Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Heads of the Class

Grand-Slam Energy Management 304 is a highly specialized Tennis graduate course that only accepts elite pupils. A minimum 3.85 GPA is required. It is a course that is offered sparingly, and only to a select handful of deserving students. There is a wait list, but it can be exruciatingly long - some wait, and never get admitted.

It’s a shame that it isn‘t available to more students, this Grand-Slam Energy Management 304, because some of the most lethal - and most entertaining - players in all of tennis end up suffering from a lack of the wisdom that it avails.

Students in the class don’t suffer this handicap. They’ve been taught by experience that every single ounce of wasted energy over the course of a fortnight can come back to haunt you. Students who excel in the class learn to play the tournament with an innate understanding that rest is one of the most precious commodities to be had.

Rest is to the player as gasoline is to the vehicle. If you don't rest you get stuck on the freeway like a broken-down Ford. You are stripped of your dignity, beaten, eliminated.

Marin Cilic, after playing well over 20 hours in his 6 matches in Melbourne, has finally earned admittance to Grand-Slam Energy Management 304. There are only four accredited institutions that offer the course and Cilic will be joined by Jo-Wilfried Tonga and John Isner.

Cilic was buried by Andy Murray in his first-ever Grand Slam semifinal last month. For a little over a set he was moving like a cat; as the match wore on he looked like more like a wounded antelope. It wasn’t that Cilic was uninspired or that he didn’t have the nerve for a big match - he was just worn out from having to play all those 5-setters to get to the semis.

Andy Murray, currently enrolled in Grand-Slam Energy Management 304, hadn’t lost a set in 5 matches until Cilic bested him the first set of their semifinal. But the Scot was ready to prevail in a test of endurance, and that fostered his belief. He took the next three convincingly. Cilic was too worn out to offer resistance because he had to grind too much in the early rounds.

No rest, no trophy.

Think about it this way. A player starts each Slam with an hourglass. That hourglass gets turned over as soon as the first ball is put in play. When each match is over, the hourglass is frozen until the next match begins. Each time a player needs more than three sets to close out a match he loses valuable sand.

Cilic will need to play a few more easy matches per Grand-Slam if he really wants to have that breakthrough that many think prognosticators think he is due. He'll have to find a way to steam roll more people, instead of letting lesser players like Tomic sap him of his mojo.

Tsonga and Isner will have to develop return games or they will find themselves challenged by the cirriculum.

If they aspire to go to the head of the class like Nadal and Federer, Grand-Slam Energy Management 304 applicants will have to display an arsenal of sophisticated navigational skils.

They will be given 4 chances a year to provide us with proof that they are ready.

We reserve the right to admit zero applicants per semester, based on requirements and admission quality.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Are The Hard Courts Worth it For Rafa?

What a difference a year makes.

In the first few months of 2009, Rafael Nadal was on top of the world. He was looking down from his perch at the top of the pecking order of tennis, and things looked agreeable. He saw a cast of characters that couldn’t handle his firepower (and if they could they couldn‘t handle it for long) and a tennis-god named Federer who was completely out of sorts whenever he faced him.

This - Nadal’s rise to No. 1 - was not the stuff of mere mortals. It was not even the stuff of lower-grade Greek Gods. When the Spaniard had finally driven Roger Federer to the depths of despair in that most memorable of Australian Open finals (aka the Tearjerker), he was too elated to even begin to fathom the heavy price he would eventually have to pay for his first - and to this date, only - hard court title.

For the valiant Nadal, it has been a career that is so chock-full of courageous efforts that many experts speculated that he’d eventually become the greatest of all-time.

Eventually is turning out to be an iffy proposition.

Ever since his 6th Grand Slam at the tender age of 22 (Federer’s 6th didn‘t come until he was 24), Nadal has been searching for the physical currency that would allow him to purchase more Grand Slam tokens. Lately his account has had insufficient funds.

Nadal held on to the No. 1-ranking for 46 weeks but he has since sunken into a title drought that has cast doubts about his future. It has now been 9 months since his last triumph in Rome (May 3rd, 2009). Injuries have been the culprit, but it’s been so long that it’s hard not to wonder if the real Rafa, or something inside the real Rafa has been lost forever.

In 2009, knee tendinitis kept him from defending his Wimbledon title, and that injury led to the extra stress on his core that eventually hindered him at the 2009 U.S. Open (abdominal strain). The collective effects kept him from returning to form as he finished the season with 3 consecutive losses in the Barclays Global World Tour Championships.

Injuries, injuries, and more injuries. For the last 9 months it’s been the recurring theme and the thorn in Rafa's side. About to turn 24 in March, Nadal’s MRI bill is constantly increasing while his trophy count remains stagnant.

