Thursday, June 24, 2010

Marathon Men

The once-busted scoreboard prepares for match point as Isner and Mahut conclude the longest match in tennis history.

"The miracle is not that we do this work, but that we are happy to do it."- Mother Theresa of Calcutta

If you asked me which had a greater probability of occurring, a meteor crashing into Wimbledon or an 8-hour and eleven-minute fifth set, I'd definitely look at you funny.

A meteor hitting Wimbledon you say? Or a match that was longer than any other match in history? Hmm...

Isner-Mahut, the epic: Was it real?

My cousin called me during the epic 5th set of the match and asked me if it was really happening. "Can this be real?" he echoed.

It was real. And strange. Improbable, and far-fetched. It boggled the mind and jogged the memory. Then it smashed the memory.

If you were watching this rare form of tennis torture you just had to throw your head back and laugh - how could it not be over? Could it last forever? It seemed beyond possible, even as we were witnessing it. What we didn't know was that inside these men existed determination - the sheer grit - to continue playing a match under such bizarre and grueling circumstances.

Just what possessed John Isner and Nicolas Mahut to dig so deep into their collective fortitude? And what do the exploits of these men say about tennis in General, or the mystique of Wimbledon?

It says a lot. If ever we thought that today's players are jaded prima donnas who don't possess old-school toughness, we were wrong. This marathon match is proof that the redeeming traits we desire in our athletes - an iron will, a bleeding heart, and the carnal quest for battle - still exist.

How it was physically possible that they avoided wilting, I wondered. What is possessing Isner and Mahut? Adrenaline had something to do with it to be sure. But let us not rule out divine intervention.

Pam Shriver, who was calling the "mother of all marathons" from the bleachers at Court 18, called the match a "freak." It's a fair assessment - this was somewhat of a freakish match. The serving, certainly, was beyond human.

That said, it wasn't an electrifying match in terms of artistry or rhythm. Points were choppy, voilent, and short. More than 20 percent of the points were aces. But as it wore on, and previously revered records fell by the wayside, it was easy to see what a massive success it had become. What this struggle lacked in compelling rallies it more than made up for in compelling psychology.

Isner looked punch drunk during the later stages of play on the second day, but each time we thought he would crash in a heap of massive bones on the grass, he willed himself off his feet to pop another punishing serve.

Meanwhile, Mahut, the surliest of qualifers, never lost his look of steely-eyed determination throughout the marathon. Though he lost, his contribution is worthy not only of our sympathy, but our awe.

Isner and Mahut will not only be in the record books for forever and a day. They will also be forever etched upon the collective psyche of those who witnessed this homage to intestinal fortitude.

Two fierce battlers trading blows in a duel that felt more like a boxing match - two heavyweight fighters trading furious blows in rapid succession - than a decorous lawn tennis affair.

It was surreal, unreal, and more than a meal.

It will never be forgotton, and a meteor was more likely.

Isner-Mahut Records:
Match Duration: 11 hours, five minutes
Fifth set Duration: Eight hours, eleven minutes
Fifth set number of games: 138
Total number of points: 980
Aces in a match: Isner 112 (Mahut 103)
Combined aces in a match: 215

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Serena: Loud and Clear

Serena fired 15 aces in an explosive first-round victory. She also fired a message to the rest of the field: She's ready to repeat.
Her opponent brought the noise, but Serena brought the heat.

A title-hungry Serena Williams sent a serious message to the rest of the women's field at Wimbledon today, when she blasted fifteen aces and didn't lose a single point on her first serve against Michelle Larcher de Britto of Portugal.

Williams, who has never lost before the third round at Wimbledon, will now prepare to face Anna Chakvetadze of Russia in the 2nd round.

If Serena's focus and intensity are any indication of the kind of effort she is going to put forth, Chakvetadze might want to invest in a Kevlar vest for their upcoming encounter.

Still, as decisive as her victory was, Serena saw room for improvement. "I'd like to come to the net more," she said. "I think that's something I could have done better."

Venus' little sister is also finding time to work on her curtsy for the Queen of England, who'll be visiting Wimbledon for the first time in thirty-three years on Thursday. "I was going to curtsy on the court today afterwards, but I think I flubbed it."

As usual, her post-match presser covered topics as far-ranging as her nails, her dress, World Cup soccer, and the Queen. There were laughs, and a lot of joking. But don't let the levity fool you into thinking that Serena isn't dead set on destruction here at Wimbledon. She had that look of determination in her eyes from the very first point today, and if there is one thing she is she is very serious about it is repeating here as Wimbledon Champion for the second time in her career and solidifying her spot atop the WTA's rankings.

She's also anxious to get the bad taste out of her mouth from the French Open, and she alluded to that today. "Well, I served so terrible in my last match at the French," she said, when asked about her light-out serving performance against Larcher de Britto. "I went home and worked really hard on my serve. I was incredibly disappointed with it. I had a talk with my serve. I said, you know, we got to do a little bit better."

Whatever Serena said to her serve, it must have made sense.

Loving the Game

After eleven months without a title, Rafael Nadal has his sights set on a second consecutive Grand Slam.

There's the old adage that pertains to Rafael Nadal's fine form of late: "If you love your work, you'll do it well."

It's fitting in Nadal's case - he's obviously loving the work, and he showed that today with his exuberant post-match celebration after a hard-fought 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 win over the Japanese-American youngster Kei Nishikori.

Nadal is just so PRESENT out there. He's conscious, aware, and dialed in. He's like a jazz improviser, possessing great feel for his own abilities, the abilities of his opponent, and the context in which the key points in the match are being played. When the intensity rises, Nadal doesn't misinterpret. He rises too, and often leaves his opponent dragging his feet.

Take today's second set against the hard-hitting Nishikori, for example. The pair were dead even at 4-4, and Nishikori was heading towards what looked to be a comfortable hold, serving at 40-15. Turns out it wasn't so comfortable. Smash, boom, bang! Nadal, ever-perceptive and ever-opportunistic, was quick to take advantage of Nishikori's slight lapse in concentration to grab the break.

