Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Growing Pains: Wozniacki Looks to Conquer Her Youth

19-year-old Caroline Wozniacki was maligned after her loss in the Indian Wells final to Jelena Jankovic. Perhaps her detractors are failing to give her credit where credit is due?

Now that she is ranked No. 2 in the world, ahead of such juggernauts as Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Venus Williams, and Elena Dementieva, there have been rumblings on the twitter wires and in the press regarding Caroline Wozniacki's place in the WTA's pecking order.

We ask: Is she really the world's second best player? Or will she soon be revealed to be an impostor, a bubbly and lovable flash in the piping hot frying pan known as the WTA's top ten?

Like Dinara Safina in 2009, questions regarding Wozniacki's legitimacy as a top tier player will ultimately be answered on the court, across the net from such proven legends as her opponent in the Sony Ericsson Open quarterfinals, Justine Henin.

As Wozniacki found herself toe-to-toe in a tense struggle with Henin beneath the ethereal Miami sun today, we had the chance to see for ourselves what the vivacious up-and-comer could bring to the table in a big match. A battle with Henin would no doubt be an excellent litmus test for a young player who entered the match with a 1-19 record against former and current No. 1 ranked players.

As the first set of the match progressed, positive elements of Wozniacki's game started to shine — the ability to routinely scorch the backhand, the surprisingly deft footwork, the penchant for counter punching, and an ability to maintain a very even keel during what turned out to be a very tense and see-sawish set of tennis.

Things were looking good for No. 2 at the onset, but deficiencies would later surface: Her consistency wavered in the second and third sets, and when she was no longer able to rely on a steady spattering of unforced errors from Henin, Wozniacki couldn't find ways to generate enough of an aggressive attack to keep Justine at bay.

This very fact was talked about at length by Lindsay Davenport, who was calling the match for Fox Sports. She mentioned that Grand-Slam winners don't get to the holy grail without possessing an aggressive first-strike nature. Does Wozniacki have that, she wondered? As the match wore on, and Henin took control, it didn't seem so.

Furthermore, when Wozniacki did attempt to hit out - either going for the lines or attempting wider angles or more pace - she made significantly more errors.

Things got turned around quickly, in spite of a quad injury that Henin sought treatment for early in the second set, and Wozniacki found herself desperately in need of a break to find a way to get back on serve in the third set.

With relatively little big match experience — compared to Henin's previous exploits — Wozniacki looked disconcerted and out -of-sync as the match headed towards its conclusion.

Before Sunshine could mount one last surge, Henin had magnificently served out the deciding game to love.

Wozniacki, meanwhile, was left to ponder what might have been, and what needs to be done.

Meanwhile, clay season awaits, and there are worse things in life than being no. 2 in the world.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Federer Moments

*Note to self: When suffering from tennis writer's block, remember that there is always the Swiss Maestro to write about.

Roger Federer is unfathomable. While other so-called geniuses — most of whom are several years younger — struggle mightily to achieve even one sixteenth of his success, Federer remains the big bird on top of the lighpost of tennis.

It’s amazing, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t find times like these to worship at the altar of Federer. I am watching the early parts of the 2nd set of his third-round match against Frenchman Florent Serra as I write. Federer leads by one set, and he has just played the prettiest point of the match. It was awe inspiring. Other superlatives come to mind — many of them adjectives. Things like “free-flowing,” “effortless,” and “sublime.”

The pretty shot that I am referring to occurred in the first set of the match, when the Swiss Maestro (compared by Justin Gimelstob during the Fox broadcast to “Einstein or Beethoven — Who else is smart like that?") delicately scooped a half-volley backhand from the right sideline and angled it across the court at a highly improbable angle. There was no margin for error whatsoever on the shot, and yet Federer acted — and executed — like there was nothing out of the ordinary about it at all. He was loose and relaxed, and it was poetic to watch.

Serra, in a moments notice, had gone from in control of the point (a crucial one, during the tiebreaker) to desperately trying to get a racquet on the ball.

