Sunday, July 18, 2010

Why Playing Qualies is a Good Idea for Ana Ivanovic

Her celebrity hasn't suffered, but Ana's ranking continues to sink. What can the former No. 1 do to get back on track?
If you decided, after her surprisingly poor finish in 2009, to hold your breath and wait for Ana Ivanovic's return to relevancy on the WTA tour, you're turning blue as I write this. Actually, you probably turned blue when Ana got hammered and sickled by the Russians at Fed Cup—who knows if you still have a pulse anymore.

The 22-year-old Serbian's ineptitude of late has been well-documented, but as disheartening as Ivanovic's on-court struggles have been for her fans and for fans of tennis in general , there's still hope for her revival, and that hope came today in the form of a snub.

When the news came across the Twitterwire (thanks to Stephanie Myles of the Montreal Gazette) that the Rogers Cup in Montreal would not be offering Ana a wildcard (Ivanovic was the 2006 champion), I couldn't help but think that this could be the wake-up call that Ana so desperately needs.

It was Andre Agassi's visit to the challenger circuit in the mid-90's that springboarded his second run to the top of the sport, and maybe Ana needs to interrupt her jet-setting ways temporarily, in order to experience the same sort of humbling experience that Andre did.

And there are other notable examples of players pulling themselves up by the bootstraps. Former top-20 Estonian Kaia Kanepi was ranked No. 126 in early May, before winning two challengers back-to-back in France. A month and a half later, she's just finished following up a run to the Wimbledon quarterfinals with her first career tour title in Palermo, Italy.

Both Kanepi and Agassi, though with largely different temperaments and career paths, benefited from the same priceless experience: Winning.

A couple weeks without a loss would do wonders for Ivanovic, and, in her current state, there might only be one way to do that.

Ana, like Agassi and Kanepi did when they struggled mightily, would be well-served to play in a low-pressure environment where she can rack up some wins against lesser competition. Great players play instinctive tennis with an almost unconscious ease. But they only get to that level when their games are reinforced by consistent victory. It's all part of a process. A building that needs a foundation to survive.

Confidence—or lack thereof—is clearly the most glaring weakness in Ivanovic's game. Like any tennis player, she's nothing without that foundation. But how can she get it back if she keeps repeating the same pattern of losing in the early rounds of big events?

I, for one, don't think she can. At least not without a shock to her system of belief. Ivanovic needs a drastic change, and as her ranking slips dangerously close to the other side of 100, it should be clear to her and her coach Heinz Gunthardt that the sooner they can find Ana a title to take home (her last one was 2008 in Linz, Austria)—any title will do—the sooner she'll have a chance of regaining the stellar game that we once bore witness to.

Ivanovic needs to stop clinging to her past in order to start building a future. There's no shame in playing qualifiers or challengers, and if she's the fighter that we all want to believe she is, she'll respond to the challenge that the Montreal tournament director is issuing.

If she wants to play the main draw, she'll have to prove that she is good enough.

Maybe this is what she's needed all along.

Monday, July 12, 2010


A massive Serbian win propels them to their first Davis Cup semi.

Novak Djokovic has his band of merry making rackateers into the Davis Cup finals. Straight set wins over Ivan Ljubicic and Marin Cilic bounced a formidable Croatian team on its home soil (and their chosen hard court surface) in front of a shell-shocked crowd that expected much more of a fight from its own side.

Djokovic, fresh off a Wimbledon semifinal appearance, has been instrumental in his nation's success this year - he's won all four of his Davis Cup ties, and all of them have been live. Emotional wins over Querrey and Isner clinched Serbia's victory at home against the Americans in March, but this weekends clinical deconstruction of Ljubicic and Cilic, on the Croatian surface of choice, was an even more impressive feat for the 23-year-old world No. 2.

For the Serbs, it is a golden opportunity to get to the final, as they'll play the Czechs at home, and do their best to choose a surface that is suited to the dimensional game of their big horse, Novak Djokovic. The Czechs, meanwhile, won easily in Coquimbo, Chile, even without their newly anointed top-ten player Tomas Berdych or savvy Davis Cupper veteran Radek Stepanek.

Many details of the upcoming Serbia-Czech semifinal will likely remain undecided until the week before the tie, as is typically the case with Davis Cup. It's no secret that the event presents a problem for successful singles players in that it is scheduled to begin just five days after the U.S. Open final.

