Friday, April 30, 2010

The Consummate Warrior

At 28, the energetic Ferrer hasn't lost a step

It's clay court season, and once again this week in Rome, Spanish tennis players are pretty much the only ones left in the locker room as the weekend nears. Everybody else has been taught a hard lesson: Don't mess with Spain on red clay. They've been whipped like over-the-hill horses, spanked like tiny children, and sent crying for their mommies.

It's a testament to the depth and capacity of Spanish tennis that brilliant players like David Ferrer go largely unheralded.

But not today, because, as an intrepid tennis writer, I am going to do my best to praise Spain's 4th highest ranked player.

Ferru. I have to admit that I've always had a soft spot in my heart for the 5'9" 160 lb Valencian. It's just one of those things that we tennis fans feel. You may feel it for someone else, but I've no doubt that there are others that feel for Ferru the way I do. How could they not? Maybe it's the way he likes to chew on his towel during changeovers. Maybe it's because he reminds me of a pit bull (I've got a major soft spot for that breed as well).

Whatever it is, I know I'm not the only one who admires David Ferrer. Any serious tennis fan in Spain knows that he has poured a considerable amount of blood, sweat, and tears into the clay in the name of Spain. Who could forget last December's come-from-behind five set victory over Radek Stepanek? The way that Ferrer, so out of kilter for the first two sets, willed himself back into that match was truly inspiring.

But it's not only about the winning and losing with Ferrer. And that is what endears the 28-year-old red-blooded Ferrer to me most of all. Of course he aims to win, and he's desperate to do so, but as he plays it seems to be about the battling. About the spirit of competition and the one-on-one nature of the sport.

For Ferrer, it's about playing tennis courageously rather than timidly. It's about lusting for battle and not being afraid to take your chances when they appear. There are more gifted players than Ferrer on the ATP tour, to be sure. There are more consistent ones as well. But I don't know that there is anyone as intense, as maniacally driven, or as physically energetic.

Ferrer is such a spirited competitor, bouncing up and down between points, his sweat-laden bandanna doing all it can to control his long unkempt hair, that his energy is contagious. Just watching him on television is enough to make you want to hit balls for two hours after a six mile run. It's even enough to make you believe that the aforementioned workout is possible!

Sometimes Ferrer wins, as his eight career titles and career-high ranking of four can attest, and sometimes he loses. But never, ever, does he take a match off. He battles just as hard down a set and two breaks as he does in a third set tiebreak.

Expect more of the same as he prepares to do battle in the Rome semi-final across from his compatriot Fernando Verdasco. Win or lose, it'll all be left on the red clay for us to see.

Win or lose, Spain should be proud of Ferrer, and so should the ATP.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Collision Course

What can we expect from edition twenty-one of the Federer-Nadal rivalry?

Tennis fans everywhere are staring - that jaws agape covetous stare - at the ATP Rome draw the same way they typically stare at posters of pinup girls and/or dreamy shirtless hunks gallivanting on the white sandy beaches of tropical resorts.

It's been a long, long time.

Absence of installment twenty-one of the storied and epic Federer-Nadal rivalry has certainly made the heart grow fonder. Not that we need to miss this rivalry to enjoy it. Still, it has kept us waiting. And Waiting. And watching re-runs of Rome 2006, Wimbledon 2008, Miami 2005, Wimbledon 2007, and the like. And waiting some more.

It was mid-May of 2009 when these two living tennis legends last met at the Magic Box in Madrid. Little did we know then the events that would transpire immediately thereafter. Now it all seems like ancient history, but eleven short months ago it was agonizingly real for Federer, and perhaps a little too good to be true for Nadal.

Before that match in Madrid, Federer, flummoxed repeatedly by the hard charging Spaniard, had never appeared more crestfallen in our eyes. The Swiss Maestro had endured five straight losses at the hands of the majestic Rafa. It wasn't so much the consecutive losses as it was the sheer magnitude of the losses: Three Grand-Slam finals on three surfaces, and two Masters finals, all ended in bitter disappointment for Federer.

