Wednesday, December 29, 2010

2010, The Year in Gestures

Heartbreak, jubilation, sorrow, confusion, determination, malevolence -- each and more were part of the 2010 tennis season.

Ah, look at Roger in that picture. Doesn't he look so pissed yet so calm? And isn't that one of the best parts of being a die-hard tennis fan -- that we get to really peer inside the tortured and/or ecstatic minds of the athlete and really FEEL what they're going through? I know it's always been one of my favorite things about watching tennis. The voyeuristic element is enticing, the fact that we, as fans, are granted a window into the soul of the athlete.

Sometimes it's ugly and all mishmashed (Vera). Sometimes it's dark and brooding (Fed). Sometimes it's so intense it practically burns right through you (Rafa).

Sometimes it's surprisingly vacuous (Berdych, Cilic). Sometimes it's morose (Dinara, Querrey in Paris), and other times it's uplifting, bubbly, and bright (Baghdatis, Tsonga).

Sometimes it's every single emotion plus a few you've never experienced before, all wrapped into one (Novak).

Other times it's too intense, almost neurotic, insane intense (Henin) and it makes you painfully aware of how tennis is a sport unlike any other, how it is a game that demands perfection in a world where perfection simply isn't possible.

It all makes you wonder if the best players are the best players because they are the best players or are they the best players because they've read every bit of tennis psychology -- aka the MENTAL GAME -- that they can get their hands on. Because when you think about it, there are so many matches that seem to hinge on ONE HUGE POINT.

And with each huge point there is a gesture. A glance. A fist pump. A towel over the head or a racquet embedded in the clay, that says "here I am, naked before you, wanting desperately to be everything that I knew I could be before I stepped out on this court."

And with these gestures, we have further proof that the sport of tennis is a creature unlike any other.

Here are a just a few of my favorite tennis gestures of 2010. There were millions, and I enjoyed them all...

1. The Nadal Somersault at Wimbledon: This was the most unscripted, boyish, innocent, and cute thing Nadal did all year. It was like a brief respite from the slaughter that basically went down, uninterrupted, from April to September. And the double fist pump at the end? Classic!

2. Francesca Schiavone Kissing the Clay: Oh, man I had to go back and watch this a few times because I was crying when it happened live. I'm gonna cross my fingers and hope that something more inspirational than Schiavone's French Open title happens in 2011, but I'm not getting my hopes up.

3. Sampras hammering a serve at Andre during the Hit For Haiti: This one taught me that you can take the player out of the competition, but you can't take the competition out of the player. I think Andre deserved this for sure, and while the whole thing was probably unnecessary, immature, and caddy, it was delightfully fun to watch.

4. Serbian Baldies, Davis Cup Champions: I'm not sure if this fits the classic definition of an emotional tennis gesture, but seeing the Serbs climb to the top of the tennis ladder, collectively rather than individually, then seeing them all symbolically shave each others heads as if to imply that they were all soldiers in the same army, was just the type of boisterous and playful gesture that I expected, wanted, and needed at that moment. I'm sure we are all in agreement about this one, right?

5. The Campionship Chest Bump Into a Love Straddle: What's better than a little doubles love to close out the segment? The Bryan Brothers -- so passionate, so dedicated, so entertaining, and so tough to beat -- have climbed further than any other doubles team ever has before. Here's the vid of their record-breaking match point in their home state of California.

Their milestone victory was about so many things: the importance of family, the coolness of making the most out of your twinship, and it was also a pretty good promotional idea to sell records.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

My Tennis Xmas Wish List

Trivia Question: What string tensions are best when playing on a platform 1,000 yards above the city?
San Francisco --

Dear friends,

In keeping with my year-end tradition, I am going to make another foray into the out-of-the-ordinary year-end list. Except that it's not a list as much as it is not a list.


As Xmas approaches I realize I am not in want of anything more than what I already have -- great friends, great loves, and most of all, great tennis.

It is only during times like these, when the world sits still in repose, that we get to truly contemplate the immense beauty of it all. When the arc of the game rests and the rankings don't change, we can look back at the year that was and feel a glow. We can miss it and also be happy it's gone so we can catch up on what it all meant.

Tennis Xmas List, 2010

1. Nobody Break the longest match record next year: Okay, I'm going to start with one I know I can have. Think about how duped we'd all feel if somebody broke the record we know will never fall. Plus, I don't know if I could take another one so soon.

2. USTA, say you are not touching Grandstand: I don't understand. If the U.S. Open was in San Francisco you'd have bands of protesters running around the grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center with signs, and laying in front of the gates to the legendary Grandstand.