Rafa’s camp must realize that they have a severe emergency on their hands. How could they not? With so much of Rafa’s game predicated on his awe inspiring level of fitness, any long-term plan for Nadal should take into account the fact that he has been on the tour for 8 grueling years (he won his first ATP event at 15). As young as he is on paper, Rafa's age is misleading. In terms of tennis years he's an old vet and the quicker he and his team realize this and act accordingly, the better off he'll be.

Expectations need to be slashed. Priorities need to be examined. Questions need to be asked.

Questions like, is it really worth it for Nadal to keep suffering on the hard courts, when he is clearly a player built for the clay?

As the drought continues, as Rafa continues to play like a shadow of his dominant 2008 self, as his once invincible but now vulnerable game continues to get overpowered by the likes of Davydenko, Cilic, and del Potro (still not Federer, though), shouldn’t more drastic measures be taken?

Clearly whatever Rafa and his camp are doing is not quite enough to get the man truly fit. There is no shame in that. Nadal is clearly a god, albeit a bruised one, and he should be given the benefit of the doubt about that. But what he should not be given the benefit of the doubt about is his invincibility.

With his level of physicality, and the heavy schedule he has maintained since he joined the tour, Rafa has put more hard miles on his engine than any other player in tennis. Intuitively it makes complete sense for Rafa to radically alter his playing schedule and practice regiment from this point onward. While his desire to return for Indian Wells is admirable, I can’t help but think that it would be the worst thing for Nadal right now.

My advice? Well, I’m glad you asked. I think Nadal should wait until early to mid April to begin full practice and match play. Then he can make a genuine run at the French and Wimbledon. Not only would skipping Indian Wells give him more time to heal, it would also allow for his body to avoid the punishing toll that the hard courts take on all players bodies.

Furthermore, if I was Rafa, I would then proceed to skip the summer hardcourt season - I’d spend the next 5 months recuperating, rehabbing, and then finally working to develop strength in the previously injured areas.

We must remember, Nadal was, is, and always will be better-suited to win Grand-Slams on clay first, then grass second. His all-out quest to become truly versatile - i.e, winning on the hard courts of Australia and Flushing Meadows - goes against his nature. The man was built to play on clay, and he should revisit whatever mindset he had when he began his run at the top with a remarkable 81-match win streak on clay and 4 consecutive French Open titles. Rafa needs to jog his memory and let his body and mind come home to the clay.

At the crossroads that the Spaniard has arrived at, he must navigate the treacherous terrain of the next few years in a very delicate matter. If he stays on the current path, the losses will make his confidence suffer and the loss of confidence will bring only more losses. If he comes back next month, he’ll likely be doing it for the fans instead of himself. But this is the time for Rafa to be selfish. There is too much at stake for him not to be.

In the short term Rafa would feel like he was losing his connection to the game he loves. He’d be out of touch with the pulse, a heart with no blood. The fans would suffer too, because he is a giant in the sport, and a true phenom on the court.

But drastic times call for drastic measures - Rafa will never be Rafa again unless he lets his body rest. In the long term it may be his only chance at regaining the scintillating form that endeared him to us in the first place.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Off the Radar: As Oudin Has Risen, Glatch Has Struggled

It wasn't very long ago when we were mentioning the name Alexa Glatch before the name Melanie Oudin when we started waxing inspired about the future of Women's tennis in the U.S.

Just last may, comparing Glatch to Lindsay Davenport was a more common occurrence than comparing Oudin to Justine Henin — but by the conclusion of the U.S Open in September, Glatch had become an afterthought, and Oudin the savior.

While Glatch suffered the misfortune of drawing Serena Williams in the first round of the U.S. Open, Oudin became the greatest American tennis story of the year — she had become the little engine that could and the poster child for the word "believe" in one week. In a country that goes through next big things like movie stars go through divorces, Alexa Glatch was getting perilously close to being forgotten before she had ever been noticed.

What a difference a few months can make. In the first 5 months of 2009, Glatch had scored 4 top-50 scalps (Carla Suarez Navarro at Indian Wells, Iveta Benesova and Petra Kvitova in a dominating Fed Cup performance against the Czechs, and Flavia Pennetta in a first round shocker at Roland Garros). While it wasn't exactly Sports Illustrated cover material, Glatch was clearly a player on the rise. Not only was she winning big, but she was acting like she belonged, keeping her emotions in check and calmly marching her way up the rankings.

After Melanie's coming out party at the U.S. Open, the fact of the matter is that nobody seems to be paying attention to Glatch anymore — even after she beat Oudin in a Beijing qualifiying match, nobody seemed to notice.

