Monday, August 30, 2010

The Courage to Crush

With health concerns fading, Maria Sharapova's confidence keeps growing. Is a fourth Grand Slam coming next?

Her blood-curdling battle cry can be heard far outside the tennis stadium, by fans who are rushing through the turnstiles, hoping to catch a glimpse. She's got legs as long as the Mississippi, a face as recognizable as the Mona Lisa, and swagger like a Russian gangster.

'Oh, look,’ they say, as they hurry to their courtside seats. 'She's as pretty as a picture, yet meaner than a bed of nails.’

Maria Sharapova is a lot of things, but most of all, these days she's healthy -- and confident.

"It's been a really long road," the three-time Grand Slam champion told the press after a hard fought win in Stanford, California earlier this summer, "but I'm just so happy that I can come out and not really worry about too many things, like I did last year."

While Maria hasn't won a title this summer in the States, she has been to the final in each tournament she has played, and she is looking more and more like the old Maria, the one who routinely overwhelmed her opponents with her dynamic firepower and fiery presence. "Just to know that I can come out every day, and even if I don't feel a hundred percent, I don't feel like so many things are on my mind like they were before, like 'How's it going to feel?' and 'Am I going to get through the match?' is great," she continued.

In contrast to the comebacks of Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, who were fast out of the gate and have since reached plateaus, Sharapova’s return has resembled a slow-starting locomotive, chugging in resolute fashion toward an inevitably fast cruising speed.

But the comebacks of the Belgians and the comebacks of Sharapova, when closely examined, are not at all similar. Clijsters and Henin left the game mentally exhausted, and when they returned they were well-rested, recharged, and most importantly, unconcerned about their health.

Sharapova, meanwhile, left the game when injuries made it impossible for her to stay.

The 6’2” Russian was 32-4 in 2008, and had started the year at an amazing 18-0 clip, but her right shoulder was suffering the consequences of her absolutely ferocious playing style. After an Australian Open title, and two more titles in the spring that eventually landed her the No. 1 spot in the rankings for a brief spell, the shoulder finally forced Maria into submission prior to the U.S. Open.

After a nine month layoff due to the ensuing shoulder surgery, Maria reemerged, but she was clearly not the same player. Yes, the signature pugnacity was still there, but the serve --characterized by that classically executed wind-up and huge soaring follow-through -- was not. Even so, with an abbreviated motion that she clearly didn't relish using, and mounting double fault tallies that had critics doubting her chances of ever winning another slam, Sharapova trudged onward.

It wasn't pretty, but it was feisty. It wasn’t easy, but it was compelling. Here was a proud woman who had been perhaps the most recognizable face of tennis since her first Grand Slam title in 2004 -- even her dog Dolce was more popular than most women in the WTA’s top-20 before the injury -- now more than willing to claw her way back from obscurity with all the world watching through their collective microscopes.

And while critics doubted, Maria patiently believed. While many failed to see the true ardor that Maria would require to make it back to the top, Maria was patient, exacting, and she worked harder than ever.

“The shoulder changed her serving motion,” Nick Bollettieri told the New York Observer at the U.S. Open last year. “When you have a muscle memory of 15 years serving one way and at age 22 you have to make a change in your swing motion, that’s not the easiest thing to do,” he said.

Maria has recently gone back to her elongated motion, and since then her serve has once again become a shot that inspires fear in the hearts of her competition. “I knew eventually I would go back (to the old wind-up), I just didn’t quite know when,” she said at Stanford. “The abbreviated serve is just something I knew I had to do for a few months. To go from something that you’ve done all your life, which is pretty loose and flowy, to all of a sudden go to something that was really short, it took a while.”

It has been fifteen grueling months since her return to tennis, and, impressively, Maria’s commitment to excellence has never wavered throughout this trying time. At age 24, it is becoming clear that Sharapova, when it is all said and done, will be defined by her character, her willingness to battle, and her unquenchable desire to win-not the injury that tried to keep her down.

“Maria Sharapova has something inside her that is fantastic,” says her longtime mentor, Nick Bollettieri, “and that is called the will to compete. She’s serving well again, she’s very confident, she hits the ball early and flat, and that’s what makes her special,” he added.

With the confidence that comes from being healthy, and the maturity that comes from having dealt with a lion’s share of adversity, Maria Sharapova appears primed to take another shot at Grand Slam glory.

While there are no guarantees when the U.S. Open rolls around, one thing is for certain: Maria will play to win.

