Saturday, May 29, 2010

French Open Dark Horses Running Wild

Robby Ginepri is the last American man standing

At the French Open, it's best to expect the unexpected. The 2010 edition has been a shining example of this. After seven days of play, we've already seen two qualifiers from outside the top-100 reach the round of 16, in addition to several unseeded players.

In other words, it isn't only the weather and the decision making of tournament referee Stefan Frannson that is unpredictable. With the conditions having such a profound effect on the way the clay plays - and the regularity of stifling rain delays - momentum is hard to build and rhythm is hard to maintain.

Essentially, all the chaos serves to level the playing field more than at the other Slams, and once again we are seeing the rise of several unheralded players as we get deeper into the draw.

Here is a look at the biggest surprises of the tournament heading into Sunday:


1. Robby Ginepri - When asked if he was feeling at home at Roland Garros, 98th-ranked American Robby Ginepri replied "Well, my initials are RG." Sure, it's a strange coincidence, but after Ginepri outlasted former champ and clay court aficionado, Juan Carlos Ferrero in five sets today, you have to wonder: how far can he go? Next up for Ginepri is Novak Djokovic.

In seven previous Roland Garros appearances, Ginepri has been bounced in the first round six times. In 2008, however, he did advance to the fourth round before losing to Fernando Gonzalez.

2. Teimuraz Gabashvili - What? Teimuraz who? You mean the guy that looks like R.E.M.'s front man Michael Stipe?

Yes, that's the one. Gabashvili stormed through the qualifiers, and since then he has proceeded to not lose a single set (including qualies, it's a remarkable 15 straight) in the main draw either. Nobody was paying much attention until he outclassed the No. 6 seed Andy Roddick today by hitting four times as many winners as the American. The No. 114-ranked Russian has already gone beyond his previous best performance, which was reaching the second round in 2009, so he should be loose when he plays Austrian Jurgen Melzer in the fourth round.

3. Jurgen Melzer: Melzer isn't an unknown, or flirting with being outside the top-100 like Ginepri and Gabashvili, but we are talking about a player who was 0-11 in third round Grand Slam matches in his career going into today.

Not anymore. A decisive straight set victory over heavily favored Spaniard David Ferrer has people reminiscing about another left handed Austrian who also had success at the French Open - former No. 1 and French Open champion Thomas Muster.

4. Thomaz Bellucci: He's been on our radar ever since his first title in Gstaad as a qualifier (2009). He is the first Brazilian since Gustavo Kuerten to finish in the year end top-50, and here he is, getting ready to face Rafael Nadal in the fourth round.

Does he have a chance?


Chanelle Scheepers: The 26-year-old South African played her way through the qualifiers, then upset Gisela Dulko in the second round. She had a WTA-tour record of 8-14 prior to the start of the tournament, and her previous best performance at the French is a first round loss in 2009.

If that's not a dark horse, I do now know what is. She will face Elena Dementieva in the round of 16.

Yaroslava Shvedova, gunning for glory

Yaroslava Shvedova: Unseeded and ranked 36th, Shvedova started her French Open journey with a win over Sara Errani. Then she upset No. 8 seed Agneiska Radwanska in the second round and No. 28 seed Alisa Kleybanova in the third round. She's becoming quite the giant killer.

The 23-year-old Russian-born who plays for Kazakhstan did advance to the 3rd round at Roland Garros last year, where she was defeated by Maria Sharapova.

Jarmila Groth: Born in Slovakia, but playing under the Australian flag, the No. 107-ranked wildcard Groth also made the third round at Roland Garros in 2009. She defeated Kimiko Date Krumm in the 2nd round, and she'll face her fellow dark horse, Yaroslava Shvedova in the fourth.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The WTA is Getting it Right at the Slams

Kirilenko: Mentally tough and physically buff

As Day 6 of the French Open came to a nerve-jangling conclusion beneath the darkening Paris sky, incredibly competitive WTA matches were featured all over the grounds.

While this is not a rare occurrence on the Grand Slam circuit, there are some pundits who can't seem to find enough negative things to say about the women's tour these days. Over the last year, we have read about how the rankings are a farce, how the game lacks gritty day-in-and-day-out battlers, and how the top players are susceptible to upsets because of their aversion to commitment and their interest in attaining celebrity and entrepreneurial status.

And you know what? Some of it may be true. At least the part about the upsets. Oh yeah, and the rankings could use a tweak or two. But more than likely the fact that there is so much negativity is the result of a media that sees criticism as it's preferred mode of operation.

Take the Henin-Clijsters semifinal in Miami, that was labeled by the media as a "chokefest." I saw this match as highly entertaining and dramatic. Sure there were a high number of errors in the thrilling see-saw battle between two of the game's all time greats, but only because the match was played aggressively, with very little margin for error, and both players aiming for the lines and trying to outhit the other.

And this isn't the only example of WTA-bashing by the media.

Pete Bodo, in this piece for ESPN, said that Sam Stosur is the closest thing the WTA has to a good role model. I think he's right to praise Stosur (and for the record, I love Pete Bodo as a tennis writer), but must it really be at the expense of the rest of the WTA? By implying that Stosur is the 'closest thing' to a real role model, isn't he also implying that the WTA doesn't really have a role model? And how should fans feel about that?

I'm not so sure.

But I am sure that I found eight role models today, and they were all on court at the same time, playing wildly entertaining matches like their collective lives depended on the outcome.

I found Nadia Petrova and Aravane Rezai playing in what has to be the best match of the whole tournament so far. And it's still not over. Did anyone else watch this match? Talk about electricity. This one felt like a Grand Slam final - and it is only the third round!