Then, understanding the importance of consolidating, the Spaniard aggressively served out the set as if his life depended on it. It was all downhill from there.

It's veteran know-how like this, combined with a pugilistic approach to every point that make Nadal so difficult to compete with. The competition might let up, but Nadal never does,
and his ability to perpetually read and react to the subtleties of the moment is one of the things that makes the Nadal package so extraordinary.

As Mary Carillo stated during his match with Nishikori, Nadal plays the score so well. Having the strokes and the fitness- and we know he has those - is one thing, but understanding which strokes to select for which circumstances is where Nadal puts the world in world-class.

Nadal is like a race car driver on the court, one who has an acute understanding of when to accelerate, when to brake for a turn, and when to go for the pass. His intuition is just as lethal as his inside-out forehand, his mental toughness and big-picture clarity are just as lethal as his two-handed backhand return.

Amazingly, as bold and nasty as Rafa can be, he's also equally humble. And this humility allows him to avoid the pitfalls that so many other top players experience. It's the humility that instills in him the belief that he is beatable and therefore he'll have to keep improving to stay on top of the field.

It's the humility, in a sense, that keeps him striving, and when he's striving, he's happy. That's why you see him celebrating a first-round victory over Kei Nishikori with such unbridled enthusiasm.

Nadal has the uncanny ability to simultaneously live in the moment (the smile) and to perpetually prepare for the next moment (the frown). It's a rare and deadly combination, and it speaks volumes about the type of person - and champion - that Rafa is.

His infectious enthusiasm and dogged pursuit of perfection are what have captivated his legions of fans from the get-go. He's one of those rare breed of players that realizes that the sport is bigger than him.

For other players on tour, it's not always clear why they play the game, but for Rafa, there isn't any doubt: the man oozes respect for the game and lust for the competition. It must be love.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Catching Falla

Now that he's caught tricky Columbian Alejandro Falla, can Federer catch Fire against the rest of the Wimbledon field?

Roger Federer should sleep with one eye open.

Because unlike his heyday at Wimbledon, when he was winning five consecutive titles and compiling an unprecedented sixty-five match winning streak on grass, players now believe that he is beatable. Even on this hallowed grass court that has seen him crowned as king on six occasions, his competitors are rebelliously taking aim at him. They are chewing their tobacco and spitting, loading and cocking their weapons, and obstinately firing away.

Where they used to cower in fear, they now strike in passion. Where they used to hesitate and stumble, they now relentlessly attack.

Nobody on the planet can imagine what it's like to be Roger Federer. Facing a revolving carousel of world-class players who are hell-bent to prove to the world that they too can play at that mind-boggling level, even if they can't sustain it for years on end the way Federer has. Facing player after player, each of them on a mission to play that one magical match - the one that will be etched into the lore of the sport for eons - Federer must dig in and resist with all his might.

Alejandro Falla isn't the first to play such out-of-his-head tennis against Roger Federer, and he certainly won't be the last. And it isn't the first time that Federer has overcome such brilliance from his opponent - and no, it surely won't be the last.

Yet, even though Federer survived - god only knows how - today, one gets the feeling that more and more of these impassioned renegades are going to break through, until finally, that fateful moment will come, and the mystique will be gone. Woe will be us when it happens, but it will happen, for it is the law of nature. Either that or he'll pull a Borg and just disappear from the ranks of the competing, which doesn't seem very likely with Roger.

But that moment isn't here yet. With his mom and pop dressed to the nines courtside, Roger summoned a few heaping spoonfuls of the old Federer magic, and finally sent his latest assailant packing.

The thought of Federer losing a first round match at Wimbledon was so preposterous that, well, nobody even thought that it was a possibility. But here's the thing: There's only so much dominant tennis that a man can play, even a man who practically wrote the book on domination, like Federer has.

Federer, in the back of his mind, must be aware of this too. He'll be twenty-nine in August, he's got two kids and a wife to distract him, and whether he likes it or not, his brain will never be as devoted as it once was to the singular purpose of being a tennis champion.

Think of Federer's magic as a well of water. Whether he knows it or not, the well only holds a finite amount of water. Early in his career Federer went to this well often. We know that. He went to it for discipline and inspiration. How else would he have sculpted such a miraculous game? He went to it for desire and for the will to prepare for battle. How else did he achieve such power on such a lithe, dexterous frame? He went to it for fortitude and belief. How else would he have developed that determination and focus that made him so much better than his opponents?

But now we are finding that the well of magic, like the wells of similar players from bygone eras, is finite.

I'm sure that Federer knows the well is not full like it used to be, so he probably goes into a match against a player like Falla, whom he has never lost to, and whom he has pulverized twice in the last month, without bothering to use a drop of that special water.

He's hoping that he can just coast. He's hoping that he can save the magic for a match when he really needs it.

But when we watch Federer spend nearly three sets before he starts making any decent returns against a guy who he has shellacked so regularly in the past, it makes you wonder just what the future holds for him.

It's hard to excel at this game without making huge sacrifices. Consequently, it's hard to make those huge sacrifices when you're old in tennis terms, and you've got more of your brain devoted to your family and less of it devoted to winning matches, which can probably seem pretty insignificant to Roger at times when he really gets down to it.

When you're not the hunter, you're the hunted. I'm sure Federer believes that he wants this seventh Wimbledon as bad as he wanted the last six. But does he really? If you watched him wiggle his way out of his first-round affair with Alejandro Falla today, you probably are wondering the same thing.

As much as he wants a good nights sleep tonight, Roger might be better off of his twins keep him up all night. At this stage of his career, Federer needs to get out of bed with an edge. He can still be the world's best player, but not if he isn't hungry.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

It's Go Time! 2010 Wimbledon Men's Preview

Cut to a pristine 8mm in length, the Wimbledon Grass plays like no other surface. Which player will master it?
The fortnight is nearly upon us, and those two voracious tennis luminaries, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, will once again be looking to have the locker room all to themselves on the final Sunday of the tournament.