We tend to call it genius, and we don‘t use the term lightly. Federer can just do those things on the court (today it’s Miami, on the purple courts of the Crandon Park Tennis Center in Key Biscayne, Florida) that make you mystified.

The pretty Federer half-volley that turned Serra around was a perfect reminder of the mystifying arsenal of shots that the worlds No. 1 possesses. Executed with minimal energy expended — nothing more than a transitional knee bend and a very gentle flick of the wrist — the shot was improbably angled, improbably low, and improbably effective.

Serra, to his credit, angled Federer’s shot neatly crosscourt - it landed near the sideline at the service line - forcing Federer to reply.

Of course, Federer did. His second flick of the wrist was an even gentler stroke of his brush. He scooped the ball - carving swiftly underneath it - and placed it far away from Serra's racquet.

The first set soon ended and I was left wondering: How can he be so gentle out there amidst all that chaos? It remains mystifying, even though the 16 time Grand-Slam champion has held the No. 1 ranking for 276 weeks now (ten behind Pete Sampras for all-time best).

How can he be so nasty and so sweet at the same time?

Even as he admittedly struggled with the wind and a testy Serra (who Federer claimed he could not get a good read on), there were more than enough moments where the only thing you could do was roll your eyes to the back of your head and wonder “how the hell did he think of that, let alone execute it?”

I guess we'll never really know, but we should be glad to contemplate it anyway.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Slippery Slope

As the rain falls in Miami, and the Sony Ericsson Open goes temporarily into a holding pattern, we turn our thoughts to harsh realities.

Wayne Odesnik, an American ranked inside the ATP's top 100 is in trouble for attempting to smuggle HGH into Australia, and we're left to wonder if this is an isolated incident - a one-off - or is it a symptom of a larger issue? Most would like to believe that this incident is a weed that can be plucked from the ground and tossed into the rubbish pile - but always there's the fear, not only of there being a problem in the sport, but also the fear of having to live through the media backlash that a scandal would inspire.

It was ugly with baseball (so many lies!), and it darn near jaded us for life. And the backlash still hasn' t stopped.

Why is it even important? you might wonder. Just because some challenger-level lefty attempted to bring eight vials of the substance into Australia (a reported total of 48 mg), do we now have to flood the media with witch hunts, slander parties, and teary-eyed congressional hearings?

Do we have to look at photoshopped versions of Nadal's biceps and try to infer their legitimacy?

Who will be next to come out? And who will be next after that? Your eight-year-old took what before his first final in what tournament?

Personally I must admit, I never wanted to write a column about drugs in tennis. I don't want to be that type-a journalist who busts into laboratories and analyzes drug samples himself. I'm not even all that upset about drugs in sports anymore, because I've seen so damn much of it. And I sure as hell am not going to stop loving tennis - or stop being mesmerized by the professional game - any time soon.

That being said, I did want to write a column about remembering how much you love tennis, and resisting the temptation to become jaded based on the actions of a very small sliver of participants of the sport.

I'm not going to lump everyone into Odesnik's tumbrel just yet. It would take too much energy and all we have here is an aberration as far as we can tell. I'm more inclined to stay glued to the action on the court. There's a boatload of brilliant tennis being played this week. I'd rather observe the progression of the draw in Miami, and then turn my attentions over to the European Clay.

Let the WADA's of the world do their thing, and let them also continue to strive to do it better and more efficiently. Let the powers that be in the sport question the status quo and work collectively to ensure a higher standard throughout the sport. And let them avoid turning a blind eye on real infractions with real implications.

And while they are doing that, I've got tennis to watch. And stories of grandeur in competition to write.

I think we can all agree that all parties involved want the sport to be clean. And I think we can all agree that if every athlete was confident that a) others weren't doing the drugs and that b) they would almost certainly get caught with the drugs if they tried to use them, then we would have a sport that was clean for all intents and purposes.

But here is my caveat on that last paragraph: Folks, it is 2010! - to imagine a professional sport without some temptation and resultant use and abuse of ped's (performing enhancing drugs) is basically ludicrous. Some element can and will attempt to exist. Wayne Odesnik and others have given proof to that. That being said, it isn't time, nor will it ever be time, to stop loving the sport, the athletes who play it at this mind-boggling level, and even the harsh realities that exist around the sport.