I found Alexsandra Wozniak nearly pulling off the upset of the tournament, but finally falling short to a bandaged yet determined Elena Dementieva, who sank to the clay when her victory was finally won.

I found feisty Maria Kirilenko, whose racquet looks almost bigger than her entire body, playing perhaps the best match of her entire career against defending champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, who, true to form, made Kirilenko play her best tennis of the day to finally get the job done.

Finally, I found a bundle of energy named Francesca Schiavone and a mean go-for-broke ball striker named Na Li, engaged in a match that was a hell of a lot closer than the scoreline indicates.

In these four matches I found everything I could ever want in a role model: Strength, determination, power, intensity, courage, emotion, and the unquenchable desire to compete.

Needless to say, the fans at Roland Garros must have found something too - they certainly weren't screaming all over the grounds because they wanted to go home.

No Harm, No Foul

Tennis in the dark, anyone?

It happened on Day 4 of the French Open. It was a beautiful mistake, and a glorious slice of chaos. And while it was stressful for the players on court, it was a unique and wonderfully spontaneous occurrence that made those who saw it feel instantly giddy.

It probably should have never happened, and it probably never will again, but late (very late indeed) in the evening on Wednesday in Paris, two professional tennis players got in touch with their childhood roots by playing on a tennis court that was dark as night.


It was crazy. It was wrong. It was downright stupid. But man, was it awesome.

Gael Monfils and Fabio Fognini were dead even, at 4-4 in the 5th set. It was then that things got crazy.

When tournament referee Stefan Frannson sauntered onto the court at approximately 9:30 P.M., he had every intention of stopping the match. It was the right thing to do, after all, because play had been stopped on all of the adjacent courts already. The conditions called for it, and there was nothing that could be done. But for some reason, instead of making a rational and authoritative decision, Fransson decided to play the humanist and consult the players on their preference, and that is when all hell began to break loose.

Picture a Frenchman, and Italian, and a Swede, all trying to come to some logical agreement, while a partisan French crowd screamed, hooted, and hollered for more tennis. It was comical. It was theatrical. Both players made animated gestures and rolled their eyes to the heavens while the other spoke. Frannson, malleable and perhaps influenced by the rowdiness of the tennis-hungry crowd, appeared eager to acquiesce.

Monfils, who had squandered a two set lead in the previous two hours, was eager to continue. Fognini shrugged. It was hard to tell what they were saying. Was that a yes or a no from Fognini? What is Monfils throwing his arms up in the air for? we wondered.

According to Frannson, it was a yes from Fognini. Monfils, eager to enjoy some more fan support, (whether or not he deserved after squandering a huge lead is another question) shuffled over to the baseline.

Fine then, it's decided: Let's play.

But was it fine? It certainly didn't appear to be fine.

Fognini, meanwhile, was having second thoughts after peering up at his camp. They didn't want him to do it. 'Don't play,' said the looks on their faces, and the gestures they made with their hands.

Meanwhile, the darkness crept in.

Finally, a confused Fognini was given a point penalty for delaying play. He wasn't happy about it, but what could he do?

He took the balls and walked to the service line.

What followed was one of those rare and precious moments that is destined to live on in infamy forever. Long conservative rallies from the baseline ensued. Fognini, displaying a level of calm that seemed impossible given the strange and unfortunate circumstances that he was dealing with, tried to keep from drowning in the ocean of Monfils. He had been penalized a point. He was in a tennis stadium full of rowdy French fans. He was now facing break points. And yet somehow, like a Buddhist monk who walks through fire and over glass, he remained completely calm and focused.

Monfils, desperate to steal the win, tried to rally the crowd - and he did, but to no avail. The flashy showman had nothing of substance to bring to the fight, just spurts of emotion and vapor trails of desire.

Neither seemed adequate until Monfils suddenly found his own back against the wall. Then the sinewy Paris native suddenly started to cramp. This roller coaster ride was apparently making La Monf nauseous. Facing match points in the blackness, and cramping to boot, he was sure to lose.

But if tennis teaches us anything on a regular basis it is that there is more inside us than any of us could have ever imagined. We are complex beings full of all that is good and all that is bad. We are fear and courage, strength and weakness, desire and ennui. Somehow, we try to make sense of all that is inside us, we try to compartmentalize what is bad and stick it where it won't be a problem, then we try to nurture what is good so it can shine.

Monfils wasn't dead yet.

And Fognini wasn't as calm as we thought he was.

It appeared to be a huge mistake for tournament officials to let them play under such extraordinarily difficult circumstances. It probably was.

But this is one mistake that tennis fans are more than happy to accept.

When play was finally called at 5-5, it was apparent that justice had been served in perhaps the strangest yet most effective way possible.

In the pitch dark, both players headed for the locker room, one screaming curse words to the gods, the other waving sheepishly to his supporters.

Those who saw it live will surely never forget it.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Dear Sam Querrey: I'm Pissed at You

Sam Querrey said what?

I get it Sam. You're young and the world is cruel. We dress you up in K-Swiss gear and trot you out there on the red clay under the hot sun so you can entertain us. It's not fair, I get it. And it's not as easy as we think it is. Heck, none of us that wish we could see you reach your true potential have any idea about the sacrifices you've had to make. Let me reiterate: I get it.

Wait a second, I don't get it! I just watched your post-match press conference after your submission to Robby Ginepri, and all I saw is a selfish kid who is quitting on his doubles partner just because he's "not in the mood."

I also watched the match against Ginepri, and to my dismay I saw you walking off the court before your opponent had even hit the ball at set point. It reminded me of Luke Wilson's character in the Royal Tennenbaums, who takes his shoes off during a match because he's distraught about his girlfriend.