Like a snake that tries to fit an alligator into its stomach, both Federer and Nadal are resolutely driven to lording over tennis' wild kingdom. At Wimbledon, each player has done his fair share of hoarding the feast, with six of the last seven titles going to the gluttonous Federer, and the other being hunted down by the sleek predator known as Rafa.

Will the feasting continue for these two, or will one of the ATP's vultures try to crash the party and fly off with the prize?

Federer, in search of a record-tying seventh Wimbledon title, is fresh off what had to be a disconcerting loss to Lleyton Hewitt in Halle, Germany. The Swiss maestro had reeled off fifteen consecutive victories over the Aussie going into the match.

Federer has made a habit of proving that many good things must come to an end this season . It has been a spring of retribution for several players that Federer used to dominate. He's given up ground to Soderling, Berdych, Gulbis, Baghdatis, and now Hewitt.

It used to be that you could throw away these un-Federer-like results when the Slams began, but after Soderling pounded him into the clay at Paris, it's hard not to wonder if Roger has lost too much of what made him so invincible in the past. There's no question that the aura of invincibility has vanished, but his uncanny ability to rise to the occasion - especially at Wimbledon - might still be enough to get Federer this coveted title.

Nadal, who was bounced from Queens in the quarterfinals by his friend and country mate, Feliciano Lopez, has likely given a sliver of hope to all his future Wimbledon opponents. The loss to Lopez proves that he can be beaten on grass, which is a lot more than they could count on when facing him on clay.

While Nadal was rarely tested on clay this spring, the fact remains that he was fully invested both mentally and physically in restoring his French Open legacy. Now that he's achieved that task, he'll have to brush off the fatigue that undoubtedly exists and draw upon his incredible desire to compete.

Can Rafa ramp it up in time to reassert himself as the force on the grass that he was during his run of three straight final appearances from 2006-2008? And, more importantly perhaps, will the hamstring strain that hampered him in Queen's cause his game to suffer at Wimbledon?

If Federer or Nadal should falter, there will be many title-starved vultures ready to pounce. Soderling comes to mind first, but Roddick, Cilic, Berdych, Tsonga, Hewitt, and many others lie in wait.

Read on, as we break out our crystal balls and do our best to make sense of the draws:

Federer's Quarter:

The mighty Fed has actually done quite well with this draw. By the looks of things he'll be able to breeze into the fourth-round, where he could face Feliciano Lopez or Jurgen Melzer if the seeds hold. But something tells me they won't. Carsten Ball and Ricardas Berankis are two qualifiers who've got upsets on their mind.

In the quarters, if the seeds hold, Federer will face either a very dangerous Tomas Berdych or a rounding into form Nikolay Davydenko. Stan the man Wawrinka will also try to make his presence felt in this section of the draw, but in the end, Federer might have too lethal a combination of firepower, grass acumen, and big match experience to be upset.

Pick: Federer

Djokovic's quarter:

Novak Djokovic has lost three of his four career matches versus his first-round opponent Olivier Rochus. In other words, Novak might want to avoid slipping all over the court like he did in his sloppy first-round victory over Julien Benneteau at Wimbledon last year. The good news for Djokovic is that he did defeat the 5'6" Rochus on grass in their only meeting on that surface.

IF Novak survives the first round, all signs point to what is sure to be a classic match with Lleyton Hewitt in the fourth round. And the winner will have to face the likes of either Roddick, Kohlschreiber, Ljubicic, or Cilic in the quarters.

Pick: Hewitt

Murray's quarter:

It'd be nice if the English Football team can get out of Group C of the World Cup, because that would take some of the pressure off the young man from Dunblane, Scotland. When you think about it, there's really no reason that Murray can't make it through to his second consecutive Wimbledon semifinal. He's proved in runs to the finals of the U.S. Open and Australian Open that he gets the Grand Slam dynamic. He can navigate his way through the myriad trials and tribulations that will inevitably occur during the course of the six matches that it takes to get there.

But he's not the only former Grand Slam finalist in his quarter. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will also be gunning for another trip to a Grand Slam semifinal, and if his back doesn't give him too much trouble, his amped-up serve and keen sense for the volley make him a formidable threat to get through as well.

Fernando Verdasco, Nicolas Almagro, and Juan Carlos Ferrero will look to add some Spanish flavor to this quarter of the draw, and Sam Querrey will do his best to represent the American's.

Pick: Murray

Nadal's quarter:

Rafa's draw is loaded with land mines. His first round match with Kei Nishikori could end up being difficult, as Nishikori has enough power to dictate against anyone if his game is clicking. James Blake might meet Rafa in the second round; Hard-serving Phillipp Petzschner might meet him in the third; John Isner or Mikhail Youzhny could meet him in the fourth.

And if Rafa passes each of those tests with aplomb (odds are that he will), he'll be rewarded with another meeting with Kamikaze Swede Robin Soderling.

Rafa must be wondering, what did I do to deserve this?

Pick: Soderling

Semis: Federer over Hewitt, Soderling over Murray

Finals: Soderling over Federer

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Is Wimbledon Seeding Bogus? It's a Question of Taste

Wimbledon's grass court seedings-with grass specific results factored heavily in the process-are unique, but are they fair?

Grand Slam seeding protocol has been at the heart of many tennis-related discussions over the past month. Prior to the French Open there were many people who thought that Roland Garros should have elevated Justine Henin's seed, based on her past performance at the clay court Slam.

It would have been a bad idea.

The French Open bases it's seeding solely on rankings, and the fact that Henin hadn't had a full year to get her ranking commensurate with her obvious talent level should not have had an impact on her seeding.

Thankfully, it didn't.