“You can’t be out there making excuses and saying it’s too tough,” she said.

Amen to that.

U.S. Open Picks: Women (for the record)

Without Serena Williams in the draw, is a Kim Clijsters title defense the most likely scenario?
Just for the sake of looking silly in two weeks, my picks for the U.S. Open are posted below.

Wozniacki's quarter: Caroline Wozniacki claims that she feels no pressure being the No. 1 seed in the draw. If it's true, it's great news for Wozniacki, because she'll need to stay calm and keep doing what she has been doing this summer to make her seed hold. She won in Montreal, then flew down to New Haven, and won the title there. She'll enter the tournament with a nine match winning streak, hoping to finish it with sixteen.

Can she? Sure. But let's not forget that a hungry competitor will be dead set on shattering Wozniacki's New York dreams. Maria Sharapova, who has posted great results this summer, and appears ready for another run deep into a major may find herself with the task of solving Wozniacki in the fourth round.

Others in this quarter include Svetlana Kuznetsova, Maria Kirilenko, Aravane Rezai, and Li Na.

Pick: Sharapova

Jankovic's quarter: Jelena has been in a little funk of late, dealing with nagging injuries, and we haven't really seen her "A" game since the French Open. Vera Zvonareva, meanwhile, is fresh off a Wimbledon final (dubs too) and has had a decent summer on the hard courts (final in Montreal). Agnieszka Radwanska, Yanina Wickmayer, and resurgent Kaia Kanepi are also lurking in this quarter of the draw. A potential third round tilt between Kanepi and Jankovic should be great, as well as a potential fourth round match between Zvonareva and Radwanska.

Pick: Zvonareva

Clijsters Quarter: Names like Samantha Stosur, Elena Dementieva, Marion Bartoli, Zheng Jie, Ana Ivanovic, Dinara Safina, Alisa Kleybanova, and Petra Kvitova are all congregating in this exciting quarter of the draw. Based on her terrific form of late, and her splendid U.S. Open history, Kimmie has to be the favorite in this quarter of the draw, but as always, the reality of life on the tour is that of razor-thin margins of victory and a few huge points determining the outcome of a few huge matches.

Kim is an incredible pressure player, but she'll no doubt be tested by her hungry competitors, including the up-and-coming Petra Kvitova in round three, the pugnacious Marion Bartoli in round four, and Elena Dementieva or Samantha Stosur in the quarters.

Pick: Dementieva

Venus Williams Quarter: Venus hasn't played since 1973. No, I'm exaggerating a bit - she did play Wimbledon, but since then she's been healing her knee and promoting her book. The big question here is, what kind of form will she be in? Will she benefit from the long layoff, and play a refreshed brand of tennis, or will she have trouble shaking the rust, and get bounced in the early rounds?

Venus has a decent draw, but the questions are more about her and less about her competition at this point. In the meantime, Victoria Azarenka is looking to make her mark on the Grand Slam scene, along with Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Shahar Peer, and Flavia Pennetta.

Without Serena in the draw, there is extra incentive for all of these players to dig a little deeper inside themselves to see what kind of magic they can find.

Pick: Pavlyuchenkova

Semifinals: Sharapova over Zvonareva in 3, Pavlyuchenkova over Dementieva in 3.

Finals: Sharapova over Pavlyuchenkova in 2

Sunday, August 29, 2010

U.S. Open Picks: Men (For the Record)

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are among the heavy favorites to win the 2010
U.S. Open, but there are no guarantees.
Just for the sake of honesty, I will now enter my picks for the 2010 U.S. Open.

Rafa's quarter: Rafa has had so much trouble getting over the hump in New York. He just doesn't seem to possess the same magic on the surface, sort of as if not having tangible earth directly beneath the treads of his tennis shoes is philosophically and spirutually against his constitution. But if Rafa is anything, he is a battler, and he will battle himself through the barrier that he has run into for the last few years.

His effort, which is more than likely going to be the best of his career (and more inspired than ever) in New York, should get him through a tough quarter that features a revitalized David Nalbandian, ornery Ernests Gulbis, and compatriots Fernando Verdasco, Feliciano Lopez, and David Ferrer, constitution or no constitution.

Pick: Rafa

Murray's Quarter: A lot of folks are picking Andy Murray to win it all after what he did in Toronto, and the way he has responded to the turbulence of parting ways with coach Miles Maclagan. Turns out that Andy's good with having a little extra responsibility, and his brilliant play (and result) in Toronto should do wonders for his confidence.