Rather than focusing on our anger, let's focus on creating an environment that tests players - not invasively, but effectively. Let's ensure that there are no loopholes in the system, and that everybody is treated the same. Let's look closely at testing procedures, methodology, and also rehabilitation.

If history is any indicator, Wayne Odesnik won't be the last Professional tennis player to get busted for ped's. Let's be realistic. It's a slippery slope, given the chemically endowed world that we currently inhabit.

But that's no reason to get all preachy and vindictive here. I've always thought Odesnik was a gritty player who was really fun to watch. I liked him on the clay. Just because he's in trouble doesn't mean it's time to throw him under the bus.

I wish him the best.

I'm confused by his actions.

And it's raining in Miami.

What next?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Learning to Crawl

While some of the more experienced players on tour were learning to swim (with dolphins might I add), other younger less proven commodities were trying to take their first baby steps in Miami yesterday.

There was much talk about the young Bollettieri protege, Filip Krajinovic of Serbia, who at the tender age of 18 pushed veteran James Blake to a third set. I've heard Mr. Bollettieri speak highly of Krajinovic, mentioning him along with Jordan Cox and Ryan Harrison as some of the young guns who could soon become big names on the ATP tour. Blake himself was impressed with the Bradenton resident, who is 13 years younger than him. "From what I saw tonight he's got a lot of talent, moves great, very solid, and a weapon in the backhand," he told the press, post-match.

The twitter wires were also jumping with comments about Krajinovic. Bonnie Ford of ESPN tweeted "Blake pushed hard by 18-year-old Serb Filip Krajinovic. Krajinovic, who trains at IMG Academy, has major game."

Mr. Bollettieri himself chimed in, saying "So proud of Filip Krajinovic and his performance at the Sony Ericsson Open. He's without a doubt one of the best up and coming players."

It was a close call yesterday, as Krajinovic had two break opportunities in each of the closely contested 2nd and 3rd sets, but couldn't convert a single one.

Baby steps.

Heather Watson, who is also learning to crawl at IMG, also got a taste of the brand of tennis that is played on the senior circuit. Watson, last years U.S. Open Junior champion, and only 17 years of age, was dispatched by the Bulgarian No. 1 Tsvetana Pironkova, in straight sets. It was Watson's first career match at this level, and regardless of the outcome the Guernsey, England (actually Guernsey is an island that is closer to France than it is to England) native, can at least depart with the knowledge of what it feels like to compete in a prestigious event such as the Sony Ericsson Open. Maybe she'll even be spitting mad about how short her stay was and come back next year with a vengeance (best case scenario but entirely possible).

Ryan Harrison, another baby stepper who has been cutting his teeth on the ATP tour this year after playing like a madman on the challenger circuit last summer, was also ousted yesterday. Harrison, still only 17 like Watson and fresh off his first ATP win of the season against Taylor Dent last week at Indian Wells, couldn't muster another surprise effort here in Key Biscane. He was handled routinely by a far more experienced player, the crafty Michael Llodra of France, who won 25 of 28 first service points en route to a 6-2, 6-2 educational (hopefully) thrashing.

Regardless of the outcome of their first round matches, Krajinovic, Watson, and Harrison, are all great young talents with oodles of upside. They're all gunning for glory, and getting a lot of help in the forms of coaching expertise and sponsorships along the way. Hopefully, there will come a day when we read about these three not because they showed up or almost won, but because they're reaching magnificent heights.

As good as their careers have been up until now, each would be smart to take their first round loss as a warning - if they don't remain hell bent on improving their games the media, their fans, and even their coaches will find that "almost" no longer cuts the mustard. I hate to be a realist here, but we are talking about serious dog-eat-doggishness that exists on the WTA and ATP tours - you either find a way to win some matches or you contemplate the next phase of your life.

Hopefully, if they can maintain their sense of purpose and lust for the sport amidst all the media hype and fan adulation, Krajinovic, Harrison, and Watson will each find a way to gain some traction on the tour.