There are players who have labored - and we all know what a grueling non-stop blood, sweat, and tearfeast the tennis tour is - through injuries, emotional pitfalls, slumps, and the like, all to earn a decent ranking. To elevate someone like Henin - a player who walked away from the game for two years while others continued to slog through - to a seed that she clearly didn't deserve based on the existing seeding protocol would send the wrong message to all those brave soldiers who've earned the right to call themselves card carrying members of the WTA's top-20.

Still, many clamored in favor of Justine. Oh, poor Justine, they said. She'll have to play Serena in the quarters. It's not fair.

Well, it was fair. It was very fair, in fact, and credit Roland Garros for sticking to their guns. If tournament supervisors start meddling with seeds to construct a draw that is more fan friendly or favors one player based on something from the very distant past, it'll be bad for the game.

They key thing to remember here is that players bust their humps week-in-and-week-out on the WTA tour, representing the tour with aplomb, and they deserve to be respected for all that toil. Nothing against Justine, and it's wonderful to have her back, but to give her an unfair advantage over other players is simply ludicrous.

Speaking of ludicrous, Wimbledon's seedings were released yesterday, and Roger Federer is listed as the No. 1 seed.

That's right, based on Wimbledon's eclectic method of seeding its players with emphasis on grass court results going back as far as 2008, Federer, currently the world's No. 2 player, will be seeded above Nadal.

While it may make tennis fans scratch their collective heads, at least it's based on a mathematical formula, and at least it is a well-known Wimbledon tradition that fosters debate, disillusion, and good old fashioned trash-talking.

I realize that the seeding formula is put in place to protect the better grass court players, and it's all in the name of providing the fans and the players with better late round matchups.

But I'd rather they protect they players who work hard for their results all year long - on all surfaces - then favor players who've got games that are well-suited for grass.

Ivo Karlovic, who has withdrawn from Wimbledon so it really doesn't matter, except in theory, went from a No. 33-ranking to a No. 25 seed. It would have been nice for him, but wouldn't it really have been nicer (had he been healthy) for Wimbledon if they let Dr. Ivo wreak havoc on the draw as an unseeded player? Talk about buzz in the early rounds, how about Karlovic-Murray in Round 1?

In the end it may be much ado about nothing. The best player will have to win seven matches against whomever he faces and that will decide it.

It wasn't very long ago that they seeded the top-16 players and let the chips fall where they may for the rest of them. Have the changes made for better tennis at the Slams? Or have they killed the buzz in the early rounds by keeping the top of the players away from each other?

What do you think?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Rusty Nails It

Hewitt: 2 hip surgeries in 2 years have slowed him, but the cagy veteran is still the quintessential grinder.
Talk about determination.

Lleyton Hewitt, six months beyond his second hip surgery in two years, and at the not-so-young-anymore age of twenty-nine, has risen to heights that not even an eternal optimist such the typically red-faced Aussie could have expected at this juncture of his career.

With a win over Roger Federer at the Gerry Weber Open in Halle, Germany, Hewitt, a former No. 1 who was voted the ATP's third best player of the decade, has put the kabosh on what must have been a painful and demoralizing streak of fifteen losses to the Swiss maestro, by handing Federer only his second loss on grass in the last seven years.

There have been times - particularly over the last few years, when injuries wreaked havoc on his training and results - that it seemed a foregone conclusion that Hewitt's best days were behind him. But after this inspiring week on grass it appears that Hewitt's got more than enough gas in the tank to keep his motor at a fever pitch for the upcoming Wimbledon fortnight.

Hewitt, who has reached the fourth round or better at Wimbledon in every year since 2004, has has had his momentum stifled by Federer on three of those occasions (2008 4th round, 2004 semifinal round, 2004 semifinal round).

But he's only lost to one player (Baghdatis in 2006) at Wimbledon who was ranked outside of the top six in the last six years.

He's a perennial player to watch at Wimbledon, but after his shocking over his arch nemesis Federer today, he may once again be a player to fear.

The Australian No. 1, who leads all active ATP players with 98 career grass court wins, can now continue his preparations for the fortnight without the imperious spectre of Federer's domination weighing on his mind. It doesn't guarantee him anything, but it can't be a bad thing for Hewitt to be heading to London on such a high.

"It's fantastic," said Hewitt, who was keen to remain humble after the match. "Roger is a hell of an opponent and everybody knows how good he is on grass. His record speaks for itself and I just got lucky."

Perhaps it wasn't the deleterious effects of age, but the absence of luck that has kept Hewitt from advancing past the semis at Wimbledon for the first time since he defeated David Nalbandian for the title in 2002?

After his come-from-behind upset in Halle, might Lleyton be ready to live the charmed live in London again?

Possibly, but the surprising result might be more of an indication of the lack of punch in Federer's game than an indication of the presence of punch in Hewitt's. Given that Federer has given back ground to many of his fiercest competitors over the course of this season (Soderling, del Potro, Berdych, Gulbis, Montanes, Baghdatis), Hewitt is definitely not be the only player who is feeling his oats at the moment.

Still, grass is his mecca, and his first title of the year has come at the perfect time for the Aussie.

It's true that Hewitt isn't the player that he was when he was winning Grand Slams and holding the No. 1 ranking for seventy-five weeks at the turn of the century, but certain things about him haven't changed a bit.

He's still a fiery competitor whose competitive nature hearkens back to a time when players were concerned more with winning than they were with their own well-being, and he's still going to make you work up a monster sweat to beat him by playing a solid, spunky brand of tennis that is fueled by emotion, even if he is outmatched on a certain day.

And, as his first victory over Federer in sixteen tries alludes to, he's not going to go away - not mentally, not physically, and most of all, not spiritually.

While Hewitt's boldness and bravado may have come off as arrogance in the early years of his career, that same single-minded lust for battle and testosterone-fueled exuberance are the things that make seeing Lleyton Hewitt compete special these days.