I'm not sure if I can forgive you just yet, Sam Querrey. I must say, you were pretty honest in the press conference, and I have a lot of respect for that - but how is it that you could feel so much indifference to Grand Slam tennis? This is no small matter Sam, we could have a serious problem here.

Here are some of the quotes from that aforementioned press conference:

Q. What happened out there, Sam?
SAM QUERREY: Um, just tired. Not into it. Mentally not there. I mean, you know what, I don't know. Just not did not enjoy myself out there. It's been like that on and off for like a while. So I'm going home tomorrow.

Q. Is it a natural reaction just being over here?
SAM QUERREY: No. I don't know what it is. I just need to just be in a better mood or just need to enjoy the competition and enjoy being out there more than I do. Right now, I mean, I'll enjoy it, and as soon as one thing goes wrong, I'm done.

Q. Where is home that you're going back to?
SAM QUERREY: California.

Q. Were you in dubs with John?
SAM QUERREY: I am right now. I won't be in about an hour.

Q. Just want to get out of here?

Part of me wants to tell Querrey that he's made incredible strides over the last 18 months, and he shouldn't take his uninspiring 4-set loss to Robby Ginepri - a mere blip in an otherwise upward trend - so hard.

Querrey is young after all, and he'll undoubtedly have to run a few hard miles before he reaches his destination. Monday's flame-out doesn't mean it's the end of the rope for the 22-year-old. But other parts of me are unmercifully critical of his performance on the court. It's one thing to go out battling to survive, but it is another thing entirely to quit. And quit is basically what Querrey did - he even admits to "tanking" in his press conference. At times Querrey was so perturbed, so disinterested, that he might as well have laid down on the court and taken a nap while Ginepri continued to play.

So where do I go from here, now that I am pissed at Sam Querrey? Should I call my local congressman? Should I sell all my Querrey shares and by some Roddick stock - a blue-chipper - which still has some upside left? Should I pick up a bundle of Kei Nishikori and John Isner and forget about him?

No! No! and No!

I may be mad at Sam Querrey but that doesn't mean I'm ever going to abandon him. He's a good kid, and he's got depth and intelligence and creativity. He just needs a little bit of that soldier mentality. He needs to play like his merry band of rowdy followers, the Samurai, is in the stands wherever he goes. Because even if the Samurai aren't in the stands, you can bet that they still are glued to their televisions or computers, hanging on every shot that Querrey hits.

To have the expectations of all your friends and family constantly on your shoulders is definitely a lot of pressure for any 22-year-old to deal with. But it is reality.

Sam Querrey is a remarkably gifted player with enought talent to easily take him higher than his current ranking. But the laid back Californian has to want to reach this potential in his heart - his fans can't do it for him.

Especially when those fans are pissed off that he just played the French Open like it was a knock-around at a family picnic.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Two sides of the Coin: Date Krumm and Safina

Heartbreak for Dinara, Jubilation for Kimiko

Some are calling the upset shocking (Fox) and stunning (Yahoo). Others are calling it predictable. Some (like me) don't even think it was an upset.

Either way you slice it, the match between the 9th seed Dinara Safina and unseeded soon to be 40-year-old Kimiko Date Krumm was a crowd pleaser that was part psychological thriller and part fairy tale.

In defeating Safina, Date Krumm become the 2nd oldest woman to win a main draw match at Roland Garros (it was her first Grand Slam triumph in 14 years). The record still belongs to Virginia Wade, who was three months older than Krumm is today when she won a first round match at Roland Garros in 1985.

Still, being second to Wade did not do anything to dampen the spirits of the Japanese woman who returned to the game after a 13-year absence last year. Her unabashed joy at the conclusion of the match is the emotional high point of a French Open that is only three days in.

Date Krumm: I'm so happy I can't believe it

With the French fans showering her with boisterous applause, Date Krumm headed to the back of the court to get a hug and a kiss from members of her team. Her smile stretched from ear to ear, even as the injured calf that nearly forced her to retire earlier in the match was obviously bothering her a great deal.

But Date Krumm's soul-quenching quest for competition at the age of 39 is clearly more about the spirit than the body. She's not overly concerned about her second round match, saying, "I don't need to worry about the result. I don't need to worry about the money either. I had big successes in my first career."

Wow. If only Date Krumm's victim today could worry a little less about the results. If there ever was a tortured soul on the tennis court, it is Dinara Safina. Up a break in the second set, and up a double break in the third, Safina couldn't maintain her consistency down the stretch. It's no surprise, as the talented former No. 1 has, in addition to serious back issues, struggled mightily with her mental game in the last year.

Mightily, just for the record, might be a severe understatement in Safina's case.

One gets the impression that Safina is so haunted by fear of losing, that she simply can not bring herself to win, no matter how big a lead she gets. The Russian is strong physically, and she's a world-class ball striker, but until she can develop a reasonable sense of belief in herself she's going to be living the Groundhog day tennis nightmare - losing close matches in perpetuity that she could have won.

So, mixed emotions, as the glory of Kimiko Date Krumm's inspiring victory comes with the agony of yet another Dinara Safina setback. Their match today was a stunning picture of two women on divergent paths in life.

One is living the dream, while the other is living the nightmare.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Can He Be Stopped?

Rafa's running red-hot right now - does anybody stand even half a chance of taking him out in Paris?

There are sure to be some surprises this year at the 2010 French Open, but then again, most people are pretty sure about one thing: Nadal is gonna do the deed.

How could he not? His post-match celebration in Madrid spoke volumes. It was big and boisterous, but it was also foreboding. Nadal may be part showman and part humble human servant, but more than anything he is a practical assassin. He had so much aggression left over that he punched his racquet bag as he moved over to his chair.