Nadal, meanwhile, had never seemed more invincible. Not only was he a red brick-chewing phenom who played the clay as if his mother's womb was made of the stuff, but he was also blossoming as an all-court player, with the deft footwork, stunning touch volleys, and impossibly angled ground strokes to prove it.

Federer and Nadal, as hard as it was to stomach for us who would have been happy if time had forever stopped during one of their epic battles, appeared to be two ships passing in the night - one destined for mothballs and the other destined for the new land.

Then the rivalry gave us a surprise. In episode twenty, a fatigued Nadal was upended by Federer in Madrid. In that affair, an opportunistic Federer, who had been unable to cash in on so many of his golden chances against the Spaniard in previous matches, took advantage of his only two break points of the match (while saving the four that he faced) to win in straight sets.

What did it mean, we wondered? How were we to interpret the relatively lacklustre play of Nadal? Was Federer finally done being the world's second best player?

Many felt that Novak Djokovic, who did everything but vanquish Nadal in their semifinal match on the previous day, deserved as much credit as Federer did for the win. Others felt that in winning, Federer had finally tossed the 1,000 kilo monkey from his back.

What we really witnessed at the Magic Box in Madrid was more than just a match. Those with the capacity to see things in their true perspective knew that this wouldn't be the last time we questioned the futures of both men. They knew that this was just one of what was certain to be many twists and turns and momentum changes in the inner psychology of the rivalry.

What sprang forth from the ashes of so many Federer defeats at the hands of Nadal were perhaps the finest achievements of a player who continues to capture our imagination in ways we did not foresee. Nadal gave Federer lemons, and in the end Federer made lemonade. Even with Nadal on the sidelines rehabbing, Federer was essentially reacting to what had occurred between them. For Federer, clearly all the challenges that Nadal had forced him to face made the rest of the top ten seem much more manageable. First it was the French Open, and the career Grand-Slam. Then it was No. 15 at Wimbledon, then sweet 16 in Australia, the cherry on top.

Federer detractors (I myself cannot find a way to detract from either, but many have chosen sides) are keen to point out that Rafa was not capable of putting up a major resistance while Roger was busy rewriting tennis history last summer. But the beauty of Federer - and this is something we never fully realized until last year - is that his artistic approach to the game and his cerebral methodology in terms of planning for the grand marches always leaves him in position (injury free and well-rested) to win a Grand-Slam when the days of reckoning draw near.

So, in a sense, the rivalry between Federer and Nadal has taken on a new life since that Federer victory in Madrid last May. They haven't played each other, but they have continued on their epic journeys, one ship heading into dry dock for essential repairs, and the other ship changing course and moving full steam ahead into uncharted waters of ethereal greatness.

Over the last eleven months the rivalry has lived in the hearts of tennis fans, and the separate and singular exploits of each participant will now do their part in contributing to the next essential chapter of a book that is far from being closed.

Even when they don't play for eleven months Federer and Nadal are acting and reacting to each other in a symbiotic fashion - neither man would be as grand in our eyes if it weren't for the other, and that very fact is what makes us drool at the idea of a Rome semifinal between the two.

Nadal's return to form last week in Monte Carlo has the tennis world once again chattering about the religious experience that is his definitive brand of clay court tennis. There is a certain mystery surrounding him for the first time in a year. While it's easy to assign meaning to symbolic victories, a victory over Federer would no doubt add more fuel to Nadal's fire as he prepares to attempt to win the Roland Garros title back from his rival. What would it do for his psyche? And conversely, how would a loss affect his core of belief?

Meanwhile, Federer has struggled this spring, with early losses in Indian Wells and Miami. The world's No. 1 has been worry free for quite some time now, but a loss to Nadal might serve to bring some of the old demons back. He's been able to brush off losses to Berdych and Baghdatis, but how could he deflect a loss against Nadal? If there is one player on earth with the ability to truly get inside Roger's head, it is Nadal. Federer would like, no doubt, to prove to the world otherwise - not only can Rafa not get into his head, but he can't beat him regularly either - but he may have to go about proving it on the red clay.