Today it was more than special. In winning his 28th career title, Hewitt proved that he's not only a hungry dog - he's also got some pretty sharp teeth to boot.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Upside Down in London

Feliciano Lopez ended Rafa's winning streak at 24, and unlike most Spaniards, he's got a game that is built for grass.
The transition from clay to grass is proving to be a difficult task for many of the world's best players - look no further than the 2010 Aegon Championships for proof of this fact.

In 2009 the top seed Andy Murray held true, bursting forth as the first Brit to win the title since Bunny Austin bunny-hopped to the crown in 1938. This year, Murray became just another third round casualty when he lost to American Mardy Fish.

But at least Murray can take solace in the fact that he's in pretty good company at the moment.

All of the top six seeds are now catching a breath after a grueling spring on the dirt.

Rafael Nadal was the last of the group to bow out when he went down at the hands of his compatriot, Feliciano Lopez, in straight sets today.

Is the play - or lack thereof - of the ATP's cream of the crop this week a harbinger of things to come when Wimbledon gets under way in a little over a week, or are we merely experiencing a bit of turbulence on what is certain to be a smooth flight?

Hard to say.

It kind of makes one wonder about just what the ATP is thinking when it transitions from a bulky clay court season by giving players 2 weeks to get used to all the intricacies of the grass court game.

Last year's Wimbledon is a prime example of how tricky it is to prepare for Wimbledon. Experienced veterans who could draw on their knowledge of the surface - and of their knowledge of how to prepare for playing on it with such a short lead time - were successful, while younger players who haven't been through the transition as much were shell shocked.

Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, Tommy Haas, and Andy Murray reached the Wimbledon semis, while grizzled veterans Juan Carlos Ferrero, Ivo Karlovic, and Lleyton Hewitt all reached the quarterfinal rounds.

Judging from the results at Aegon, where Sam Querrey and Feliciano Lopez, at No. 7 and No. 8, are the highest seeds remaining at the moment, a lot of top players need a lot of work on the grass surface.

For some, it might just be a case of changing footwork patterns and stroke selection from the one's they've used all spring on the clay. A lot more slice and a lot less topspin might be a good place to start. This simple yet effective strategy sure worked well for Feliciano Lopez (who has twice made the Wimbledon quarterfinals and four times made it to the fourth round or better) today. He fed Rafael Nadal a steady diet of slice and made it a point to get to the net to make some volleys en route to a surprising 7-6 (5), 6-4 victory.

For others it might simply be a case of finding a way to get a lot of reps against those low skidding slice balls that tend to cling to the court, forcing players to make contact at around knee-level.

Richard Gasquet, who won two rounds at Queens before losing to another veteran Ranier Schuettler, thinks that grass court tennis is far more nuanced than clay. "A lot of French players are good on grass because we have good technique, good serves. It's a talented game on grass, more than on clay."

Lleyton Hewitt, well-known for his grass court expertise, has reached the semi-finals of Halle and is emerging, yet again, as a Wimbledon contender. "You never expect a lot from your first week on grass," he said. "It always takes you a couple of matches to make the transition from sand to grass."

Hewitt, unlike many of the clay court connoisseurs, had a head start on the grass after his loss to Nadal at the French. "I am lucky enough to be a member at wimbledon, so as soon as I was done at the French I went to London and had the chance to train there."

For the rest of the players, who possess neither the experience or the extra time to train on the grass like Hewitt does, there might not be enough time in the day to be truly prepared for the fortnight.

For those top six seeds who've been rubbed out of the Aegon draw, it might not be as bad as it sounds. Rest is at a premium this time of year, and match toughness knows no surface.

Players like Nadal, Roddick, Djokovic, and Cilic can head to the practice courts and begin to craft a strategy - they've got no choice after all.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Full Circle: Rafa Gets Dirty Again In Paris

Rafa ties Borg by winning his second French Open without dropping a set

A telling excerpt from Rafa's post-match press conference:
Q: Will you celebrate tonight, or what are the plans?
Rafa: Difficult to have big celebration tonight if you have practice tomorrow (laughter).

There, in a humorous yet serious little nutshell, is the essence of Rafa. No matter how many superlatives you pull from the dictionary in an attempt to describe the awe-inspiring lethality of his strokes or the supernatural stamina that he possesses, it always comes back to the work he's doing to get up that hill.

Rafa may have revolutionized the sport with his bionic reverse forehand follow-through and his 22nd century cyborg fitness, but when you really slice and dice it, the Spaniard is doing things the old fashioned way. Nadal is a humble servant to the boots on the ground, eyes on the prize, give everything you can give mentality, and that, more than anything else, is what has turned him into a seven-time Grand Slam champion at the tender age of 24.

Yes, he's stylish, flashy, and hunky, but that is not what makes him the man that makes us swoon - nor is it by design. His only designs are to perform to his potential, to reach the top of the arc of his expectations, to compete like a maniac, and to honor the game that he unabashedly loves to play. Amen to that.

If anybody on the ATP Tour understands that idle hands are the devil's playground, it's the recently crowned five-time Roland Garros champion. And while his success appears to come easily, those who've followed Nadal over the course of his rise to - and stumble from - the top of the tennis food chain, know that it has been anything but that. He was a player who nearly trashed his body because he was so driven to forge his way to greatness. And when predilection for training like a soldier to facilitate that greatness left his knees in shambles, his abdomens torn, and his confidence depleted, he was forced to do something he never dreamt he'd have to do: Change.

During his 11-month voyage back to reality, where wins were no longer growing on trees, we wondered if he'd ever return to glory. Or, would he forever be a shadow of himself, healthy one week and debilitated the next?

Ah, but if you saw him moving like a silent assassin on the red clay of Stade Phillipe Chatrier on Sunday, you'd never know that he'd encountered so much turbulence over the previous year. You'd never know that he had to come full circle to be there, that he'd had to dig deep within himself to find the courage to keep believing in himself even after all the hardship.

Naturally, for a player who liked to practice fervently in order to come into tournaments hot, it was no easy task for Rafa to drop this security blanket. To practice less, train shorter, and focus more on staying healthy rather than just soldiering through the pain is not an easy task for a warrior like Rafa. Yet, he had the wisdom to know that it was the only way to survive.