Yesterday in Key Biscane might have been another small step for each in what may someday be a larger more definitive body of work.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Precision Bombing

Robin Soderling has always had a lethal game - now he's getting the results to match.

- Indian Wells, Ca.

I had suspected it. I had seen it on television. I have watched him climb the rankings of late. But after seeing him live, I've got a whole new appreciation for it.

The "it" I am talking about is the newest Swedish tennis sensation named Robin Soderling. The 6'4" 25-year-old has come a long way in a short time. Chronically labeled as an underachiever and a hothead, it turns out that Soderling may be none of those things that we thought he was and everything that we thought he could be.

Tennis is a puzzling sport at times, where yesterdays under achiever can quickly become today's late bloomer with a very legitimate shot at a Grand-Slam. Boris Becker came of age on the Wimbledon grass at the age of 17. For Soderling, the journey has been a more arduous one, but there is clear evidence now that he is also coming of age.

While Soderling was always a threat - he cracked the top-30 midway through 2006 - he was also unsure of just how to get the most out of his abilities. He lingered for a while there and raised a few eyebrows, then dropped down in the rankings again. While blessed with rare and impressive power, and surprisingly good speed for a man his size, the Timo, Sweden native struggled to stay in the top-30, in spite of his "top-10" game.

We didn't know it then, and we wouldn't know it until three years later, but the missing ingredient for Soderling wasn't in his game - it was in his head. He lacked the type of belief that would enable him to play the free-swinging in-your-face type of tennis that comes natural to him. The Soderling of days past played inhibited, doubtful tennis at times - and it showed in his ranking.

But that all changed last May. When Soderling abruptly ended the King of Clay's rein of terror over Roland Garros, it opened up a tunnel for Soderling. For years he had been chipping away, building his game, beefing up his serve, ground strokes, and footwork - but always he did so with a fatalistic sense of undisciplined agony.

When he conquered Rafael Nadal in a match that will forever be remembered as one of the greatest upsets of all time, a light suddenly appeared at the end of the tunnel. From that day on Soderling has never been the same. He's an engine of belief now. And the belief begets the bombs.

As I watched Soderling destruct Spaniard Felicano Lopez on Tuesday at Indian Wells, I was struck by a burgeoning sense of just how excellent Soderling is. Notice how I didn't say "how excellent he can be." Soderling is no longer a "what-if" type of player. He's a bona fide "watch-out-for-him" type of player, and Grand-Slam success could be the surprise that comes next.

Soderling's service game has developed into one of the best on tour. Not only is he able to generate 130-mph plus velocity, but he's also intelligent when he serves. He's got the sense to mix in varying degrees of slice, location, and velocity to keep his opponents perpetually off balance. Against Feliciano Lopez he offered up several serves with less pace and more spin on the first serve, much in the same way that a top line pitcher would throw his change up early in the count.

From the baseline he is equally nasty. A short ball against Soderling is a death wish. And the burly Swede is exceptional at gaining control of baseline rallies by using his forehand to put an opponent on the run. When you watch him play live, it is easy to see why he is so difficult to play against. His aggressive style puts him in control of so many points and that allows him to essentially take his foe out of the match. Additionally, his foot speed and movement are much better than he is given credit for.

When he's on, playing the type of tennis he was built to play, and believing that he can win, Soderling is a threat to beat any player on any stage. It's taken him 9 years since turning pro in 2001, but this late bloomer has finally come of age.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Lions and Lambs

For Justine Henin and Svetlana Kuznetsova, March came in like a lamb. It's not the way things are supposed to go, but they'll both have a chance to regroup and try to play the lion in Miami.

Meanwhile, there are many lion wanna-be's licking their chops as they survey the Williams-less desert landscape of one of the biggest non-Grand-Slam tournaments on the calendar.

Kim Clijsters is the first name that comes to mind. She's worked her way back to a respectable No. 17 in the WTA rankings, but she's eager to get the taste of winning back in her mouth after the colossal thrashing that she suffered at the hands of Nadia Petrova in the 3rd round of the Australian Open.