It was obvious that in his celebration, Nadal wasn't celebrating his third straight Masters shield as much as he was celebrating the fact that he was ready - ready to keep his torrid play up for as long as he needs to, and against all comers.

Clearly, Rafa is a player that can get hot and never cool down. He's the architect of an 81-match win streak on clay. The size of his current streak - 17 - indicates that this might be just the beginning of another epic run by the iron-willed Spaniard.

That being said - last year proved that the unthinkable can happen. Now the tennis world is wondering if lightning can strike twice in two years.

But before we hand the trophy to Rafa, let's acknowledge that there are lots of players who deserve to be considered as possible derailers of the breakaway locomotive from Majorca. Federer, while seemingly unable to conjure a game brilliant enough to befuddle Nadal (2-10 on clay, ughhh), may be saving his most subtle masterpiece for the upcoming weeks. It's hard to imagine but it isn't impossible.

And let's not forget those two brave souls who somehow found a way to snake a set off of Rafa this spring, Ernests Gulbis and Nicolas Almagro. They'll have to play near perfect tennis to do it, but, as Soderling proved last year - it can be done.

Without any further ado, let's dig into the draws:

Federers Quarter:

Does Fed have some tricks up his sleeve?

The mighty Federer made a huge statement in Madrid, when he miraculously (based on his form earlier this spring) pulled himself into form, avenging his loss to Gulbis in Rome, and getting some desperately needed matches under his belt. The experience will have to come in handy as Federer's quarter is perhaps the trickiest in the men's draw.

Fed may have to meet Monfils in the 4th round and Gulbis or Soderling or Cilic in the quarters.

Meanwhile, Gulbis and Cilic are looking at a must see third round match, with the winner sure to be high on confidence going forward.

Pick: Federer

Murray's Quarter:

Murray's play since Australia has left many a believer scratching their heads - or maybe it was that meek 'I can cry like Roger' comment that has caused some confusion as to Murray's mental fortitude. It's natural to be disappointed about losing a Grand-Slam final, but it's also natural to take that disappointment and let it fuel you to even greater heights.

Nobody is expecting Murray to cause much of a stir on what is by his own admission his worst surface, especially now that he has drawn this week's Nice ATP 250 champion, Richard Gasquet.

If he does get by Gasquet, He'll be headed for a possible 3rd round encounter with Marcos Baghdatis and a possible 4th round encounter with the ever-dangerous Tomas Berdych.

Possible quarter final matches with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Mikhail Youzhny await the Scot if he gets that far. John Isner and Tommy Robredo, two complete opposites in terms of play, but both equally dangerous, are also lurking in this quarter.

Pick: Tsonga

Djokovic's Quarter:

It's hard to notice that while this may be Novak's quarter of the draw, the biggest threat to advance to the semis are probably a pair of Spaniards with a lot of F's and E's in their names.

David Ferrer was one of the most effective and entertaining players to watch all clay court season long. He leads the circuit in clay wins, and he's proven, time and time again, that he's pound for pound one of the toughest and most determined dirtballers in the world.

Juan Carlos Ferrero is a former Roland Garros champion who, at the past-your-prime age of 30, has been playing some of his best tennis in recent memory. It must have something to do with the water or tapas in spain, or it could be the Tempranillo wines that some of the players have been known to indulge in (during the off-season of course). Whatever the reason, the Mosquito is a good bet to make the 4th round for a possible match up with Djokovic.

It has been a difficult season for Novak up until this point, but before you write him off please recognize that this is one of the most talented clay courters in the world. Yes, he's enigmatic, and yes, some of his early exits from Grand-Slams in the last few years are maddening, but he's still No. 3 in the world, and still a threat to go deep in the draw. The first few rounds shouldn't be too difficult for Djokovic, and if he can avoid another letdown -either physically or mentally- he may be able to play himself into top form just in time to face a pair of Spaniards who are gunning for glory.

Pick: Ferrer

Look for David Ferrer to make life miserable for all comers.

Nadal's Quarter:

Here are a few names that would normally strike fear into the hearts of the opposition on clay: Fernando Verdasco, Nicolas Almagro, Fernando Gonzalez, and Thomaz Bellucci. But when that opposition is Rafael Nadal, there is no fear, only hunger, a willingness to compete, and a compelling quest to play tennis as perfectly as it can possibly be played.

Almagro, based on his surprising effort against Rafa in Madrid - did anyone see how hard and how flat he was hitting his one hand backhand? - is the most likely to challenge the king of clay. But he'll have to get past Gonzo - just returning from injury - and Verdasco to reach that match. If anyone has the chance, or more importantly the go-for-broke mindset combined with the courage to not back down against Rafa, it is Almagro.

Pick: Nadal

Semi-final picks: Nadal over Ferrer, Federer over Tsonga

Final Pick: Nadal over Federer in 5 (yes, 5)

For in-depth analysis of the women's draw, please visit On the Baseline Tennis news.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

2010 French Open Men's Preview: The Players

The familiar refrain: Who can stop Nadal at the French?

Not much has happened to Rafael Nadal this spring. No, it's been pretty ho-hum. Just breaking the all-time record for Masters titles and becoming the first player to sweep through all three clay court Masters events without a blemish on his record.

As far as the rest of the field goes, they can at least take solace in the fact that the spotlight is not firmly planted on them. While this is Nadal's tournament to win or lose, the rest of the field can go about it's business in the shadows, silently determined to prove to the world that they were wrong to ignore them.

Without any further ado, let's take a look at the phenom known as Nadal, and those that are secretly plotting his day of reckoning at this year's French Open.