Watching him cruise through the French Open without really being tested over seven matches might have seemed uneventful on the surface. In reality it was one of those rarities that is to be cherished. For only the fifth time since the Open Era began, a player has won the tournament without dropping a single set.

Like anybody else on tour, Rafa is human, prone to aches and pains and lapses in concentration - but the difference with Rafa is that he is willing to intelligently develop solutions that will keep those lapses from interfering with his quest for the arc of triumph within him.

Today Rafa erased all doubt that lingered about his form. He's back and he's back in the biggest and baddest of ways.

Insouciantly erasing the eight break points that his opponent Robin Soderling accumulated, Nadal turned what was prognosticated to be the most difficult of his five French Open finals into a cross between a laugher and a clinic in clay court tennis.

The 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 python-like strangulation featured 45 unforced errors by the 6'4" Swede, but most of those errors were at the end of long rallies where Soderling had simply run out of either gas or ideas or both - in other words, Nadal forced him into unforced errors. Soderling, in his defense, wasn't the only one to suffer such a fate in Paris.

The first set was tenuous, with Soderling going for broke, littering up the stat sheet (21 unforced errors and 12 winners), and getting some chances to break Nadal. But Rafa's defensive abilities and his focus on the big points (saved 3 of 3) got him over the hump. In the second set, a still-hungry Soderling nearly went up a break - but Nadal wouldn't let the Swede through the door (saved 4 0f 4 break points and hit 11 winners). When the third set began Nadal was even more diligent in his approach (26 of 30 first serves in the box and 9 more winners). Soderling was like a drowning man reaching for a life raft, and Rafa was like a shark in the water, pulling him further under.

It takes wisdom to avoid a letdown in this situation. But if there is a player who understands how to go for his opponents jugular, it is Nadal.

As far and as hard as Sweden's best player has come - make no mistake about it, Soderling is a force to be reckoned with - he was unable to inflict any damage against Nadal's beastly combo of indefatigable defense, pinpoint serving, and multiple-stroke lung-piercing rallies. As the match wore on, his chances were fewer and farther between.

"He's a great defensive player," said Soderling, "but also has a great offensive game, as well. He can really change defense to offense so quick. That's why he's so good."

After losing two straight matches to Soderling, including the most shocking upset of the tennis century last year in in Paris, Nadal dipped into his deep well of resolve to find the answers today.

Last year Soderling hurt Nadal when he left balls short, but today, everything Rafa hit landed near the baseline. With Soderling unwilling to advance to the net and pick shots out of the air, the Spaniard was able to keep the big man at bay with some of the best defensive tennis that has ever been displayed on the clay.

It seemed as if Rafa knew exactly what to expect from his opponent. It seemed so easy, almost walk-in-the-parkish. But the emotions of Nadal told a different story. There was nothing easy about it. Getting back to the top was harder than getting there in the first place.

Rafa wouldn't want it any other way.

One glance at Rafa's face, full of emotion and sincerity as he listened to Spain's national anthem with his trophy in hand, told that story without having to say a word.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Nadal-Soderling: The Tennis Gods Wanted it This Way

Can lightning strike twice in two years at the French?

There are enough intriguing elements to tomorrow's French Open final between Rafael Nadal and Robin Soderling to keep people up all night in anticipation. Rather than turn in, many tennis fans are currently queueing up the Warren Zevon song "I'll sleep when I'm dead," and getting their popcorn ready for what promises to be one of the most exciting Grand Slam finals in a long time.

Nadal, the king of clay, seeks his fifth Roland Garros title, while Soderling, the avenger, seeks once again to crush the hopes and dreams of one of the game's greats (he's becoming a true expert at that to be sure).

While some may still be lamenting the fact that Roger Federer missed his chance to take another stab at Nadal on the red clay of Stade Phillipe Chatrier, most have come to grips with the fact that there simply could not be a more drool-worthy final matchup than Nadal-Soderling.

The history is indeed hard to ignore. Of the five matches that these two have played, two have lived on in infamy.

Things got ugly between Nadal and Soderling at Wimbledon in 2007, and since then their rivalry has taken on an added dimension. While it's always about tennis first with these two, there is now an undercurrent of animosity that adds color to their impending clash. Whether or not these two actually throw darts at pictures of the other on a regular basis is unknown, but there is good reason to speculate on the matter.

In the fifth set of their third-round match, Nadal, irked by Soderling's decision to run to his chair to grab a new racquet as he was preparing to serve, made mock gesture of showing Soderling the ball when he returned, as if to say "are you ready now, dude?"

The crowd burst into laughter, and a miffed Soderling then proceeded to delay the match further by stamping around the baseline and becoming the first player on tour - even before Djokovic had the gall to do it in a good natured manner - to poke fun at Nadal's well-known habit of picking his shorts from his butt.

The rest is history. Nadal won the match, then crushed Soderling love and one on the clay the next time they met - two years later - in Rome.

Little did we know that all this time Soderling was planning a swift and decisive revenge. Again this is purely speculation, but he sure played like a man out for revenge when he shocked Nadal into submission at Roland Garros last year.

At a time when the public was certain that Rafa could not be tamed on the red clay, Soderling pulled the upset of the century, and then emerged as a first-time Grand Slam finalist later in the week.

One year later, Soderling - who is now firmly ensconced in the top-10 - thrashed Roger Federer to end his streak of 23 Grand Slam semifinal appearances, proving that he remains ready, willing, and able to go on a rampage.

But don't think for a moment that he'll be able to catch Nadal off guard like he did last year. Whether or not Nadal's injuries were already lowering his level of play when Soderling met him last year is a question that might be better off left alone. But the mere fact that Rafa was beaten - and beaten so badly - last year, means that his already legendary will to fight and to find solutions will be heightened significantly. We've all seen Nadal demonstrate that iron will and stiff resolve of his on so many occasions - look for him to be ready for the battle of his life tomorrow.