While it's not imperative that Clijsters gets sparkling results every time out, these next two weeks would be a nice time for her to step up and rebuild some of the momentum she lost in Melbourne. She's been remarkably good at Indian Wells, having won 15 consecutive matches at dating back to 2003, but the four-time Indian Wells finalist will have to keep her claws sharp because the environment - as proved by Henin and Kuznetova's early disasters - is ripe for a shocker.

Additionally, while so much of the attention - and rightfully so - gets focused on the born-again Belgians, there are still a pair of young guns who are no doubt eager to prove that they belong at the top of the food chain at the WTA's premier level events.

Those are Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka, the number two and three seeds respectively. Azararenka is hot - she's only suffered losses at the hands of Serena, Venus, and Elena Dementieva this season, and she hasn't suffered an early loss in any of the three tournaments she's played in (qf's or better at Brisbane, Australia, and Dubai).The Belarusian is looking at a very intriguing match up with the "other Belgian" Yanina Wickmayer, in the 4th round. I won't prognosticate further but I will say that that match will be a good litmus test for both players (and I'm dying to see it).

Wozniacki, meanwhile, hasn't been past the round of 16 this season, with two losses to Na Li and one to Shahar Peer. I'm not one for saying it's time to panic - and clearly it isn't for Sunshine - but a run deep in the draw might be just what the doctor ordered for the 19-year-old Dane.

Whew. There really is a lot going on here. Keep in mind I've only reached the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the scenarios that may play out over the next week in the desert. Sharapova fought valiantly to overcome country mate Vera Dushevina and will next take on Australian Open semifinalist and brand new top-tenner Jie Zheng. Delena Dementieva is no doubt happy to see that Justine Henin made an early departure from her half of the draw, but she'll need to play one match at the time or she'll quickly become the hunted rather than the hunter.

And speaking of Russians, let's not forget Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (a semifinalist last year) and Alisa Kleybanova, both of whom snagged their first-ever WTA titles last month, and both of whom are knocking on the door of the top-20. And there is also last years champion Vera Zvonareva, who has been very consistent under the tutelage of Antonio Van Grichen this season.

Have I left anyone out? Of course I have. There are lions and lambs all over this draw. I've said it before and I'll say it again: the only safe bet is not to bet.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Harrison on the Rise

The only 17-olds to ever win a match at Indian Wells are Rafael Nadal, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, and Michael Chang. Add Ryan Harrison to that list, after his 6-3, 6-4 victory over Taylor Dent last night.

Yesterdays victory was bitersweet for 17-year-old American Ryan Harrison, as he had to dash the hopes of his friend, practice partner, sometimes doubles partner, and mentor, Taylor Dent in order to secure safe passage into the second round. But when you're 0-4 in ATP events on the year, a win is a win is a win.

While it is disappointing to see Taylor Dent sent packing so early in the tournament, the win is a nice milestone for Harrison, who become the eighth player 17 or younger to compete in the Indian Wells main draw. Now, as he prepares for a 2nd round tilt against veteran Croatian Ivan Ljubicic, excitement is starting to build around the young Bollettieri protege.

Brad Gilbert tweeted the following: "Harrison pulls off the upset. I think he can do it back to back with a good chance to beat Lubo in the 2nd round. Nice to see new talent." He added: "American tennis is looking bright with teen talent: Sloane Stephens & Ryan Harrison."

You can get more info on Nick Bollettieri's IMG website. The legendary Bollettieri has spent a lot of time with Ryan and his younger brother Christian over the past few years.

Ryan was previously known for being one of three 15-year-olds to win an ATP level match this decade, along with Rafa Nadal and Richard Gasquet, but if he can manage a few more wins like last night, the No. 284 ranked Shreveport, Lousiana native will have more than just his age to boast about.

Getting his first win of the season is a great accomplishment for Harrison. He's done well in challengers, going on a hot streak late last summer that took him through 13 consecutive matches and 2 futures titles before he finally lost in the Sacramento challenger to fellow American Jesse Levine.