He should do will in New York, as he is a former finalist, but there will be challenges waiting, including Sam Querrey or Nicolas Almagro, and more notably, newly minted member of the ATP's top-ten, the big, bad, and uber talented Tomas Berdych.

Pick: Murray

Djokovic's quarter: There is nothing harder than trying to prognosticate the future of Novak Djokovic over the course of a Grand Slam fortnight. If he dominates in the early round, will he lose focus? If it's too hot, will he encounter the familiar respiratory issues? Will he get the crowd on his side or will he turn them against him? Will he send an impostor out to play a night match, so he can spend the evening taping Shakira covers with country mate Viktor Troicki?

Hard to say, but one thing is for certain: Novak showed a lot of heart against Roger Federer in Toronto, even though he eventually lost. If he shows that kind of resilience and ability to remain calm under duress, I think he's the frontrunner in a quarter that also features Nikolay Davydenko, Mardy Fish, Gael Monfils, and Marcos Baghdatis.

Pick: Djokovic

Federer's quarter: Roger's amazing on the Wimbledon Grass, but New York is a place where not only he is amazing, but his arch rival is also kind of un-amazing. For this reason, incentive will be high for Federer to march into the final, in the hopes that he'll face Rafa in a place where he has a very good chance of exorcising some demons against him, or, better yet, he'll face the player who has upended Nadal.

Either way, I don't think run of quarterfinal losses at Grand Slams will continue, even with Robin Soderling's ornery presence directly opposite him in this quarter.

Pick: Federer

Semis: Nadal over Murray in 5, Federer over Djokovic in 5

Final: Federer over Nadal in 4

U.S. Open Women's Preview by the Bullet

Maria Sharapova and Kim Clijsters both had excellent summers, but they aren't the only ones with a shot at the 2010 U.S. Open title.
A plethora of questions regarding the women's field for the 2010 U.S. Open will start to be answered when the first balls are put in play tomorrow at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, N.Y.

With Serena Williams unable to play, and Justine Henin out for the year, tennis pundits are turning their affections to a couple of tried and true former Grand Slam Champions (Sharapova and Clijsters) as favorites to walk away with one of the most coveted prizes in all of tennis.

But there are hopefuls all over the draw, many of whom have yet to prove themselves on the Grand Slam stage (Azarenka, Rezai, Radwanska) and others who have proven themselves in the past, but don't appear to be quite ready to do it again (Jankovic, Dementieva, Kuznetsova, Venus Williams, Ana Ivanovic, Dinara Safina, Sam Stosur).

Without Serena - who would have been the heavy favorite even if she hadn't played a match all summer - in the draw, there is a sense of optimism permeating the entire field. The thirteen-time Grand Slam would have provided an imposing barrier to many of the WTA's top players, but without her formidable presence in the draw, there is the underlying feeling that anything can happen this year in New York.

Here's a look at the form of some of the top contenders for the title on the final Sunday before the Open begins:

  • Kim Clijsters - Last year's champion proved once again that she can be an exceptional player on the hard courts. Strong serve, strong groundies, and strong sense of belief. She's been to the finals of the last three U.S. Open's she's played and she's at a post-retirement high ranking of No. 3.
  • Caroline Wozniacki - The Great Dane gets so much criticism for not having an aggressive enough game to hit her opponents off the court. Winning a Grand Slam might silence the critics once and for all. But losing before the semis might justify their vitriol.
  • Maria Sharapova - She's been a true godsend for the tour since her return. In the long and painful process of returning from shoulder surgery, she's proven to the world that she has the heart of a champion. If she can dial in her ballistic groundies and cruise through a few matches, she should be able to stay fresh with a day off between each match.
  • Vera Zvonareva - Fresh off her first Grand Slam final at Wimbledon, the 26-year-old turned in a final performance in Montreal a few weeks back, proving that she's still in good form with wins over Clijsters and Azarenka.
  • Victoria Azarenka - Sellers of the Belarusian's stock became buyers when she absolutely trampled the star-studded field at the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford. But she lost to Ana Ivanovic in her first match at Cincinnati, then retired with blisters after a set and a game in the Montreal semis, so buyer beware.
  • Svetlana Kuznetsova - the former champion rebounded from an icy cold 14-month title drought with a much needed win in San Diego. She also played well in Montreal before bowing out to Wozniacki in straight sets in the semis. Don't count her out.
  • Venus Williams - Well, she's playing, so that gives her a chance to win. Why not?
  • Sam Stosur - Not the same on hard courts, as she's never been past the 2nd round in New York. After a thrilling run to the French Open finals, she's come down to earth with a first round loss at Wimbledon and a troubling right arm injury that hampered her performance this summer. If she can get her serve working, she could erase a lot of bad New York memories, if not, it'll be a long winter for the Aussie.
  • Marion Bartoli - Tough as a pack of wild heyenas and ready to pounce on anybody who dares to take her lightly.
  • Elena Dementieva - Miraculously made the French Open semis in very poor health. Skipped Wimbledon for the first time in her career due to injury, but seems to be playing herself into form, as she beat Bartoli in New Haven and barely lost to Wozniacki in in a third set tiebreaker in the semis.
  • Jelena Jankovic - Loves the hardcourts and the big stage, but has been 2-4 since Wimbledon. Can she flick the switch in New York? Maybe, if she's healthy.
  • Kaia Kanepi - She was ranked No. 124 in April, before winning a couple of challengers, then storming to the Wimbledon quarterfinals. She'll enter New York as the No. 31 seed, with her sights set on a return to the top-20.
  • Agnieszka Radwanska - Another solid summer for Aga - semis in Stanford, finals in San Diego, before tough draws did her in in Cincinnati (Sharapova) and Montreal (Kuznetsova).
  • Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova - A title in Istanbul followed by a Premier 5 semi in Cincy has people very excited about the 19-year-old.
  • Maria Kirilenko - She's a tough out, and she's gone QF, 4R, 3R in her last three Slams.
  • Na Li - Rearrange the four letters of her name and you get 'Nail.' That's how tough she is. And she was a quarterfinalist at the U.S. Open last year.
  • Aravane Rezai, Yaroslava Shvedova, Alexandra Dulgheru - Maybe?
  • Francesca Schiavone, Flavia Pennetta - Never count the Italians out!
  • Melanie Oudin - Believe, part deux?
  • Shahar Peer - Always solid, and gets a lot of love in New York.
  • Dinara Safina, Ana Ivanovic - Both have shown signs of life since their much publicized friendship has begun.
  • Nadia Petrova - Can be deadly on a good day, can be awful on a bad one.

U.S. Open Men's Preview in Bullet Form

With 20 of the last 22 Grand Slams titles in their collective trophy case, the odds are good that either Roger or Rafa will take the 2010 U.S. Open.
Could this be the year that Rafa finally masters the dreadfully fast hard courts of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center? Or will this be the year that Roger Federer reclaims the title he's already held five times?

Or, are we in for another huge surprise like the one that Juan Martin del Potro provided us with last year?

Hard to say, and easy to write.

Beyond the obvious final, there are a lot of possibilities on the men's side. Here is a quick peek at which players are on the inside track to glory when the first balls are put in play tomorrow.

