Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Calm Storm

Serena Williams engineers a classic comeback in Australia against Victoria Azarenka, and solidifies her unflappable reputation.

There isn’t a more polarizing figure in tennis - maybe all of sports - than Serena Williams. Some people love to love Serena and some people love to hate her. Some love the way she plays but hate the way she acts. Others hate the way she behaves when she plays but love the way she makes no apologies for it (unless she absolutely has to - see 2009 U.S. Open). Some want her to keep winning so she can take her place among the Martina’s, Steffi’s, and Chrissie’s as one of the all-time greats of the Open Era, while others want her to fall flat on her face so she will be forever be known as someone who didn’t make the most of her enormous abilities.

For a brief period of time, yesterday’s match against Victoria Azarenka gave hope to the haters (You know who you are). Eventually, the match ended up providing us with more irrefutable proof that Serena does indeed belong on a pedestal with other former legends of the game.

But the day didn’t start gloriously for Serena. She was down a set and two breaks (4-0) and was getting absolutely hammered by the feisty Belarusian‘s penetrating ground strokes. Those who know Serena, know that she is capable of rescuing herself from the deepest depths of despair, but the hole that Azarenka was digging for Serena was starting to look more like a bottomless pit.

It’s over, we thought. Stick a fork in her, added the haters. She’s getting what she deserves, continued the haters, because of that outburst in New York last summer.

But it wasn’t over. In fact, it was just beginning - and, remarkable as it may seem, it started with the look on her face. It was that hell-hath-no-fury look that Serena sports when she really needs to get some business taken care of. It is a look that contains no consternation, fear, anxiety, or anger. No, those would be the looks of lesser women. Serena - no stranger to negative emotions on the court - instinctively knew that there was no place for panic when it came to the monumental task at hand. This look was different and we all saw it. It was a look of calm. Perhaps you could call it menacing calm - and it didn’t bode well for Azarenka.

It was a look of calm that brought to mind those Indians who walk through fire without ever changing the expression on their faces.

It was a look of calm that elicited imagery of stoics laying down on beds of nails and resting peacefully ’til morning.

At the drop of a hat Serena had transformed herself into a pillar of belief. She had become an immovable vessel of concentration that had anchored herself to her singular desire to win. After winning a few games it was apparent that nothing was going to stop her from winning this match.

It was a look that brought forth the fire in her belly, the quickness of her feet, the purpose of her serve - which had all been curiously missing until then. It was a look that told her opponent that she would have to walk through that same fire if she really wanted to take the match.

All of us who have ever stepped onto a tennis court wish we could do what Serena did yesterday. How is it possible to play perfect tennis just because you’ve decided you want to? For most of us, recreational players and Grand-Slam winners alike, it isn’t.

But for Serena the link between desire and tennis is as pure a relationship as we have ever seen.

It starts with a look, and ends with a win.

Monday, January 11, 2010


photo Menchitabris

Greetings Tennis Obsessed,

See that photo above? Doesn't that look to you like a thing worth competing for?

Apparently not. Maybe to you it does, but not to many of the world's best tennis players.

So it has been a week or so that I've had to digest the news of Roger Federer's decision to skip the upcoming Swiss v. Spain Davis Cup match. I've also had a week to contemplate the fact that the Americans are flipping the script on Davis Cup as well.

My belly is full of Davis Cup Departures (Murray isn't going to play for Great Britain either) and I'm feeling nauseous. Suffice it to say I was, like umpteen million other tennis fans, already looking forward to the Nadal v. Federer Davis Cup match. Not only is it a searing-hot ticket any time these two living legends meet, but their first-ever Davis Cup affair would have added additional allure to their already monumental rivalry.

Look at that cup! Ain't she gorgeous? Oh, how she shines.

Then why is it that nobody seems to want to play for her? Why is she continually snubbed as if she were the ugliest girl at the dance? Why are the greatest tennis players in the world rejecting this fair maiden when she is practically begging them to come cavort with her?

It is all so simple and yet the simplicity doesn't alleviate my frustration. Scheduling issues are at the heart of the matter. Money too, plays a part - does it ever not? But I'm always left wondering - when I'm informed of the latest Davis Cup no-show - how a sport that wishes to grow globally can afford to miss a golden opportunity to tap into national fervor like the Davis Cup?

I've always been a firm believer that this event needs to improve to the point where it is a showcase event again - like a REAL 5th Slam. And whatever needs to be done (how about letting the final 8 in the World Group battle it out in one or two whirlwind weeks at a neutral site?) should be done with the intent of cultivating and maintaining a fan base that gets to experience the sport through the prism of national pride - this has always been the case, but with the world's best players on board, I think it's effect would be that much more potent - and without the denigrating feeling of being snubbed.