Thus far this season he has qualified for the Australian Open (lost to Tipsarevic), Memphis (lost to Isner), Delray Beach (lost to Gulbis), and drawn wildcards into San Jose (lost to Istomin) and Indian Wells.

Tomorrow, when he faces Ljubicic, he'll undoubtedly have a lot more on his plate strategically. From playing with Taylor Dent so regularly, there's no doubt that Harrison knew what to expect last night.

His next challenge will be knowing what to expect even when he hasn't seen it before.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Indian Wells - 10 things to Watch For in the Desert

With its glorious setting and star-studded draws, Indian Wells, set in the idyllic Coachella Valley adjacent to Palm Springs, is officially underway.

The Indian Wells tennis garden, a sprawling complex (55-acre tennis and entertainment facility) nestled in amongst the gorgeous Santa Rosa Mountains, is more than inspiring, and tennis players consider this one of the "special events" on the calendar.

It has been a while since the Australian Open, so I'll take some time to fill you in on what I perceive to be the compelling stories of this year's event.

1. She's Back (part 3): Justine Henin, that dazzling display of artistry, tennis intellect, and intensity is playing in only her third tournament since her return from a self-imposed sabbatical. At Indian Wells, queen Justine has found herself in a much more favorable spot in the draw. Many of you remember the "quarter of death," that featured the likes of Dementieva, Clijsters, and Kuznetsova in Australia. Justine was able to survive that trying affair, so I'd say she's got good odds (ok, great) to be a semifinalist here, as the stiffest competition in her quarter may come from Aggie Radwanska.

2. Rafa and Roger: With so many battered and bruised players on the ATP tour, we should consider ourselves very lucky to have both Federer and Nadal healthy enough to compete in the same draw again. It was a close call for both, as Roger has been dealing with a lung infection and Rafa has been trying to get his ailing legs healthy enough to go.

Del Potro and Gonzalez, unfortunately, were not able to compete, and the health of Nikolay Davydenko (wrist), Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (ankle), Robin Soderling (elbow), has not been exactly perfect of late, especially with the season being so young.

3. Young Americans: John Isner and Sam Querrey are heading for another smashup knock down drag out battle in the third round, with the winner possibly advancing to face Nadal in the 4th round. Ryan Harrison is preparing for his first Indian Wells main draw appearance against his doubles partner from Delray Beach, Taylor Dent.

4. Gulbis on fire: Latvian Ernests Gulbis is coming off his sizzling title run at Delray beach (his first), and he'll be thrown right back into the fire, as he faces pugnacious Marco Chuidinelli of Switzerland for the right to engage in a 2nd round encounter with Nikolay Davydenko.

5. Chasing the Woodies: The Bryan Brothers are just three titles from catching the Woodies all time record of 61 doubles titles. This will be a great story to watch throughout the year, as they finally got over the hump against their 2009 nemesis, Zimonjic and Nester, with a huge Australian Open title. Look for another rematch between these two incredible doubles teams on championship weekend.

6. The up-and-comer, Marin Cilic: Is there anyone out there who doesn't think that Marin Cilic is destined for greatness? The calm, cool, and collected Croatian took a giant step forward in notching his first Grand-Slam semifinal appearance in Australia, and he's a pretty good bet to do some more damage this season. The 21-year-old has the game and the mindset to become a major player in the top ten.

7. Carlos Moya and David Nalbandian: Moya has been struggling this season in his quest to get to 600 ATP level wins, while Nalbandian seems to be regaining his form after a huge performance in Argentina's Davis Cup victory over Sweden.

8. Victoria Azarenka: Can she build on her near upset of Serena Williams in Australia, or will it be a blow to her confidence going forward? Inquiring minds would like to know.

9. Sleepers and Creepers: I've got a feeling that somebody is going to come from left field and steal the show this year. Last year, very few of us were expecting that Vera Zvonareva would snag the title - who will it be this year?