If there is one thing and one thing only that Federer might want to prove to the world before he pulls his ship into harbour for the last time, it might be that Nadal does not have his number.

We all know that he did have Roger's number prior to their last meeting in Madrid, but what we don't know, well, that is what makes their next meeting so damn intriguing.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Return of the King

Photo: mitch98000

Nadal's Sixth Consecutive Monte Carlo Title is sure to strike fear in the hearts of his competition.

It has been a long 11 months since Rafael Nadal has clamped his pearly whites on a Championship trophy. After a dominating performance at one of his favorite events, that wait is now decidedly over.

Losing only 14 games in 5 matches, a rejuvenated Nadal has gone a long way towards reclaiming some of the mystique that was erased in Roland Garros last year, when Robin Soderling ended his clay court season with an eye-opening upset of improbably epic proportions.

Not only did Nadal lose the match to Soderling (and a chance for his fifth straight French Open title), he also became a little less invincible in the minds of the rest of the ATP's top ten in the process. And the effects lingered on. The once invincible Nadal succumbed to injuries shortly thereafter. He pulled out of Wimbledon, effectively putting the kabosh on another title defence, and he has struggled - with health, with confidence, with a new breed of tall and mighty ball strikers who seem unfazed by his heavy topspin and dazzling footwork - ever since.

Until now.

His dominant run in Monte Carlo represents more than just a hot week. This was Nadal moving forward, etching his name forever upon the lore of the game as the only player in the Open Era to have won any event six consecutive times. This was Nadal, still so young at 23, proving to the world that he is insatiably inclined to reclaim the aura of invincibility that surrounded him on clay a mere 12 months ago. This was text book Nadal: clay court tennis as only the indomitable Spaniard can do it, with panache, aggressiveness, but also a cruel and calculated efficiency that practically chokes his opponents into submission.

The long and the short of it was that this was the real deal, and the rest of the competition better be paying attention. Once again it appears that it will take a near Herculean - or should we say Soderling-like? - effort to defeat Nadal on the dirt.

But before we start pencilling in Nadal as a sure thing to run the table for the remainder of the clay court season, we must remember that something did change last year. Nadal may have proved to the world - and to his peers - that he is still capable of running roughshod over a whole tournament when he blasted through Monte Carlo like a construction worker with a jackhammer in his hands. But we already knew that he could do that last year. And in spite of all his dominating capacity, someone still found a way to beat him.

That is the one thing that will make this years clay court season more difficult for Nadal, as he tries to ride this newfound momentum train all the way to his fifth Roland Garros title. The fact of the matter is, no matter how much his aura grows over the next month or so, his arch rivals on tour will be able to take comfort in the fact that yes, he can be beaten.

As far as just what exactly it will take to beat him - well, he's certainly upped the ante with his magnificent Monte Carlo play. At times it seemed like Nadal was reading his opponents minds on the clay last week. As he patrolled the baseline it was never more apparent just how good Nadal is at anticipating his opponents shots. His fluidity and lateral movement coupled with his concentration and intuition make him the quintessential dirtballer. Hitting a winner against Nadal is the equivalent of hitting a home run in baseball. Trying to match strokes with Nadal is like trying to beat Paul Bunyan in a lumberjack competition.

In the end, only the strongest can make a dent in Nadal's armour when he is playing so free. Clearly energized by his return to the surface that he has grown up on, Nadal seems to be ready and willing - and healthy enough - to erase the bitter memories of his recent fall from clay invincibility.

By withdrawing from Barcelona in order to fully rest and recuperate, Nadal has demonstrated that he is committed to the long road to victory. A few years ago he had no idea where his limitations were. Now that he does, there's no reason why he can't reach the same level of domination that he once knew.

Then again, there's no reason to believe that some young gun might pull the shocker of the year just when we're all convinced that he can't lose.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Feeling Free?

Todd Martin is gone - does that mean that the real Novak Djokovic is back?