The hands-down favorite:

Rafa. So eminent, so humble, and so impossible to beat on clay. 2009 proved that he may not be invincible, but if there were a word that meant "only a minor miracle will stop him," that would be the word that most of us would use to describe Nadal's chances of winning his 5th French Open title two weeks from this Sunday.

For several months we've been saying that Soderling's shocker will serve as constant reminder to the other top players on the ATP tour that Rafa can be beaten. But in reality it appears that the only one who is using last year's 4th round loss as motivation is Rafa himself.

The scintillating Spaniard has made such a compelling return to form, that as he swept through the clay season (while wisely skipping the Barcelona event for rest) without hardly losing a set (two to be precise), it was hard to fathom anybody actually getting the best of him at Roland Garros.

One thing is for certain: Not many people talked about Robin Soderling in their 2009 French Open previews. Could this year's phantom be another player who is currently not garnering much attention as a possible breakthrough player in the French?

Probably the most amazing statistic about Rafa is how well he is managing his serve. A quick glance at the statistics showed that he is third on tour at winning service games (90%). He is sandwiched between a couple of behemoths named Isner and Karlovic, who both dwarf him in size and in service speed. But Rafa has become the master at using his serve to give him an advantage in the ensuing rally, and once he achieves this his opponent is basically running down a dream.

Of course his stellar return game is as defiant as ever, and when he is doing both so well, it leaves his opponent almost no margin for error.

Possible Usurpers:

Just what kind of Herculean effort will it take to knock Rafa off his game? Here is a look at the players who are likely trying to answer that question as I write.

Roger Federer: Federer has worked to put his game back together after another alarmingly poor spring. Unlike last year, he came up short against Rafa in the Madrid final, but Federer is well rested and perhaps he'll probe deep into his inner psyche to find that je ne sais quoi that has been missing for him so often when he faces off against his arch rival.

To do the deed Federer will undoubtedly have to come out with reckless abandon, looking to do damage with the forehand whenever possible and looking to serve to perfection. He's capable of all this, but first he'll have to win six matches to reach the final. Will he have enough left in the tank if he gets there?

Ernests Gulbis: What is uncanny about Gulbis is his ability to deliver soul-crushing first serves almost nonchalantly. When he does this, the match almost always tilts in his favor and he is free to dictate with his punishing groundstrokes and connect a few dots with his very precise dropper. When his serve falls off, so does his game. He's one of only two players to steal a set from Nadal this spring, and if he continues to play with a high level of confidence, it's not outrageous to think he can't challenge Rafa again.

The Spaniards: This has been the season of the Spaniard, as David Ferrer, Nicolas Almagro, Fernando Verdasco, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Feliciano Lopez, and Albert Montanes have all done some damage over the last three months. Verdasco broke through to his first Masters final, but played a loose match and was hammered by Nadal in Monte Carlo. Ferrer was basically hell on wheels throughout the European clay swing, but he couldn't do the deal against Rafa, or for that matter, Federer. Almagro, perhaps overlooked, mightily swung his way to a one set lead over Nadal, but he couldn't cash in on the opportunity.

Expect Spaniards to move through the draw swiftly at Roland Garros. They've all got the game and they all relish the chance to shine on the clay. But when they butt heads with their country mate, it never fails: They seem willing to take a back seat to Rafa. Psychologically, I don't think any of the Spanish players believes that they can beat Rafa in a meaningful match.

Maybe one of them will finally say "enough is enough" to Rafa, but I wouldn't bet on it.

Gael Monfils: La Monf finally got a few matches under his belt in Madrid, and he played well until he got steamrolled by Nadal. He's made the semis and the quarters of Roland Garros in the last two years, and he is without question one of the most entertaining players to watch, due to his joyful and artistic brand of showmanship. La Monf patrols the red clay with such a reckless abandon, such a joie de vivre, that it is hard not to imagine him winning it all in Paris when you watch him play.

What would it be like in Paris if Monfils won the crown? How crazy would that be and what would it do for not only tennis in France, but for tennis around the globe? It's fun to think about, but when reality sets in, the hard truth is that Monfils has not put in the hard miles this season. Roger Rasheed, his fitness-crazed coach, can only do so much with a man who has been out since Indian Wells due to injury.

Murray and Djokovic: It's strange to be putting Murray and Djokovic in the same category but that is where I am putting them. Is it where they belong? I'll let you decide. Both have been bitten by the inconsistency bug in 2010, and both come in to Roland Garros with very little buzz surrounding them.

Djokovic is one of the best clay courters in the world, but his 2010 campaign paled in comparison to his results in 2009, where he pushed Rafa in Monte Carlo and Madrid. This season has been one of turmoil and health issues for Djokovic. His seperation from Todd Martin was supposed to give him the freedom to find himself again, but so far that has not been the case. Still, many have been waiting, almost expecting, a breakthrough from the Serb. He's gone deep in Paris before (semis in '07 and '08) and he certainly has the game to do it again.

Murray played some pretty good tennis in Madrid, and it appears as if he has finally shaken the Melbourne blues from his system. But Alex Corretja hasn't really turned him into a clay afficionado, so it's hard to imagine him getting any further than his career best quarter-final run of 2009.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: Tsonga is underrated when it comes to clay. No, he isn't a clay specialist, but he appears to be very comfortable on the surface, and he's played at Roland Garros throughout his junior career many times. 2010 will be Tsonga's 3rd French Open, and last year was his best performance as he maneuvered into the fourth round before being taken out by Juan Martin del Potro.