Some possible ideas: Juan Carlos Ferrero (he has been red hot on the clay, can he do it on the hard court). Melanie Oudin (why the heck not?) Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (her best sucess prior to her title last week was her semifinal appearance at Indian Wells last year). John Isner (he's becoming a real force right before our very eyes). Yanina Wickmayer (who doesn't believe that she is still a player on the rise?). Marcos Baghdatis (there must be a reason that everybody is pencilling in his possible 3rd round encounter with Federer as must-see tennis).

10. The Hit for Haiti: Agassi, Sampras, Federer, Nadal, Graf, Navratilova, Davenport, and Henin is all I really need to say about Friday nights encore to the wildly successful event that took place impromptu in Australia.

Stay tuned for more!

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Good Loss?

In spite of a disappointing loss at the hands of the Serbians that now relegates the U.S. into a World Group Playoff tie in September (for the first time since 2005), there is much to be hopeful about for the Americans. Over the past 12 months it has become clear that John Isner and Sam Querrey are on the rise. With very few Americans even sniffing the top-100 at the moment, there has been considerable pressure on the two tall Americans to "be the guys," and neither appears eager to disappoint.

While Isner and Querrey's collective rise in the ATP rankings hasn't exactly been meteoric, there have been periods of rapid growth followed by plateaus that have left each player with reason to believe that they can become a card carrying member of the ATP's top ten, perhaps even as soon as this fall.

A necessary stop in this maturation process occurred over the weekend in Serbia, and even though the Americans were not up to the daunting task of upending the Serbians on their surface of choice (the red clay that is about as foreign to Americans as a cricket bat), the two got an idea of the kind of inspired effort it is going to take to continue to improve.

Isner, who was ranked outside the top-100 as recently as last June, will be the first to admit that it isn't always going to be easy. In uncharacteristically failing to hold serve while serving for the first set in Fridays first rubber, the 6'9" North Carolinian handed Viktor Troicki a lifeline that he would never relinquish. Ultimately it was the turning point in the tie, and the Americans were left trying to dig themselves out of a deep clay hole for the remainder of the weekend.

"If I win that first set, it changes the complexion of the match...It's not often I get broken trying to serve out a set, but I just didn't make enough first serves," said a disappointed yet determined to never let it happen again Isner.

By letting his chances to win the first match slip away, Isner will undoubtedly regret what transpired. If he's as hungry as he appears to be, he won't blame it on the clay, or on the Serbian's inspired play. He'll point the finger at himself, because truthfully, if there was any chance for the Americans to pull the stunner in Serbia this weekend, it hinged upon Isner backing up his ranking and rising to the occasion against Troicki in a match that he definitely could have won.

We Americans (those of us that had the nerve to be mad) had already forgiven Isner by the time he had sealed their inspiring doubles match, alongside Bob Bryan, in what was perhaps the most thrilling affair of the tie.

Not to be overlooked was the more than impressive clay court tennis that Isner and Querrey played this weekend. Many feared that the tie wouldn't be this close, and the end results were actually quite satisfying given the circumstances. The fact of the matter is that the U.S. is forced to force square pegs into round holes when it comes to playing on clay (another story for another time), and both Isner and Querrey performed quite admirably, particularly in the matches against Djokovic, who is a world-class clay court player, and a big match connoisseur, to say the least.

If there is such a good thing as a good loss, this was the one. Isner got his first taste of Davis Cup, and Querrey got his first win. While the U.S. isn't the world beating squad that it once was, surely this weekend could mark the beginning of something to build on. With the Bryan Brothers still in peak form, Andy Roddick ready to offer his services (and more importantly, his leadership), and Patrick McEnroe's passion and desire to avail Isner and Querrey the resources that they need to improve, the future does indeed look brighter (especially if the U.S. gets a home tie on a fast court).

Taken individually this is a stinging loss for the once mighty American Davis Cup squad. But seen as a first step in a logical progression towards a new and improved version of American tennis, it is a breath of fresh air. The philosophical shift from old blood to new blood was never expected to be made without a few drops being spilled. Now that that's over, the young Americans can learn their valuable lessons and go about the business of fulfilling their collective promise.

Still, it's hard to wrap my head around the idea that there can be such a thing as a good loss. Can there be?