Until we do that, snubbage will continue to be the theme, and nausea will continue to run amok.

As good as the Cup has been in recent years, it could obviously be better. When the world's best player snubs you on a regular basis, you've got a serious issue. When other top players start to follow, the issue is growing. Now we have a crater-sized hole in the cachet of our beloved Davis Cup to go with our ridiculously rigorous men's schedule. Just like favoring a weak ankle can lead to other injuries, there is a relationship between the two here. The ATP is aching, and these issues need more attention than the lip service they have been getting.

As fans we tend to ignore the issues, especially when another season is upon us, but we mustn't forget the fact that nothing has changed. Any strength and conditioning coach will tell you that a player needs about 6 weeks to build the body into a strong enough machine to weather the storm that is the ATP season. And that is after a two week rest. Is there a top player who got anything close to that this winter? I doubt it.

So, as wonderful as the fact is that a new season is upon us, I take these recent Davis Cup departures as a sign of a larger issue. Players are taking their lumps out there, and changes will need to be made. Otherwise the ATP will be encouraging the usage of the type of drugs that their governing bodies seek to prevent.

We don't want that, nor do we want to create an environment that rewards resilience more than it rewards true athletic prowess.

The time is ripe for more than lip service. The time is ripe for change, and here's to hoping that Davis Cup isn't forgotten - for she truly is a damsel in distress - when those changes are made.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Shahar Peer and the Politics of Protest

Greetings Tennis Maniacs,

Forgive me for wanting to keep it simple, but don't you guys agree that we should keep our tennis and politics separate? As much as I believe that sometimes protest is a necessary and potent form of obtaining justice, I also don't believe that people have the right to subject large gatherings to their political or philosophical leanings whenever they please.

Take yesterday's protests against Israeli player Shahar Peer in Auckland as an example.

Not only did the loud (drums and megaphones and chanting) and insensitive protest group of 8 to 10 people disrupt the experience of many a paying customer at the Auckland, New Zealand venue, it also prompted security officials to stop play and evacuate the building to properly analyze a left-behind handbag (bomb?!).

What, I wonder, is the point of creating an atmosphere of tension at an event that is supposed to be joyous? And aren't there better, less intrusive methods that might actually foster an environment of communication and healing? The sentiment may be legitimate for John Minto's group (named "Global Peace and Justice"), but the approach to conveying the message clearly is not.

At first it all seems legitimate, but when you consider the fact that nobody at the venue was there (press reports have it as 3,000 spectators and many complaints) to hear protests, you quickly realize the inanity and utter rudenesss of Minto's approach.

I'm not here to condemn what the guy or his group have in their hearts. I can't speak for that, nor would I ever dare to. And I don't want to comment on politics at all. I merely want to say that trying to humiliate or intimidate a player to serve a larger purpose is foul play at it's slimiest and most damaging. It's about manners, and in my humble opinion, manners should always have right-of-way over politics.

How dare you try to bully a girl into quitting the sport she loves to play in front of people who paid good money to see her perform? How dare you try to sabotage an innocent woman's livelehood based on your beliefs? Aren't there better ways to voice your opinions? Why don't you find your own venue, and if you can get 3,000 people to show up, tell them how you feel?

It can't be easy on Shahar Peer. I have tried to put myself in her shoes over the past few days, and it isn't pretty, let me tell you. She's just one person, a 22-year-old girl from Jerusalem. She doesn't want any part of the politics of the situation, she just wants play tennis. Yet she is unfairly targeted, and made to be a scapegoat solely on the whims people who have no interest in her as a human being.

"I don't think there is a place for politics in sport," said Peer. "It's a shame that someone thinks that it is my fault that there are problems in the world."

The group sent Peer a letter asking her to withdraw as a "demonstration of your commitment to peace," and promised to protest if she did not.

Call me dense, but I don't see how it would be a "demonstration of a commitment to peace" if Peer withdrew. She is in the tournament to compete with players from all around the globe, competing in a sport that exemplifies the essence of globalism (call it global warmth if you will) - it's more important for her to be in the tournament for peace than it is for her to quit it based on threats.

My point here is that there is a time and place for people with passion to get their message out. If it is peace you want then it is peace you should promote. Shahar Peer has earned the right to compete with the best women in the world on the grandest stages of tennis. There are standards in the world of tennis, just as there are in other worlds.

By attempting to sabotage these standards and create a biased version of them, "Global Peace and Justice" has become it's own worst enemy.