And what can we expect from Soderling, now that he's been to a Slam final before?

"Hopefully I can handle it a little bit better this year than I did last year, because last year everything was so new for me. I played many matches against good players, I think I learned from every one."

Meanwhile, Nadal is not interested in drawing Soderling's ire. When asked about his relations with the big Swede he diplomatically replied, "I think he was very shy in the beginning. I think so, no? But I think he improves a lot. For sure for me is good to have a player like Robin playing at this high level on the tour."

Neither player appears interested in wasting any energy - positive or negative - in press conferences. Better for them to save it all for the match.

Better for us, too.

As far as the tennis goes, we are talking about the two players who approach the clay in different ways, but both have achieved stunning success at Roland Garros.

Nadal is the grinder who seeks to tire his opponent by sending his lethal topspin drives from corner to corner, while Soderling is the home-run hitter who looks to hammer the first short ball that he sees in each rally.

Conditions will no doubt play a factor, as Soderling will hope that he gets dankness and wet clay, because this will allow him more time to run down Nadal's shots, while his power will still allow him to hit through the conditions. Nadal, meanwhile, will hope for sunshine, as the drier the clay is, the higher his shots will bounce, and the faster his shots will move through the court.

But neither player appears too concerned about all the things that are so intriguing to us.

"I have to play my best tennis, and that's what I gonna try to do," said Nadal.

Schiavone: Elevating the Underdog

Schiavone's labor of love leads her to the summit of the sport

"I'm not so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer." - Albert Einstein

Francesca Schiavone, just eighteen days shy of her 30th birthday, has stayed with the problem long enough.

Today, in front of over 14,000 inspired onlookers in Paris, she finally solved the puzzle.

The determined Italian, who is known as "the lioness" in her homeland because of her zesty let-it-all-hang-out approach to the sport, has rocketed - from virtually out of nowhere - to the pinnacle of tennis in the span of a Paris fortnight. In a moving display of bravado, intellect, and intestinal fortitude, the 5'5" Milan native has revived the collective spirit of the underdog by upsetting the more powerful - and by many accounts more talented - Samantha Stosur of Australia.

How did she do it? Or, better yet, how did she believe that she could do it?

There was a rich and vibrant emotional hue emanating from Schiavone today, in the face of a daunting opponent who had been laying waste to former No 1 players with relative ease in her previous three matches. Even when Stosur made her first eight serves of the match, Schiavone never batted an eye, pouring in a few aces of her own to hold serve against her muscle-bound opponent, when many a lesser player would have already wilted.

Ah, courage. Ah, belief. They are worth their weight in gold, that's for sure. The lesson that Schiavone taught a shocked bevy of spectators and television viewers today is that if you have the courage to believe, and if you believe that your courage will make a difference, you can do anything.

While Stosur seemed to struggle with the density of the moment, Schiavone held her nerve and played the same brand of spontaneous, visceral tennis that had helped her push past Na Li, Maria Kirilenko, Caroline Wozniacki, and Elena Dementieva in the previous four rounds (without losing a set, mind you).

She was exuberant, yet at the same time, zeroed in and calm. There was no stutter in her step, no hitch in her swing, no doubt in her mind - this was the moment she had been craving all her life, and lo and behold, the lioness wasn't going to let fear or doubt keep her from doing her job.

"I think it's my time now, maybe before I wasn't ready," Schiavone told reporters after her semifinal victory.

Apparently she had reliable sources.

It was her time. But it wouldn't have been her time had she not played such exquisite tennis. It wouldn't have been her time if she hadn't had employed and executed the perfect gameplan to take the lethal Aussie out of her comfort zone. And most of all, it wouldn't have been her time had she not known that it was her time.

Dreams do come true, but only if the foundation is made of blood, sweat, and tears.

For Schiavone, it's been nine years in the top-50, and six out of seven in the top-20.

"I think it's coming from the inside," Schiavone said, after her quarterfinal defeat of Caroline Wozniacki. "Because when you work a lot, hard every morning, and every afternoon of your life, and is arriving at a good result, I think you feel much more than to play always easy."

All that hard work will leave Schiavone at No. 6 in the WTA rankings on Monday. After a career of living for the dream, the feisty Italian is now officially living the dream.

"I always dream, yes. I always believe in myself. Not about the trophy or tournament, but just on myself. I think was the key for everything," she said.

Underdogs the world over are taking heed.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Rafa: More Dominance, Less Drama

Rafa has lost two sets in 21 matches this spring

To witness a player like Spain's Rafael Nadal when he is in top form is practically a religious experience for tennis fans. Unlike a lot of other sports, say American football or ice hockey, many tennis fans play the sport regularly, and the experience of being on court gives them an idea of just how magnificently the world's top players are performing.

Simply put, watching the tennis professionals of the modern era is like watching aliens from another planet - it is humbling to watch, but also proof that a divine level of tennis prowess exists.

It has always been breathtaking to see a top professional patrol the clay court, mixing deft slides, big loopy spins, and wide court-opening angles that you don't see on grass or cement.

Then there is Rafa, patrolling the Roland Garros clay, which is beyond breathtaking.

The recently turned 24-year-old Spaniard has been pretty much destroyed, deconstructed, and defused every player he's faced this year on clay. Spaniards have always been clay aficionados - but Rafa has taken that stereotype and brought it to an entirely different stratosphere.

In 21 matches, starting with his Monte Carlo title defense, Rafa has only dropped 2 sets. He's like an ornery pit-bull who has just been handed one of those chew toys that quacks like a duck. For a few minutes it is very entertaining to watch the lustful dog get to work on destroying the thing. Then, in a flash, it is over before it began. Not only is the duck not squeaking anymore, but you have to pull the toy away from the drooling pit-bull before he swallows the whole thing and gets it lodged in his stomach.

Rafa's matches, while brilliant, ferocious, astounding, awe-inspiring, and mind-bogglingly impressive, are starting to remind me of this pit-bull scenario.