With Djokovic's emotional reaction to Serbia's unprecedented victory, one might wonder if the 23-year-old might be inclined to focus more on the upcoming home tie than the U.S. Open in early September.

It sounds crazy, but then again, so is Novak (and I mean that in a good way). Knowing what an amazing effect the success of the Serbian team would have on his homeland, it's probably tempting for Djokovic to want to focus on the more obtainable goal of winning two singles matches behind throngs of supporters than winning seven consecutive matches in the sometimes oppressive heat of Flushing Meadows, with the Nadal's, Federer's, and Soderling's of the world taking aim at his jugular in the later rounds.

Meanwhile, if the suddenly elite Berdych can continue on his rampage and go deep at the U.S. Open, it's probably more than likely that he'll forego the Davis Cup and instead take a well-deserved vacation after what is sure to be a long and grueling hard court season.

It's hard to imagine the Czechs having a chance against Serbia without Berdych in tow. Which is why the Davis Cup, more often than not, is a test of depth rather than starpower.


The Spaniards were the shining example of the perfect Davis Cup blueprint, and in spite of their crushing 5-0 loss at the hands of the French this weekend, they remain so.

The fact that they have been able to secure four titles in a span of ten years is a testament to just how much of a tennis world beater the Spaniards have become. And the fact that the French were able to overcome them in such dominant fashion is a testament to just how well they played this weekend. (The French are third in all-time Davis Cup titles, but haven't won since 2001.)

On a slick fast surface, against a Spanish squad that many feel was preoccupied - and rightfully so - with their countries' quest for a World Cup football title, the French executed their gameplan to perfection. Gael Monfils, who has been lambasted by French Captian Guy Forget in the press as recently as last year, came up with just enough of that "je ne sais quoi" to overcome David Ferrer in five sets.

But the big surprise was yet to come. 30-year-old Michael Llodra produced enough sparkling serves and volleys to give Fernando Verdasco fits. Then he produced some more. And some more. The Frenchman, who is now 2-1 against Verdasco (with both wins coming indoors), came back from a one set deficit and squeezed Verdasco until he just couldn't take it anymore, extending the French lead to 2-0, with a 6-7(5), 6-4, 6-3, 7-6(2) upset.

The following day, the doubles didn't provide the venerable Spanish squad with much of a reprieve. Llodra and Bennetau were forced to a fourth set by Lopez and Verdasco, but in the end they simply had too much of the good stuff for the football-crazed Spaniards to overcome.

The first win for France over Spain since 1923 came on the same day that Spain won its first-ever football World Cup. If it was a Faustian deal for Albert Costa's squad, it still had to sting that they were so thoroughly dominated by the French.

Click here for the results of all four ties.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Gold Standard

Rafael Nadal, chewing them up and spitting them out, captures his second Wimbledon-French double in three years.
Exhibiting the alacrity of a luxury timepiece, Rafael Nadal stole the swagger of yet another opponent en route to his second Wimbledon crown—his eighth Grand Slam title—in front of a packed Centre Court crowd today.

The 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 victory was another virtuoso performance for the 24-year-old, and it caps off a very challenging fortnight that saw him facing elimination twice in the first three rounds against hard-charging opponents who seemed to be destined for short-term glory.

In the end, all seven of his opponents were sent packing—destiny can only favor one man per tournament, and it was Rafa's turn once again this Wimbledon.

Many of the Spaniard's matches during the fortnight were close, and a few were too close for comfort, but always it was Nadal who produced the thrilling shot or the clutch serve when the pressure was thickest. Like a thief in the night, Nadal displayed the uncanny ability to swoop in with menacing verve to take control of his matches at key junctures.

Today's straight set thrashing of first-time finalist Tomas Berdych was no exception. Each set provided the young Czech with a bucket of hope, as the players were deadlocked for the first six games of the first set, the first ten games of the second, and the first eight of the third, but each time Nadal punched a hole in Berdych's bucket, and all the hope drained out as the set concluded with yet another crucial Nadal break.

Nadal was so good, and so versatile, that it's hard to say that one shot made the difference. He attacked relentlessly and defended like a mother Grizzly defends her newborn cubs. He returned like a guru, and served perhaps better than he ever has. There was no weakness, no fatal flaw, and no mental lapses in the game of the swashbuckling Spaniard.