Novak Djokovic, to his credit, has never been one to stubbornly resist change. After all, we are talking about the guy who abandoned his favorite Wilson K-Factor stick for a lucrative new deal with Head after winning his one and only Grand-Slam title.

We are talking about a guy who used to warm down after a match by ridiculing the on court idiosyncrasies of his competition. He now resists the temptation, even as the masses grovel for it.

So it shouldn't have come as a surprise that Djokovic hired Todd Martin last August to become the third wheel in a coaching arrangement that was designed to help the Serb develop strategical components of his game, along with his serve.

Martin, who has spent two and a half years working with Mardy Fish in the past, was anxious to help Djokovic tap a potential that he felt was virtually limitless. Immediately after he was hired he was seen courtside, diligently observing Djokovic play while jotting entries into his little black book. Martin believed that the Serb would benefit from a more aggressive posture that featured more net play and better volleys. As the relationship continued, Martin reportedly suggested that Djokovic tinker with his serving motion in order to reduce stress to a shoulder that had become fatigued in the past.

While it was a sign of willingness to improve - usually a good thing for a player who has reached a temporary plateau - many believed that the relationship was doomed from the start, as Marian Vajda stayed on board as Djokovic's head coach, effectively limiting Martin's influence in the camp.

Eventually, as many expected, the relationship did fail, and Martin was sent packing.

Now that the two have parted ways with nothing but kind words for one another, I can't help but wonder if the exceptionally talented Djokovic will benefit from the fact that the terminated relationship represents a statement of independence more than a failure to improve. And maybe that declaration of independence will help the Serb to become the problem solver (and server) on the court that he once was.

Kudos to Novak for having the courage to try new things. Many a brilliant tennis player has failed to reach his or her potential because of an unwillingness to adjust, and Djokovic, by reaching out to Martin, deserves credit for tirelessly looking to improve.

Even though his experiment did not come to a successful conclusion, Djokovic can now move forward with the knowledge that whatever he thought he needed to change was actually just fine in the first place. He's at a career high No. 2 in the world and he's a threat to win any event on any surface. He's 22 years old with 17 career titles and a Grand-Slam on his resume. There's really not a whole lot to feel bad about here.

By knocking at a lot of different doors, it could be that Djokovic has stumbled upon the key to his success. The capacity to be a champion has always been inside him, he just needed someone to try to change him for him to realize it was there.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Berdych Bandwagon

Is the 24-year-old Czech really turning the corner?

If tennis players were stocks, savvy investors would more than likely be burning the midnight oil crunching the numbers on the 6'5" 200 lb. power puncher from Valasske Mezerici, Czech Republic, known to tennis fans as "The Berdman."

After his first masters 1000 final appearance since 2005, they must be wondering, is it time to buy or sell Berdych stock?

Many have been thoroughly impressed (and rightfully so) by Berdych's play of late - he reached the quarterfinals of Indian Wells before bowing out to Rafael Nadal, then reached the finals of the Sony Ericsson Open before losing to Andy Roddick - but others aren't convinced that this isn't an aberration.

Berdych, in spite of being endowed by the gods of tennis with an imposing physique, superior athleticism, and in-your-face strokes to match, has always been considered to be lacking the mental fortitude necessary to become a mainstay in the upper echelons of the game. He entered the season with a career record of 14-41 against the top 10, but half of those wins came in 2005 and 2006 - years when Berdych was bursting onto the scene like a wildly hyped IPO.

Then came the sell off. While Berdych's imposing game still lured the occasional investor to buy his stock, his reputation as an underachiever started to spread. He didn't make another appearance in a Masters final, and had virtually no success against top 10 players for several years.

It'd be crazy to write Berdych off at the tender age of 24, because he's clearly - in spite of his failure to reach the potential we've all assigned to him - one of the ATP's more talented players. He's been one of the top 30 players in the world since 2005, after all. But there is something about Berdych that has made people cringe over the years. How can he tote that massive artillery around and yet still seem to fire so many blanks in big matches?