It is rare to see Nadal tested at Roland Garros. And by tested I am referring to facing a break point while up a break - not the types of down two-sets-and-a-break tests that his peers are regularly enduring in Paris. He has become the ultimate front runner, and typically he has all but squashed his opponent's hopes of pulling the unthinkable upset before the culmination of the first set.

Time and time again, a heralded player steps up to take a shot at the indomitable Spaniard, and time and time again he's swatted away as if he was a big fat fly trying to land on a fresh plate of pasta with sauce.

Thump! He's gone.

And all you hear is Vamos! as the crowd rises to its feet, much earlier than they had expected.

While I don't want to belittle what is so obviously a miracle the likes of which tennis has never seen (eat your heart out, Borg) and will likely never see again, I do constantly find myself frustrated that none of Rafa's so-called competition can do anything to keep him from ripping their hearts out by the end of the first set.

Does anyone else feel this way?

I do not want to be labeled as a man who doesn't appreciate what Rafa does. Refer back two paragraphs to see that I've called him a miracle - it's just that the miracle has been getting a tad bit predictable and a tad bit boring of late. He's got the rest of the men's field in his mouth and the ATP bosses are imploring him not to swallow them.

We always talk about the greatest player of all time. Federer's name usually gets associated with the term. But for my money, the greatest player of all time is Rafael Nadal on clay. There has never been and probably never will be a level of tennis that is so close to perfection.

I just wish that his matches weren't all over before they began.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Opportunity Knocks - Who Will Answer?

Stosur knocks out world No. 1 Serena Williams

Australian Sam Stosur nearly let this one slip away. Well, let me rephrase that and say that 12-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams nearly stormed back to claim what she felt was rightfully hers.

But Serena, who fought valiantly in the latter phases of the second set to finally snatch her first break of the match, was unable to capitalize on a match point and eventually fell to the hard hitting Stosur, 6-2, 6-7(2), 8-6.

Stosur's victory eliminates the last of the former Grand Slam champions from the draw, clearing the path for four semi finalists who have never ascended to such heights.

Thanks to Stosur, the consensus picks of many pundits - French Open wizard Justine Henin and career Grand Slam title leader Serena Williams - were eliminated in what has to be the finest two-match stretch of the 26-year-old Aussie's career. In defeating Henin and Serena back-to-back, Stosur is giving indication that her run to the French Open semi finals in 2009 may be just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what she can do on clay (19-2 record in 2010).

But Stosur isn't the only hero in waiting.

Just two matches from glory at Roland Garros, all four of the women's semi finalists - Stosur, Jelena Jankovic, Francesca Schiavone, and Elena Dementieva - can be buoyed by the fact that the daunting spectres of Serena and Justine are no longer in the mix.

It will now become a question of magic. Not literally of course, but figuratively, as in which player can summon the power of their desire and transform it into big points at big junctures of their upcoming matches.

Will it be Stosur, who has made such great strides on the clay since her emergence in 2009?

Will it be Jankovic, a two-time Roland Garros semi finalist who seems to have a knack for navigating the high pressure moments of big matches?

Will it be Schiavone, who has never been this far but seems to be playing as if there is air - not clay - under her feet?

Or will it be Dementieva, the soulful veteran, who has pulled at all our heartstrings so many times in the past?

It can't be all of them, but for the first time ever, it will be one of them.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Beast Within

Au revoir: Robin Soderling Stops Roger Federer's streak at 23

Today at Roland Garros, it was Deja vu all over again.

After 12 consecutive losses to Roger Federer, a defiant Robin Soderling undoubtedly understood what kind of inspired tennis he would have to play to snap the streak - and he did just that.

Just like last year, when he slayed the indomitable dragon known as Nadal, Robin Soderling has shocked the tennis world by bringing another tennis deity to his knees on Phillipe Chatrier. On a rain-soaked clay court, playing his brand of high-risk tennis to perfection, Soderling forced Roger Federer to spend the majority of the final three sets on the defensive.

Serving bombs, and launching weapons-grade groundstrokes from the baseline, Soderling quickly struck back in the second set to erase a one set deficit, before the players were forced to retreat to the locker rooms due to inclement weather.

When they returned, Soderling was still on his game. The soggy conditions, according to Soderling in his post-match interview with Brad Gilbert, gave him more time to catch up with Federer's pace. And when he did catch up, the big Swede made it count by winding up his big forehand and taking aim at the white lines.

Swinging for the fences any time he could get his feet set, the big Swede hit 49 winners to go with his 14 aces.

But Federer was never out of this match until the last ball was struck. In spite of the difficult playing conditions and the insane level of Soderling's play, Federer managed to go up a break in the fourth set with some fine play of his own.

Soderling, however, was undeterred. He snatched the momentum back by breaking immediately, then continued to launch his version of shock and awe against the legend on the other side of the court.

After securing a second break, Soderling had a chance to serve for the match against Federer, and he did not wilt.

The final game seemed to be over before it began, and Soderling was emphatically pumping his fists waiting for Federer to shake his hand at the net before the heavy reality of what had just occurred started to seep in.

Federer's streak of 23 consecutive Grand Slam semi finals is over, but Federer fans can find solace in the fact that his streak of consecutive Grand Slam quarter finals is still in tact.

Meanwhile, Soderling is the first man in 25 years to knock out the defending champion in back-to-back years (Mats Wilander knocked out Yannick Noah and Ivan Lendl in '84 and '85).

There wasn't much that anybody could have done to derail Robin Soderling today - greatest player to perhaps ever play the game, or not.

Now at 11-1 over the last two years in the French Open, Soderling will look to advance to his second straight final when he plays Tomas Berdych in the semi finals on Friday.

No matter what type of craziness ensues, Soderling has put an exclamation point next to the words that have defined his last two seasons at Roland Garros.

Last year we thought it may have been a fluke, but this year it's official. Robin Soderling is a giant killer of epic proportions.