Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Style points: Give Them All to Lamonf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Looking Back: Taylor Dent's Magic Moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 8, 2010

Fed Cup: What did we learn?

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

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

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

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

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

Predictably, Vandeweghe lost both matches without grabbing a set.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 5, 2010

Searching for Stability

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

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

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

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

Now this.

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

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

Confidence is key

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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