  • Roger Federer - The five time champion just gained won a huge masters title in Cincinnati. If there was ever a place where he'd actually be expected to beat his rival Nadal, it would be New York.
  • Rafael Nadal - Rafa claims that he isn't obsessed with winning in New York. Is that good news or bad news?
  • Andy Murray - Murray became the fifth player to beat both Roger and Rafa in the same tournament in Toronto, and he seems to have finally shaken off the ill effects of his confidence depleting loss to Roger Federer in the Australian Open final. He loves the hard courts, and, yes, he's a very legitimate threat to win this title.
  • Novak Djokovic - He's got the game, but does he have the brain?
  • Robin Soderling - He blew big opportunities to pass Murray in the rankings this summer, but failing to advance past the 3rd round (with a bye) in Toronto and Cincinnati. Here's the question: In doing so, did he suffer a blow to his confidence, or give his body the rest it needs heading into a slam?
  • Tomas Berdych - Coming off a French Open semifinal and a Wimbledon final, the physical specimen from the Czech Republic will look to turn in his best U.S. Open performance (3x in the round of 16) to date. It seems strange, but a quick glance at his career stats reveals that hard courts are actually Berdych's worst surface. He's 133-90 for his career and ten of his 15 losses in 2010 have come on cement.
  • Nikolay Davydenko - He showed signs of life in the Cincinnati quarterfinal loss to Federer, but Kolya hasn't returned to form since his right wrist injury took him out of action after Indian Wells. That said, he's a two time semifinalist in New York, and has been to the fourth round in the last four years.
  • Andy Roddick - Periods of overachieving, followed by periods of underachieving. That's been A-Rods story this year. But he's in the top-10, over mono, and ready to show the world that Americans can still play tennis.
  • Mardy Fish - float like a Minnow, sting like a Piranha, Fish is playing the best tennis of his life at the moment, and his game is built for the fast New York surface.
  • Marcos Baghdatis - Took out Nadal in Cincy, loves the bright lights, don't count him out of any match.
  • David Nalbandian - The dude nobody wants to face in the first three rounds. Playing lights out tennis and holding up physically. Could be very very dangerous.
  • Ernests Gulbis - Fun as heck to watch, but hasn't gone deep in a Slam in a long while.
  • Marin Cilic - He peaked in January with a Semifinal appearance at the Australian Open. He's too humble to have let that go to his head, but he hasn't been the same since.
  • Jurgen Melzer - Having a career year.
  • Fernando Verdasco - A quarterfinalist last year. Hasn't been playing poorly, but hasn't been making headlines of late, either.
  • Sam Querrey - Has the game, but does he have the desire?
  • David Ferrer - Has the desire, but does he have the game?
  • Ivan Ljubicic - He's 1-5 since the French Open. Ouch.
  • Gael Monfils - He has the shots, but does he have the right shots at the right time?
  • Nicolas Almagro - The bad news: Career hard court record of 35-48. The good news: 10-7 this year.
  • John Isner: The bad news: Badly sprained ankle almost kept him out of the draw. The good news: He might be able to win without moving, the way he serves.
  • Thiemo De Bakker, Alexandr Dolgopolov Jr. - Young players not to be missed, as both have made huge strides in 2010.
  • Ryan Harrison and Jack Sock - Two young American kids to be hopeful for.
  • Taylor Dent - U.S. Open karma is good after the heart warming display on Grandstand last year.
  • Kei Nishikori - Qualifier is returning to the scene of his greatest moments as a pro. Still has a game to be reckoned with.
  • Thomaz Bellucci - The bad news: 15-25 career record on hard court. The good news: 7-7 on hard courts this year.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Can He Be The King of Cement?

Rafael Nadal is the reigning king of clay and grass. But can he rule the cement and have his day in New York?
Rafa's No. 1 in the world, but there is no denying the fact that he's not the same player on hardcourts than he is on grass and clay. This is not a knock, but it is a reality that must be taken into account when handicapping the U.S. Open.

Unless, that is, you believe that numbers lie.

Rafa went 22-0 on clay and 9-1 on grass courts over the spring, but in 27 matches on the hard stuff, he only managed a 21-6 clip. His last hardcourt title came in Indian Wells in 2009 (and only 9 of his 41 career titles have come on cement). It's plain as day that Rafa is still searching for that magic that so naturally flows from him on the other surfaces - and his recent efforts in Toronto and Cincinnati are further proof that he has yet to find it.

Now, 21-6 is hardly anything to scoff at, nor are his semifinal appearances in Indian Wells, Miami, and Toronto, but the fact that Rafa is basically winning three out of every four matches on the hard stuff doesn't exactly portend a breezy two weeks for the king of clay. Yes, he's got world-class heart, guile, strokes, and fitness - pretty much everything that you measure a tennis player by - but for some reason, Nadal isn't quite the same on the hard courts.

That being said, the belief does exist that nobody is better in a big match environment (no matter the surface), and that Rafa will find a way to will himself over the finish line provided that he is able to maintain his health.

I think it's plausible that Rafa, having suffered the heartbreak of two consecutive semifinal drubbings in New York, will be more prepared to fight for the last piece of the coveted career Grand Slam harder than he ever has before. And this fight - the classic Nadal pugnacity - coupled with Rafa's uncanny ability to stand on a precipice facing elimination and to swing with all his might, might make the difference this year.

One things for certain. To see Nadal and Federer clash in the final would be as special an event as the U.S. Open could hope for. It would be great for so many reasons and on so many levels. It would be a boon for the sport, and I think it goes without saying that it would be one of the most compelling chapters in the book of Roger and Rafa when all was said and done, because no way in hell would these two champions send the fans home without giving them their money's worth. Well, I mean it's happened before ( a particular French Open final comes to mind where Federer managed only four games), but the odds of it happening now are slim to none. Call it a premonition.