Much like Monfils, Tsonga is very good at rallying the home crowd and using their energy to his advantage. He may be headed for a career best performance at Roland Garros if the draw works in his favor.

Robin Soderling: Twice he avoided a clay rematch with Nadal by losing earlier than expected in Rome and Madrid. But Soderling is good at responding to a few poor weeks with a superb one. Factor in the fact that the Swedes have a great history at Roland Garros (9 titles), and it's not too hard to imagine Soderling making a run here.

The no-shows and the walking wounded: It's a pity, but this years Roland Garros draw will be missing several top players who would normally be getting major ink. Juan Martin del Potro is recovering from wrist surgery, and Nikolay Davydenko is not quite healed from his wrist issues. David Nalbandian is out again, as minor injuries keep derailing his comeback from hip surgery. Gilles Simon, Radek Stepanek, and Tommy Haas are also still out with injuries.

Fernando Gonzales, a semi-finalist last year, will play for the first time since his early departure from the Barcelona draw in April. A knee injury has kept him on the sideline.

The best of the rest: Andy Roddick had his best showing at Roland Garros last year, but he hasn't played a match on clay all season. John Isner and Sam Querrey, the bomb-serving Americans don't strike the same type of fear into the hearts of their opponents as they do on clay. Thomaz Bellucci of Brazil had some great results on clay earlier in the season, but he hasn't been able to cause much of a stir in the Masters events. Marin Cilic is off his game, but I wouldn't write the young Croat off just yet. Tomas Berdych and Juan Monaco, as usual, will be fun to watch - both are capable of causing a stir. German Philipp Kohlshcreiber is always capapble of an upset.


Saturday, May 15, 2010

Giant Steps For the Mighty Fed

In defeating Ernests Gulbis, Roger Federer has finally sent the memo that he's back on track.

Roger Federer makes his living taking tiny steps around the geometrically finite dimensions of a 27' by 78' large tennis court. Yesterday, metaphorically speaking, he took much larger steps.

In fighting back against Latvian sensation Ernests Gulbis — the very same man who unceremoniously bounced him from the Rome draw two weeks ago — Federer has seemingly killed a myriad birds with one single stone.

Firstly, he's taken the power back from the young and upwardly mobile Gulbis, and this is like having money in the pocket should the two meet again in Roland Garros. Secondly, in advancing to the Madrid semi-finals, Federer will get another match in which he can tune up his game for Roland Garros. Thirdly, by gutting out a tough match against one of the strongest players on tour at the moment, the Swiss Maestro has given his confidence the necessary lift that it needed going into the ATP tour's second Grand-Slam of the year.

Federer, after being blasted out of the first set by an ornery Gulbis, stiffened his resolve and settled down to play some of his most exquisite tennis of the season. As many of us know, that's not saying much. And that is precisely why his 3-set victory over Gulbis could not have come at a better time. After disappointing losses in each of the Masters events of 2010, even the mighty Federer himself had to know that another tournament without at least a semi-final appearance would leave him gloriously under prepared for a Roland Garros title defense - especially given that the Spaniards (not just Nadal mind you, but practically all of them) are playing out of this world at the moment.

Federer's poor spring is nothing unusual. He shocked the tennis world in 2009 with a stretch of "average tennis" that left him as the clear underdog heading into the clay court season. But somehow Federer was able to shift the tide and ride a surprise upset of Nadal in Madrid last year to a summer of non-stop excellence. That memorable summer left him as a holder of the career Grand-Slam and the record for most Grand-Slams (15) of all time.

Now Federer has 16 Slams. But this year, for reasons unbeknownst to us — could it be age, lack of interest, or the emotional demands of parenting? — Federer has managed to play at a level far below his surprisingly lethargic form of spring 2009.

At least until yesterday.

Confidence is one of the essential ingredients to world class tennis, and even a player like Federer, who knows full well of the genius he is capable of, needs a healthy diet of it in order to play the breathtaking and decisive brand of tennis that will be necessary for him to put his best foot forward at the French.

But even tennis geniuses like Federer have to work for that confidence. It was imperative that Federer put together a string of solid play this week in Madrid. With wins over Wawrinka and Gulbis (editors note: he's just taken the first set from red-hot David Ferrer) Roger is starting to get bits and pieces of his swagger back. Who knows, by this time tomorrow, he may have it all back.

There are no guarantees in Grand-Slam tennis, even for a man who has stormed his way to 23 consecutive semi-final appearances. There is only the moment, and the courage that comes from the confidence that you can win.

Federer, after a long hard spring, is finally starting to believe.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Keeping it Fresh

We've come a long way from wooden racquets and ankle-length tennis dresses, but is it time for tennis to push the envelope even further?

There are always those who want to leave well enough alone. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, they'll say - and they are very often spot-on with their assessment when it comes to tennis. What we have in our sport is a rare and precious entity indeed. Mental and physical warfare that has evolved into a highly physical endeavor, while at the same time remaining traditional at it's very core. But in the new millennium — where our collective attention spans are getting shorter by the year — is it too outrageous to expect that some old traditions will have to give?

The sporting world is Darwinian by nature. All major sports have had to evolve to meet the demands of audiences that are difficult to satiate. Surely the executives at the top of the tennis food chain are thinking up ways to make the sport more appealing to a ravenous yet fickle viewing audience as we speak.

And if they aren't, they should be.

For there is nothing worse than an unsuspecting fat-cat form of leadership that rests on it's laurels. Like the tennis players we admire, who are tirelessly searching for ways to gain a competitive edge in the sport, tennis' leadership should seek to ensure that it remains on the cutting edge of the sporting world by examining the need for change and opening dialogues to gauge the public and player's sentiment.