As is so often the case, there is the annoying little issue of the expectations for the player taking on a life of their own. Tennis pundits tend to get carried away with the idea of how good a player could become if only he used every square inch of his untapped potential. But in reality, there are very few players who possess the intellectual and emotional tools that allows them to maximize their physical gifts. Berdych, as far as we know, isn't one of them.

So then, how can we explain his stellar play of late? Is Berdych finally coming of age, or is he merely benefiting from the absence of so many ATP stalwarts (Davydenko and Del Potro are out, Federer, Murray, and Djokovic are out of sorts)?

I must admit that the one time that I was fortunate enough to watch him play in person this spring - a full-on assault of Serb Viktor Troicki that had me wondering how he hasn't won multiple Masters shields - I was pretty blown away. The match was evidence of the sheer domination that Berdych is capable of. It was complete and utter shock and awe, and while watching the match I found myself wondering how it is that Berdych ever loses.

But he does lose, and against the better players he does it quite often. Who can forget Berdych's 4th round match at the 2009 Australian Open, where he practically hammered Roger Federer into the plexicushion for two sets, then lost his mojo and spiralled helplessly out of control as Federer coasted to victory.

As inexplicable as that turnaround was, it revealed to us something about Berdych - he's not one of those big time gut-it-out heart and soul type guys who is going to deliver the goods come crunch time. There are plenty of players on the ATP tour that we can say the same thing about, but Berdych is perhaps the most talented of all of them.

As we sit back and take stock of Berdych's game in the early phases of 2010, it is tempting to ask the question: Has Berdych found that missing Je ne sais quoi? Is he, at 24, finally realizing that he is among the world's elite and all he has to do is step up his determination to prove it?

His strong play in the last two Masters tournaments are evidence of a turn around in the young phenoms game. It's been impressive to watch, and Berdych himself has looked at ease and confident on the court.

While two tournaments (and zero titles) is not enough to make us forget that Berdych still has a long way to go to become a legitimate Grand-Slam threat, it is, at least for the time being, enough to make us believe that he still may become what we think he can be.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

It's About More Than Tennis Now

Martina Navratilova's battle with breast cancer will give her more chances to do what she does best – inspire others.

The news that Martina Navratilova would be undergoing radiation treatments for a non-invasive breast cancer known as D.C.I.S. came as a shock to many who saw the legendary superstar as an invincible woman, more akin to Wonder Woman than other mere mortals who are prone to real suffering.

But, in typical Martina fashion, the 53-year-old Navratilova is determined not only to beat the disease - she also wants to ensure that she does her part to inform other women on the ins and outs of it.

If this comes as a surprise, it shouldn’t.

Martina Navratilova has overcome her fair share of challenges. Her defection from the ironclad grips of communist era Czechoslovakia at the age of eighteen was only the first in a long litany of personal and public triumphs, each of which was fostered by her quintessential character – that difficult to fathom courage and conviction that seems to be ingrained in her very being.

At an age when many players are on the downslope of their careers, Martina blossomed, both as an athlete and as a person. Possessing only three major singles titles at twenty-five, she subsequently entered into a period of unprecedented domination in the women's game.

At the forefront of a revolution in personal fitness (aided by her partnership with basketball pro Nancy Lieberman), Martina transformed herself from simply great to utterly invincible. Recording seasonal records of 86-1, 78-2, 90-3, and 89-3, and winning six consecutive Grand-Slam titles during a stretch in 1983 and 1984, are just a sample of her feats (it’s a pretty impressive body of work that might take you a few hours to digest).

But anyone who attempts to summarize the highlights of Martina's tennis career would be remiss to not mention her equally impressive achievements as an activist, spokesperson, and role model. For each of Navratilova’s on-court achievements there always seems to be an equally impressive and humane effort taking place off the court.

Perhaps most notable are her contributions to gay rights. As Navratilova was coming into her own as a player, she was also becoming the first professional athlete to come out as openly gay while she was at the pinnacle of the sport. In spite of the financial losses she would inevitably incur due to lost sponsorship deals, and a loss of mainstream support, Martina was outspoken, and determined to do her part in ending age-old prejudices that were commonplace in the sporting world and across society. Responsible for expanding the dialogue on issues of sexuality and gender in sports, Navratilova continues to be involved with various charities that benefit a plethora of needy causes.