Here's hoping that Rafa raises his hardcourt game and shows the world that he can conquer New York. He doesn't have to win to do so, but he does have to improve upon what he's done in the past.

I don't think it's too much to ask, and I doubt that he does either.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Murray the Aggresor

Andy Murray has successfully defended his final points in Canada, but one more huge challenge awaits.

Speculate on who Andy Murray's next coach will be all you want, but he's doing just fine with his mom Judy, fitness trainer Jez Green, physio Andy Ireland, and his hitting partner Danny Vallverdu in his box, thank you.

And if today's breathtaking, expectation-changing 6-3, 6-4 decision over Rafael Nadal is any indication, things might not change anytime soon.

Murray was downright nasty in victory today, and he displayed the aggressive quality that many a pundit and coach has been calling for, by taking the play to Nadal consistently over the course of the 1-hour and 44-minute men's semifinal.

When Murray takes the court tomorrow against Roger Federer, he'll be vying to become the first player to win back-to-back Canadian titles since Andre Agassi accomplished the feat in 1994-95.

All of this good news begs the question: Should Murray look for a coach or should he assert his independence and draw upon the wisdom of his mother Judy, who is a terrific coach in her own right, and obviously knows her son as well as anyone else in the game.

And why not Judy, after all? Tennis coaches are part psychologists, and as Andy's mother, she's more than likely got the inside track over any other person on the planet when it comes to knowing what to say to inspire her son—or when to lay off and let him use his own problem solving skills.

And the fact that she is not currently Andy's "official" coach will give Andy the ultimate responsibility for his own game. Perhaps that is something he's been craving.

"Certain things you do differently when you are on your own," said Murray, after he handed David Nalbandian his first loss in twelve matches on Friday. "You are a bit more responsible, a bit more's the best I've played in a long time, maybe since Australia."

Is it really a coincidence that Murray has turned in his most commanding performance of the year just two weeks after parting ways with Miles Maclagan, or is this the beginning of another period of maturation for the 23-year-old?

Whether it's Judy's influence or Andy's freedom that has inspired his game (Brad Gilbert made the point that the new setup might be great for Andy because he enjoys proving people wrong), at this point it would make complete sense for Murray to leave things as they are through the U.S. Open and beyond.

Of course, all that could change with a sheepish performance against the guy that sent Murray reeling after a solid thrashing in the 2010 Australian Open final—Roger Federer.

And while Murray has gone the independent route, Federer has made headlines of his own in the past two weeks by hiring on Pete Sampras' former coach, legendary Paul Annacone.

In the same way tennis matches can turn on a dime, perhaps sentiment regarding Murray's current coaching status will turn on a dime tomorrow if he flops in the final.

Such is life in the high-pressure world of men's tennis. One minute you are the shark, the next you are the bloody seal. One minute the pundits are putting your name at the top of the list of possible U.S. Open champions, the next, well, you know what comes next.

You are only as good as your last match, and Murray's decision to veer sharply away from the typical player-coach relationship will look brilliant until his play on court forces us to think otherwise.

Change can be a breath of fresh air for a player. If Murray's stellar play this week in Toronto is any indication, going coachless is one change he just may want to make permanent.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Djokovic vs. Djokovic: The Battle Lingers On

The hard truth: At No. 2 in the world, Novak Djokovic is still looking for answers to questions about his health.
Novak Djokovic. He's an enigma wrapped inside a mystery. He's a supremely gifted and intuitive player with an uncanny flair for the dramatic, and he's a habitual brooder that tends to become a prisoner of his own demonic mind. He's got enough moxie to keep a roomful of international dignitaries hanging on his every word, enough style to look equally stunning in a tuxedo or a Speedo, and yet he's vulnerable, moody, and hypersensitive to the extreme pressure of being an elite athlete.

The phrase Jekyll and Hyde comes to mind, but there are so many theories—from Djokovic, his camp, pundits, and beyond—in play that it is very hard to get the the heart of Djokovic's demons.
It's easy to watch Djokovic, as we did yesterday as he struggled through a straight set win over Julian Benneteau, and wonder—just what the heck is up with this guy, and how much better would he be if his fitness was at the level of his peers?

But it's not so easy to understand.

"When you go out on the court you want to battle your opponent, you don't want to have to be worrying about yourself—that problem can be fixed," said Brad Gilbert, as he discussed Djokovic's health with Chris Fowler and Darren Cahill during an ESPN broadcast.