Just for the fun of it, let's look at a few changes that could be employed to spice up the sport to keep it a step ahead of it's competition:

1. Eliminate the 2nd serve in the tiebreaker:

This idea was taken from (and today's post inspired by) Peter Bodo's Tennis World piece about Ion Tiriac today. In it Tiriac mentions that eliminating the 2nd serve would be a great way to diminish the advantage that the power servers have in tiebreakers, thus making the points longer and ultimately more captivating. It'd also do it's part to shorten matches by a fraction which would probably be a good thing for our beleaguered injury-lathered players.

My Vote: Yes, why the heck not? It's a relatively small change but it would be a thrill to see how each player handled this new challenge. We'd also see a lot more rallies and a lot less aces and service winners — things that tend to turn off a lot of people who don't watch the sport regularly.

2. Eliminate the service let:

The let is another call that slows down play. The rationale here is that the server has done what he's supposed to do by putting the ball in the box, so let's get on with it. Another advantage here is that we wouldn't have to rely on those unreliable microphones that are hastily taped to the top of the let chord. Of course many would have a hard time accepting that a serve that bounces off the chord and trickles just over the net would actually be scored as an ace, myself included.

My Vote: It'd be fun. I can already hear the roar of the crowd as a player scrambles up to the net to try and pick off a let before it bounces twice. It would test the players ability to improvise and, while it might be crazy, I can see it being wildly entertaining for spectators. What the heck, let's do it.

3. On-court coaching:

Martina Navratilova and Brad Gilbert are two of the biggest proponents for full-time on-court coaching on the tour. They argue, against many a purist I might add, that the coaching would make for better all around play, and what fan in their right mind doesn't want to see better play? Detractors argue that on-court coaching eliminates what many feel is the most alluring element of tennis — players are out there in a sink or swim environment, and that's what heightens the tension and drama of the affair.

My vote: I'm going to admit that I'm on the fence here. I'd love for more coaches to get more recognition and face time (they are an underrated group as a whole), but based on what I've seen to date it hasn't really heightened my experience as a viewer all that much. Often times it seems to distract the player more than help the player. I do, however, love the added perspective and insight that the words of certain stellar coaches bring the viewer who is looking to a) get closer to the sport and b) learn the game from watching it.

4. No-ad scoring for the first six games of every set:

Today's player are spending so much time on the court. Each season blends into the next, with little or no time off for the top players until a brief two week period in December. The game is facing an unprecedented wave of injuries and health issues that is a) bringing down the level of many tournaments and b) increasing the allure of performance enhancing drugs that might do their part in alleviating some of the symptoms of fatigue and injury.

Perhaps shortening some of the matches by eliminating some (not all, but some) of the long multiple deuce games might have a positive impact on the overall play?

My Vote: No, there is a place for no-ad scoring, and it's called World Team Tennis (and doubles, but I'm not in favor of that either).

5. Introduce the shot clock between points:

This one has been brought up so much, and so many people seem to be in favor of it, it makes me wonder what the powers that be must be doing up their in their ivory towers. A shot clock would eliminate doubt and frustration much in the same way that the Hawkeye has eliminated the ill will that can be caused by getting snubbed on a call. How can that be a bad thing?

My vote: Yes. 30 seconds seems fair to me.

6. Eliminate players catching their tosses before serving:

In a sport where the server has a distinct advantage over the returner, why make it even easier for them? Not only do players get a mulligan when they've inadvertently tossed the ball (or if it has been blown by wind) out of their strike zones, but they also force the returner to go through the ritual of preparing to return again. It's annoying, to say the least.

My vote: Yes. If you toss, then you must hit it. It's not fair to the returner — or the television viewer — to have to sit through multiple do-overs by a server who is not up to par in the first place.

Please, by all means, leave your ideas/ thoughts/ arguments in the comments section.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Chaos on the Clay as Roland Garros Nears

Rafa's dominance is clear, but the rest is up for grabs.

Three months ago it was the "big four" and the rest of the top ten that we pencilled in for the later rounds of the Masters events and the Grand-Slams. Now it's Nadal and the Spaniards, and it seems like you can flip a coin or throw a dart at an ATP bracket after that.

Sure, the European clay court season has always provided opportunities for the Spaniards, the Argentines, and other red clay connoisseurs to step up and challenge the big serving first strike players who usually rule the roost at the other three Slams, but this year there seems to be less rhyme and reason to it all.

Is it just me or does it seem like, with the exception of Nadal, that anybody can beat anybody right now? Am I hallucinating, or did I really see Isner and Querrey in the finals of a European clay court tournament yesterday? Have I just polished off four bottles of Bordeaux or has Ernests Gulbis really emerged as the only player with even the slightest chance of beating Rafael Nadal on clay? Am I sniffing too much glue or did Albert Montanes really trample Roger Federer on his way to a successful Estoril title defence?

What gives?

Where is Djokovic? Can't breathe.

Where is Murray? Can't believe (but at least he's got his girlfriend back).

Where is Federer? Perhaps he'll show up in Madrid, but the Federer that has appeared on the court since his 16th Grand-Slam title at the Australian Open is a mere shadow of the player we've come to know and worship over the last seven years.

Where is Del Potro? Wrist surgery has sidelined him until at least late summer.

Where is Davydenko? He's got wrist problems too.

How about Roddick? Well he's in Madrid in body, but many feel that his spirit is getting ready for another run at Wimbledon in early July.

I could go on and on like this, mentioning all the so-called dangerous players that are either injured or in seriously less than stellar form at the moment. But it'd all be useless and truthfully, it's probably a little too early to panic about the games of guys like Cilic, Soderling, and Monfils.