More recently, Navratilova has embraced the role of being AARP's health and fitness ambassador. It is a natural role for the 53-year-old, given that she was an inspiration to millions when she won her last Grand-Slam mixed doubles title at the age of 49.

Even today, as she struggles to come to grips with her cancer diagnosis while trying to balance her personal and professional obligations (she’ll undergo radiation treatment in Paris, while simultaneously commentating on the French Open for Tennis Channel), Martina is finding the strength to use her influence to inspire and enlighten other women.

As the news of her illness broke Wednesday, there was a palpable feeling that Martina is a woman whose greatest victory has yet to be won.

True to form, she decided to go public with her diagnosis and the details of her cancer (not sparing us the unimpressive fact that she went four years between routine mammograms) in order to raise awareness and continue serving a beacon of light to those in need.

Pearls of wisdom are already emanating from the outspoken Navratilova. During her recent live chat on the AARP's website she mentioned "I had seven friends with me for my lumpectomy - accepting physical and emotional support is essential for recovery. The tougher part for me will be the radiation course. I will let you know what will have been more helpful."

More than likely, more pearls are on the way. Martina has never been one to mince her words or hold back what she’s feeling.

We wouldn’t want her any other way.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

This Old Dog Still Has Tricks

Will Andy Roddick's triumph in Miami lead to bigger and better victories?

What was most impressive about Andy Roddick's first Masters 1000 title since 2006 wasn't so much the tricks that he had in his bag - it was more the wisdom that he now possesses about when and how to use those tricks.

Down a set as the heavy underdog to Rafael Nadal in the semifinals in Key Biscayne, Roddick mustered a surprising comeback effort to derail the Spaniard in three hard fought sets. The eye-opening upset was concrete evidence of the maturation process that the 27-year-old Roddick has undergone over the course of the last year.

After having little to no success against the formidable Nadal from the baseline on Friday, Roddick wisely switched courses during the second set and consequently proved that he is more than just a serve-booming forehand-crushing American with an attitude. Not anymore, at least. Roddick is also a student of the tactical elements of the game, and more importantly, he's intelligent enough to recognize - and address - tennis dilemmas as they occur on the court in real time. On this day, Roddick was willing - and unafraid - to change his approach to Nadal on the fly, and because he did so he gave Nadal more to think about than just executing his punishing ground strokes against another deer-in-the-headlights opponent.

"My comfort zone of moving the ball around and maybe chipping it around doesn't work against Rafa," he told the media after his semifinal win. "I had to try to come up with something that at least took him out of his comfort zone a little bit, and it paid off."

In Sunday's final against Tomas Berdych, Roddick was once again strategically superior to his opponent, as he deployed a steady variation of pace and shot selection that kept Berdych from firing on all cylinders (no small task this week, just ask anybody else who played him). "Today I was smart with chipping and mixing paces, which kept him guessing," Roddick would later say.

After weathering some rough seas in 2009, where his best intentions seemed to always come up against a wall of heartbreak, things now look much more promising for the Nebraska native. The prestigious Miami title will no doubt provide him with proof that his commitment to fitness, willingness to adapt his game to the the specific liabilities of his foes, and his uncanny ability to "take a licking and keep on ticking" will eventually lead him to more opportunities to increase the trophy inventory at his Austin, Texas digs.

With his 2nd Miami title (the first came in 2004), Roddick now joins Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, and Ivan Lendl as one of five players to have won the event more than once.

Not too shabby for a player who once called himself "the best bad player of all time."

"You learn more about the game having been around it," Roddick told Bill Simmon's of Inside Tennis in a recent interview. "What I did at the beginning of my career, having huge holes in my game but being able to cover them up with strengths...I don't think that would work now. You don't see someone with just one shot."

In a month that saw such tennis icons as Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray shut out of the finals altogether, the old dog Roddick and his ever growing bag of tricks finally has something to show for all his dedication.