Gilbert, like many others who have found themselves frustrated when watching Djokovic struggle in spite of his world class strokes and tennis IQ, believes that Djokovic has it in his power to eliminate his distracting maladies.

But there are others that don't think it will be so easy. Perhaps, they think, this is Novak's cross to bear.

Still, it's worth a shot. Djokovic is only 23, and he does possess a skillset that could take him to the No. 1 ranking and even keep him there for a while—but not with his current afflictions.

Djokovic spends so much of his time fighting his issues with breathing, that's it is hard to get an accurate read on how much better the world's current No. 2 player could be if he went forward with the fitness level of other top-5 players.

But could it really be fixed, as Brad Gilbert wants to believe? Or is Novak a self fulfilling prophecy that will remain forever out of breath at those crucial moments of matches when he needs clarity—and oxygen—the most?

More perplexing, is that Djokovic himself isn't quite sure of the nature of his heat-related illnesses. "Well, it's a big mental struggle, as well, besides physical," Djokovic said yesterday after the match. "I don't know," he continued, "I'm really trying to balance all things in my life, and fitness-wise and everything, I've been doing a great job... It's just, I guess, a little nervousness during the match, and it all combines with the heat and stress..."

It's clear from his words, that Djokovic hasn't been able to put a finger on the cause of his on-court suffering. It's also clear that he wants to overcome his issues. In between moments where he was bending over and gasping for air yesterday, Djokovic was able to produce some thrilling shotmaking against the Frenchman Benneteau. If you saw his drop shot on set point in the first, you know exactly what i'm referring to.

Djokovic was able to overcome his issues yesterday, but in a different scenario against a different opponent, he might not have been so fortunate. Many of his losses in the past have been attributable to his breathing issues, and due to the current lack of understanding of the nature and legality of possible remedies for them, we can except to see more turbulence ahead.

The fact that he's No. 2 in the world in spite of all this is definitely cause for pride. The fact that he's searching for a solution, however, is still what is holding him back.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Big 4 is Now Officially The Big 5

Look out Big 4, Here Comes "Le Sod."

It's hot at @CoupeRogers, and for the ATP's top four, it could stay that way. Temperatures are rising right along with the prize money this week in Toronto. It's 85 degrees with 66% humidity on Tuesday, and there are plenty more hot days on the horizon.

The goal of the typical ATP top-fiver is to win in this heat, but not at the expense of one's health. It's the double-headed dragon known as life on the tour, and it knows no reprieve. The challenge of managing and maintaing fitness (staying hydrated, preventing injuries, recovering for the next match without a loss in efficiency, and so much more) in an environment that rewards only those who are willing to push themselves to the brink of exhaustion in the oppressive heat 2 or 3 times per day is no easy task.

But when you push yourself to the brink each day the risks of injury mount. In today's game, with today's outrageous physical demands, a two-week haul (Toronto, followed by Cincy) on the cement is not an easy task.

As I write, we're all still waiting for the first of the top-5 ATP players to get a match in. It's been a period of recovery for the big boys, as only Soderling (Bastad) and Djokovic (Davis Cup, Split) have played a lick since @Wimbledon. Of course, we're all wondering who will get a feel for the hard courts first.

Nadal is currently on a planet all by himself when it comes to rankings, but there is room for significant play in slots two through five. Soderling is looking at the best chances to move up if he can maintain his current form and put up some big wins between now and September.

While the massive Swede from Tibro, Sweden doesn't doesn't claim to care about the rankings (see video at top of page), but there's no denying that the things that Soderling does on the court merit him considerable attention in them. It is not difficult at all to imagine him becoming No. 3 or No. 4 in the next three months. That statement is based on fact as well as a premonition. It's based out of respect for his consistent results this year, but also for the fact that Soderling has very few points to defend all the way past the Australian Open in 2011.

From there, who knows where he'll go. He doesn't seem to lack for desire, that's for sure.

The aggresive young usurper—He is timid as a mouse off the court, but when he laces 'em up Soderling aims for total destruction—has NO WINS to defend in either Toronto or Cincinnati, and only a quarterfinal at the U.S. Open.

All of this adds up to a surefire recipe for a climb.

If Rafa is the Bull and Roger is the Maestro, then Soderling is the punk. He's three chords and a dream—a massive serve, a massive forehand, and a massive will to win. He's a simple guitar solo with loads of feedback and a smashed guitar on the stage at the end of the song. He's punk because he's rebellious, and because his style of play is abrasive, loud, and anthemic.