They may not be peaking at the moment, but hey, at least none of them are peaking too early.

Maybe Federer, Djokovic, Murray, Cilic, Roddick, Monfils, and a host of other perennial Grand-Slam threats would rather go in fresh and fit than hot and worn down.

There are many who feel that Federer's chances at defending his Roland Garros crown are slipping away with each early exit that he makes this spring. They say if he comes up short in Madrid, he'll have zero confidence heading into the French, and that is something that not even the Swiss Maestro can overcome.

They may be right. But then again, who the heck knows what each individual needs to be in tip-top form when they arrive in Paris? Nobody thought Federer was in a good mindset last year but then he woke up in Madrid and the rest is ancient and memorable history.

Meanwhile the Spaniards who have been formidable foes all spring - most notably Verdasco, Ferrer, and Juan Carlos Ferrero - are all hoping that coming in hot, albeit a little fatigued, does portend good things.

It'll be interesting to see what happens when the French Open gets rolling in two weeks time.

A season that has been full of surprises is sure to have a few more twists and turns as we head down the home stretch.

Buckle up, get your popcorn ready, and enjoy!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Gulbis' Proving Ground

Does the Rome breakthrough portend more stellar tennis from Ernests Gulbis?

Ernests Gulbis fell short today after a 2 hour and 47 minute semi-final battle with the King of Clay Rafael Nadal, but don't think for a second that this wasn't a monumental week for the young Latvian.

It's not the first time we've been made aware of just how lethal his game is. Gulbis has attracted a lot of attention - both positive and negative - since he began plying his trade on the challenger and futures circuits in 2004. He is a gifted athlete who has a very natural predeliction for hammering his opponents before they even have a chance to breathe. His big serve and lethal forehand are complemented nicely by a surprisingly steady backhand and an uncanny ability to play steep angles and high-risk drop shots with eerie precision.

And all the while the young Gulbis looks slightly disinterested and disheveled as he does it, almost as if he went straight from his bedroom, bypassing the bathroom and the breakfast table, to center court.

Regardless of his grooming acumen, the Latvian has enough potential to make a tennis coach salivate like a Saint Bernard. And he's also garnered some results on the ATP tour to prove that the hype isn't just all, well, hype. Playing his shock-and-awe brand of first strike tennis, Gulbis reached the 4th round of the U.S. Open in 2007, then followed that up with a trip to the French Open quarterfinals in 2008. In the very next tournament he turned more heads when he took a set from Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon. Yep, he's got potential for sure, but that potential has yet to transform into consistent winning as of yet.

But even when Gulbis loses, or loses consistently (something he was doing quite a bit of in 2009) he's hard to ignore. If he were a baseball or a football player he'd be a "scouts dream," one of those can't miss kids that every coach wants to get a hold of and mold into the next Roger Clemens or John Elway.

And like most can't miss kids, Gulbis' rise to the top of the sport has been less meteoric than first anticipated. Somewhere around mid-2008, when Gulbis' progress slowed to a halt, critics came out of the woodwork and bashed him for losing to players that they felt he should have beaten. Pundits were dumbfounded on many occasions by the disconnect between his grade A talent and his grade C results, and the prevailing sentiment by the end of 2009 had gone from can't miss to can't do anything he's supposed to do.

2010 has been better, to say the least.

We may forever be talking about Rome 2010 as the week that Ernests Gulbis finally took all of his potential and turned it into something tangible. But in reality, the transformation might have started when Gulbis signed on with Marat Safin's former coach, Hernan Gumy, late last year.

Whatever the reason, it isn't just Rome that the 21-year-old Latvian has flourished in. He was a surprise winner at Del Ray in February and has also reached the Memphis semifinals and two other quarterfinals this season.

For those who have witnessed Gulbis perform over the years, his success isn't that difficult to fathom. Sure he has the game to strike fear into the hearts of even the most established top ten players, but in spite of his natural gifts he most definitely lacked commitment, conditioning, and focus - all things that appear to be changing since his tenure with Gumy began last year.

This week in Rome we saw the same gifted Gulbis, but with a slightly different demeanor. No longer was he inexplicably prone to long periods of mind boggling decisions, no longer was he looking disinterested or mentally inferior to his older more experienced opponents.

And his spurts of brilliance - tantalizingly perfect drop shots that even Nadal couldn't reach (you had to see it to believe it), laser guided forehands that appear to reach the speed of light, and a heavy serve that pops off the strings - lasted longer than ever. I couldn't help but think, as I watched him hammer away at Nadal in a valiant effort that came up just a smidgen short in the semis, that here was Gulbis finally shedding his juvenile tendencies and stepping into the world of men to represent himself with a sense of pride and belief that had heretofore been missing from his psyche.

Aside from the final score there was so much to like about Gulbis' effort against Nadal. Not only was he able to shorten points and consistently strike winners against the Spaniard, but he was also able to win his fair share of the baseline rallies - no small task - and seemed relatively unflustered by Nadal's brand of trench warfare.

Even more importantly was the mental hue of Gulbis. After coughing up a break in the first game of the match, the 21-year-old held serve under extreme pressure until the very final game. He was calm, focused, intense, engaged - everything we've always wanted him to be but were afraid he never would - and he acted like he belonged out there in a Semi-final in front of 10,000 fans and a six time Grand-Slam champion.

Eventually, Gulbis did falter, and he handed Nadal the match just when it seemed like an improbable upset might be occurring. A few ill-timed drop shots (more importantly poorly executed) and a few critical unforced errors sealed his fate for the day.

But his fate for the longer term appears to be anything but sealed. Gulbis proved to the world in Rome that his arduous journey may still be just beginning.