retriever" by Bud Collins) has not been beyond the quarterfinals of a Slam since. Losses to Na Li in Australia, Francesca Schiavone at the French, and Petra Kvitova at Wimbledon have left critics wondering how she could be content to play such a defensive style when the rest of the top players all had significant offensive weapons to rely on.

Very few people are questioning Wozniacki after yesterday's decisive victory of three-time Grand Slam Maria Sharapova, though. Yes, she may have relied on her defense, but rarely - if ever - has their been a better defensive effort from Wozniacki. Not only was she quick enough to get to practically every sizzling groundie that Sharapova launched at her, she also had the balance and the footwork to get in position and the supreme conditioning to tirelessly answer every shot that Maria sent her way.

Her uncanny consistency kept Maria pinned behind the baseline, and the forehand that many feel is prone to giving up short balls was flawless.

There are a lot of ways to spin the story of the match, and many will say that Sharapova's double faulting on a crucial break point or failure to employ the drop shot to get Wozniacki out of her comfort zone on the baseline were the reasons that she looked so stymied.

Others will acknowledge the fact that Wozniacki's remarkably low error tally (10 vs. 36 for Maria) was an amazing feat, especially given the constant pressure she was under from Maria. They will also point out that Wozniacki's backhand can be a significant offensive weapon when she is putting her weight behind it. And that her serve can be pretty dangerous as well.

Make no mistake about it: One match will not make Caroline Wozniacki a U.S. Open champion, no matter how brilliant the effort was. She'll need three more to get the trophy, but with the confidence that her big time victory over Maria Sharapova has instilled in her, Wozniacki as the last woman standing is not nearly as much of a longshot as it was before the tournament began.

"I definitely think I've improved a lot, not only physically, but also I believe in myself more" said Wozniacki. "I Believe I can do it."

Thanks to yesterday, she's not the only one.