Wrap all of that up and add in that inexplicable sixth sense that Nadal possesses, and you've got a recipe for a cold shower and a plane ride home for the rest of the field. Close, but no cigar. Thank you, come again.

"I think the biggest difference between us was that when he get a chance, he just took it," said Tomas Berdych, who was trying to become the first Czech player to win Wimbledon since 1973. "That just shows how strong he is. I think it was just really about the small difference."

Nadal, in addition to redefining the modern baseline game, has evolved into a cunning strategist with a keen sense of how to create and maintain momentum during the course of a match. He was four-all 30-all in the first set of his semifinal match against Andy Murray, when he made the return of the match which forced Murray to hit a short ball that he then hammered for a winner. He converted on his first break point immediately thereafter and consolidated the break with a hold and a one set lead that he would never relinquish.

That's how it goes when you play Nadal. One minute your laying in the sun, and the next your jugular vein is spurting blood prodigiously. One minute your counting out ten paces and the next your lying wounded on the ground.

It is small sequences like this, or 'matches within matches', that set Nadal apart from virtually everyone else in the sport. The Spaniard perpetually plays high-intensity tennis, but during these definitive moments he digs deeper to find another gear, and ratchets his focus to a shaman-like level.

It was a fantastic effort for Berdych, who surprised everyone by following up on his French Open semifinal appearance with huge wins over Federer in the quarterfinals and Djokovic in the semis. To see him evolving into a big match player with a mental game to match his lethal shotmaking arsenal was a joy for all to see.

But his chances to win the tournament might have ended when both Robin Haase and PhilippPetzschner failed to capitalize on their chances to bounce Rafa from the draw in the second and third rounds, respectively.

As Nadal's confidence grew with those successive comebacks, the chances of anybody else getting near that trophy were about as likely as Suzanne Lenglen coming back from the dead to beat Serena Williams in the women's final.

Not very likely, in other words.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Supreme Serena

Serena Williams is steadily marching into and beyond greatness, and everybody else is getting out of her way.
During an unpredictable two weeks on the women's side at Wimbledon, one giant ocean of belief washed through the whole fortnight, sweeping up everything that drifted in its wake. That ocean was Serena.

It's reasonable to believe that Vera Zvonareva would have played the match of her life today against Serena Williams in the Wimbledon final—if only Serena would have let her.

We know now that it wasn't meant to be.

Zvonareva, match of her life or not, was heading quickly into oblivion.

Today was going to be Serena's day and that was probably made clear in her mind about 15 minutes after she was eliminated from the French Open. First you imagine it, then you do it. For some it sounds like a Nike commercial, but for Serena, the idealistic mantra seems to resonate.

Her 13th Grand Slam title (against a paltry 3 losses in finals) was a convincing and at times awe-inspiring display of grass court tennis that brought back memories of the Navratilova years. Strength, power, desire, and clinical strokes; Physical and mental supremacy.

Serena's ferocious attack, high risk yet effected with pinpoint precision, was in full effect against Zvonareva today. 29 winners and 15 unforced errors (against 9 winners and 11 unforced errors by Zvonareva), made the straight set victory feel quite breezy. It was so clinical that the normally tempestuous Russian hardly had time to get angry with herself.

After 67 minutes, Serena was throwing her racquet up above her head and waving to her entourage with a well-deserved ear-to-ear grin on her face. Zvonareva’s first chance for a Grand Slam title had come and gone before she really knew what had hit her.

Serena's triumph was smash mouth tennis at its finest. It was the indelible ink stamp of a woman approaching physical nirvana on a 29' x 78' grass canvas. It was the exclamation point at the end of her opponent's death sentence. A veritable tour de force was Serena, a rambling rose bush full of prickly thorns that cut.

Say what you will about her, but if you say that Serena isn't the player of the 21st century thus far you're going to be facing an uphill battle when asked for proof of your claim.

Could she reach 18 Grand Slams? 22? It's a lot to ask, but one truth about Serena remains a constant: Her desire to win is gargantuan, and it eclipses that of anyone else on the tour. Her will to win alone could make the tennis Hall of Fame—add to that her ballistic game—89 aces while surrendering only 3 service breaks for the fortnight—and you've got a shoe-in.

It's as if she has burst out of some comic book or big budget sci-fi movie: She's a cross between a truck with a souped-up engine and a streamlined Lamborghini with racing stripes. She can run through you, over you, around you, and she can also outlast you.