As Oudin's celebrity has risen exponentially, Glatch's celebrity, and the enthusiam that many had about her potential to be an American tennis star, has evaporated.

As the two young Americans prepare for their 2nd head-to-head clash in Memphis on Tuesday night, the two players appear to be headed in opposite directions.

As of Monday morning, Oudin is at a career-high No. 42 in the Sony Ericsson WTA rankings, while Glatch — who didn't manage to crack the top-100 even during her hot spell last year — is treading water at No. 149.

While Oudin's impressive to pull herself up by her own bootstraps has been impressive (two exciting Fed Cup wins in France followed by a semifinal run that ended in a very close match with Elena Dementieva), Glatch's malaise has continued.

If there ever was a time for the tall, cool California girl to prove that she deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Melanie Oudin, Tuesday in Memphis might be that time.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Philosophical Tennis: What Makes Djokovic Tick?

I think that I may have stumbled upon what makes Djokovic tick. We all know that there is something about the guy, there is no denying that. But what is it? For me I think it is the stylish flair of Novak Djokovic's strokes - he can be a real Picasso out there - and the robust quality of his athleticism that make him simultaneously endearing and alluring to me.

Anyway, here are my philosophical musings on Djokovic:

I think that Djokovic derives so much thrill from hitting with perfect technique — we've all seen that machine-like side of Djokovic, when his brain is on auto-pilot and he is molesting the ball — that when he finds himself fatigued, and therefore can no longer produce his classic European technique with the same level of perfection, his mind shifts from autopilot to oh-my-god-I-want to-get-off-this-court-because-I-don't-feel-so-good.

And when he does that he suffers mightily.

In other words, the game seems to lose its lustre to Novak — this is my theory, so at least let me finish the piece before you barge in and tell me what an idiot I am — when he is tired.

And when the act of striking the ball has lost its lustre to Novak that little extra something goes missing from his game. Suddenly the dominator is being dominated.

Every tennis player has elements of this duality embedded in their psyche, but Novak seems to be more plagued by his split personalities than the other top-5 guys.

Keep in mind that we are talking about one of the best 5 tennis players in the world at the moment, and don't mistake this for a scathing criticism of the Djokovic body of work. This is just a little friendly diagnosis that I wanted to throw out there for the sharks to feed on. Please tell me what you think in the comments section.

We are talking here about a small sliver of the mental game of tennis, but if it creates small cracks in the armor of Djokovic's stroke production it could have more implications than we know.

If I was Djokovic's coach, I wouldn't be sitting court side with a notebook like Todd Martin while Novak plays. I'd be begging him to relocate the unquenchable desire that burned him up inside in 2008. That is what made Djokovic tick back then. He was insatiable when it came to victory. He played like a man possessed then. Watching that semifinal I got the impression that he was like a boxer coming out of the corner.

Will he ever play with that kind of desire again?

What do you think?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Bellucci Emerging As Player To Watch On Clay

It was a big week for Brazilian tennis last week, as 22-year-old Tomasz Bellucci, one of 5 first-time ATP titlists in 2009, claimed his second title of his young career at the Movistar Open in Santiago, Chile.

Bellucci now finds himself in the ATP's top-30, and his clay court prowess makes a jump into the ATP's top-20 a distinct possibility, as he'll have plenty of chances to compete on his surface of choice in the upcoming months.

Bellucci's most impressive win of the week was against No. 11-ranked Fernando Gonzalez in the semifinals. Gonzo is a 4-time champion at Movistar, but Bellucci was able to win a close-fought 3-setter on the Chilean's home turf. As an encore, Bellucci prevailed over another tough opponent, Juan Monaco, in another 3-setter for the title.

Bellucci, who cracked the top-100 for the first time after coming through the qualies to take the Gstaad title in August of 2009, appears to be ready to have his best clay court season yet.

While Brazilian tennis boasts only 2 top-100 players, there is a precedent for top-level tennis in the South American nation. Legendary Gustavo Kuerten a.k.a. Guga was a 3-time French Open Champion and he also held the world's No. 1 ranking for 27 consecutive weeks in 2001. Bellucci, and surprise Movistar semifinalist Joao Souza (a 6'4" 21-year-old nicknamed "bean") are both aiming to follow in the footsteps of their idol.

"We all watched Guga when we were kids," Bellucci told the ATP last year. "He was for sure an extra motivation to continue playing."

Surely, young players like Tiago Fernandes, who just won the Australian Open Boys Junior title, will begin to watch Bellucci as he now begins to come of age on the crushed red brick.