And, like most punks, he's chronically pursuing the keys to the castle. Because nobody wanted to give them to him he proceeded to bang down the doors. He may have come late to the party, but Soderling doesn't appear as if he wants to leave.

So please mark this blog post as the official beginning of the unofficial Big Five of men's tennis.

With more research you can quickly see why Soderling is in prime position for a surge. Federer, the current No. 3, has a Montreal quarter, A Cincinnati title, a U.S. Open Final, and an Australian Open title to defend. That's mad points right there No offense to Roger, but as far as the rankings are concerned he'll be swimming uphill for a while.

Murray, the current No. 4, is another target that Soderling has an advantage on. Murray has a title in Canada and a semi in Cincinnati to defend. Soderling will pass him in the rankings even if they both have good results.

If there ever was a time for Soderling to step up and prove that he truly belongs in the conversation about the best current players in the game, it is now.

He's got the wind at his back, and a pretty big sail.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Falling Down the Mountain

Roddick falls out of the top-10 and American tennis hits a 35-year low. What comes next?

Watching the decline of American men's tennis has been like watching a train wreck in ultra-slow slow motion. For a while, it looked like Andy Roddick's wobbly wheels might be replaced by John Isner's or Sam Querrey's before the train swerved off the tracks and came to rest on its side next to the cabooses of those other former tennis juggernauts, Great Britain and Australia. But Roddick's fortunes have taken a turn for the worse this year, and Isner's and Querrey's futures remain as much in doubt as they were at the conclusion of last year's U.S. Open.

The result? For the first time since 1973, the ATP's top-ten is without a single American player. After Andy's loss to Frenchman Gilles Simon last night, the cold hard truth has finally taken over the warm fuzzy comfort of a century of tennis dominance. The train, in other words, has crashed.

Is this a bad thing? Of course! But is it the end of the world, and for that matter, the end of American tennis? Of course not.

Writers like me, who are already familiar with this story (the train wreck, in slow motion), will no doubt take pleasure in driving the final stake into the heart of tennis fans all over the country. "You're sport is dead here," we'll say, as if having a blog or a job at the local paper gives us the right to smash the hopes and dreams of anyone who has it in their heart (Isner, Querrey, Harrison, Kudla, Sock, Nishikori, and countless others) to revive this formerly revered entity known as American Tennis.

Editors note: I just got an e-mail that read "Are American men doomed for the U.S. Open?"

In response to those who want to know whether or not American tennis will become something more than the contents of a dusty old trophy case full of the names of yesteryear, I think that patience first, and understanding next, are the key ingredients to future success.

If we want to take the perspective of entitled, unsympathetic fools, then yes, the American men are doomed for the U.S. Open. Because for us, the unsympathetic and over entitled American tennis fans (spoiled by the glory years of Sampras, Agassi, McEnroe, and Connors) , nothing short of Grand Slam titles will ever be good enough.

But we shouldn't just give up believing that American doesn't possess athletes worthy to continue our influence and uncanny predeliction for the sport. Smashing American tennis is not an impossibility, and to look at in such a way is an exercise in futility. It'd be a self fulfilling prophecy, so why not believe?

I think the key question that many die-hard American tennis fans will have to answer is the following: do you love tennis or do you love American tennis? Because if you love tennis, you will enjoy watching young Americans embrace the challenge of trying to reinvent themselves and their games within the paradigm of the new modern game.

It is in no way shape or form going to be easy, and Patrick McEnroe, the General Manager of USTA's elite development program, knows that in ways that many of us have not even begun to comprehend. In our defense (unsympathetic fans), we've been watching the wheels come off the American Tennis train for quite some time, and it's been a pretty compelling fall from grace, so we haven't had time to actually get constructive about the future.

But P-mac (John's younger brother) has, and he's doing his best to think outside the box when it comes to training young talent for a future in a game that is very different from the game that Americans so naturally excelled at on so many levels. Patrick McEnroe has shown a keen eye for what makes players and programs successful, and he has exhibited a willingness to follow, embrace, and learn from the example of the Spanish and other successful programs.

It may not do much to ease the sting of looking at the ATP's current top-ten, but it does give fans reason to hope in the States. Now is not the time for bitterness or frustration now is the time for humility, acceptance of the facts that lay before us, diligence, and—more than ever—passion for the purity of the sport.

The train may have crashed, but the tracks are still there.

All we need to do is rethink the train.