Just what universe is Serena playing in anyway? How is it that she can consistently shine in matches of importance? And where will she go from here?

"I don't know where it rates," Serena said, when asked how her straight set win over Zvonareva compared to other Grand Slam titles. "I mean, to have four Wimbledons is really, really exciting."

There are only 5 other women who have outdone Williams' Grand Slam pedigree, and when it comes to strictly serving, many consider Serena to be peerless.

"I've never served like this," said Serena, who faced a measly 10 break points, and erased all but 3 of them, in the tournament.

Her opponent concurred. "She can hit flat and she can use what is very effective on the grass, a slice serve wide where it's very difficult to return," said Zvonareva. "You can cover one side, but then she can go flat very hard the other side," she added. "I think I made a mistake today. I stepped back, and I should have been more aggressive on her second serve."

Unfortunately, for each of Serena's seven Wimbledon victims, hindsight is 20-20.

Serena was simply too good, and that's the story that should go to print.

Those who covet her crown will either have to wait until she loses interest or undergo the type of metamorphosis that one day might make Serena obsolete.

Neither appear likely to happen in the short term.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Power and Poise

Berdych: Strong, smooth, and in the groove. It's been a long wait, but the young Czech is finally fulfilling his promise.

It took Tomas Berdych twenty-seven Grand Slams to make his first semifinal appearance. During that seven year span the 6'5" Czech was eliminated from Slam contention sixteen times (wow, really?) in straight sets. His fortitude was brought into question, time and time again.

For twenty-six consecutive Grand Slam appearances, we had our answer. Berdych was blessed with the rarest combination of physical size and athletic prowess. He ranks right up there with Juan Martin del Potro in terms of big man quickness and fluidity, but unlike the Argentine he's always seemed to be missing that hard-to-describe sixth sense that lives between the ears of every Grand Slam champion.

Berdych was missing something, that we could all see. Was it desire? Was it intelligence? Was it confidence? We've all wondered, and we've all thrown up our hands in disbelief at Berdych's surprising inability to climb higher in the rankings and to go deeper in the slams.

How could a force of nature like the chiseled Czech not wiggle his way into the ATP's top ten when other similarly sculpted players were moving full speed ahead into the upper echelons of the sport? Had Berdych not gotten the memo that he was the archetypal modern tennis player - a daunting specimen and the perfect quick-strike artist who possessed the ability to dominate with his serve and his forehand, along with the ability to outrun and outdefend his opponents from the baseline if the need arose?

Evidently, he gets it now. After a surprise trip to the French Open semifinals, where he was beaten in five sets by Robin Soderling, Berdych has finally started to show an affinity for the business end of Slams - evidently he likes it. After meticulously defeating Serbian Novak Djokovic in straight sets today, the Berdman is getting ready to take a shot at Rafael Nadal in his first-ever Grand Slam final.

"He's found another gear, he's competing harder, and he wants it more," said John McEnroe, who knows a thing or two about the heart of a champion as a seven-time Grand Slam champion. "Ever since he beat Federer in the Olympics we said, 'okay, this guy's gonna win slams,' and now, here we are...better late than never."

Now, maybe the same trait that we tended to see as indifference or a lack of desire in Berdych in the past is actually helping him navigate these tense matches: His evenness. Berdych calmly rallied when facing set points against Djokovic in the second set today, holding the fort with big serving and his stunning forehand, until the Serb finally melted down, double faulting to hand Berdych the set.

The more we see of Berdych in these big matches, the easier it is to understand his success. He's incredibly strong, yes, but he's also quite graceful for a big man. His monstrous forehand is hit with relative ease, and his footwork enables him to put his smooth effortless swing on pretty much everything that comes over to his side of the court. He's also developed a really good sense of when to come in behind a forehand and he's doing good things with his volley when he does.

If his impressive defeats of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in the last two rounds are any indication, Tomas Berdych is moving into another phase of his career. With each big victory, his sense of belief will grow, and with each additional surge of belief, he'll no doubt be even tougher to defeat.

He'll need every modicum of belief he can get, as he is set to face Rafael Nadal in Sunday's final. He's lost six consecutive matches against the 2008 Wimbledon champ, and the Spaniard will likely put him under more pressure than he has dealt with all tournament long.

Berdych has the game to win over Nadal, and he is growing the belief.

But that one piercing question still remains: Does he have the heart?