This is just too sad for me to deal with. It is (or should I say, was?), in my opinion, the best place to watch tennis in the U.S.

3. Advise umpires to overrule less: This has always been one of my pet peeves. There are other and better ways to control the integrity of a match.

4. A virtual unknown Slam winner, please: I love excitement, and what better way to get excited about tennis than to see a new fresh face burst on to the scene? Nothing against the unbelievable prowess with which Rafa and Roger have lorded over the competition, but true shockers are always welcome vs. what has become the status quo.

5. A wildcard to the U.S. Open qualies: Judging from the improvements in my forehand in the last few weeks, I can't find any reason not to think I could be the next Blake Strode (except that I'm delusional).

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Year in Random Blurbs, Part 2

Victoria Azarenka's 2010 was full of drama -- but she wasn't the only one who had a wild year.

San Francisco --

I'll start the second edition of "The Year in Random Blurbs" by wishing you all the best. Because really, as much as our tennis obsessions get our competitive juices flowing, at the end of the day we are all in the same boat, loving the sport and -- hopefully -- joining in the camaraderie, sportsmanship, and passion that makes tennis our life force.

Today, I'm going to look at some of the things that went wrong this year, not because I want to dwell on negativity (that's not how I roll). Actually it's quite the opposite. I'm interested in the low points of the season, because when we watch players react to adversity, we can really get a feel for who they are. And when they respond bravely, we can get inspired. Just look how Rafa responded to all his physical problems of 2009. Now that's what I call uplifting.

I'd have to agree with Darren Cahill when I consider what makes tennis great. I asked him about the subject in an interview earlier this year, and here is what he said:

Me: What are a few of the most important life lessons tennis taught you?

Darren: It’s a great sport for problem solving. You’ve got so many times when you’re out on the court where it’s one on one, things are not going well, you feel like the loneliest person on the planet, and you have to figure out a way to fix it. I think that you can take that skill through life as well. If you can take the emotions out of what’s happening, and just learn to fix a problem, then you can get a lot more done. And I think tennis is wonderful for that. Because it is one on one and you don’t get any help. Most of what you do on the court you need to prepare for before the match, you need to go out there and execute during the match, and then you need a run-down of how you accomplished that after the match. It really does set you up in planning and problem solving as you go through life, so I think it’s a wonderful sport for that.

So, without any further ado, let's take a look at some of the harrowing moments of the 2010 tennis season. Here's to hoping that each will prove, in his or her own way, that life is not about what happens to you -- it's about how you react to what happens to you.

1. Vika -- Oh, Vika, poor poor Vika. You can be so damn mystical. What is it with you and Gisela Dulko anyway? Oh, forget it. It's no big deal. We know you can play Vika, and play with anyone. But what we don't know is what we're all dying to find out: Can you do it without the drama? Can you do it with maturity, a sense of purpose, and a firm resolve?

One gets the feeling that Azarenka's window on a "great" career is closing. Titles in Stanford (an amazing performance) and Moscow are no fluke. Vika is a bona fide baseline weapons dispenser. But the Slam results were all so heartbreaking, so deflating, and so, well, sad.

Can she rise above her own fragility in 2011? Sure. Will she? I'm curious to know, and rooting for her all the way!

2. Sam Querrey at the French -- I think Sam's lacklustre effort vs. Robby Ginepri was the low point of the season for fans of American Tennis. Sure, American tennis fans are always busy looking for the lowest of the lows -- it's been a well-documented suffering period -- but Querrey's lack of interest, both during and after the loss to Ginepri, was SHOCKING.

To his credit, Querrey was forthright with the press. He was emotional toast at the time, and we all know that the rigors of the ATP schedule has done that to many a man. I just hope he manages his time a little better in 2011, and peaks at the Slams rather than burns out.

3. Odesnik -- This was the ugliest of the ugly. Not only was the news of Odesnik's hgh bust in Australia a bummer for all those who loathe the encroachment of ped's on our belovedly pure game, but the way that everybody reacted was equally ugly.

Note to humans: Let's not burn the guy at the cross until we know what the heck is going on. The unabated level of hatred for Wayne Odesnik was a little over the top in my opinion. Please don't mistake me for a drug sympathizer, for that I am not. That being said, I am not one to jump to conclusions and openly chastise people when I don't know them or all the details of their stories.

4. Justine's Tennis Elbow -- I've done a lot of thinking about the psychology of Justine lately. I'm curious to know how she'll respond to the fact that her comeback has thus far fell far short of Kimpossible's. This much we know: Justine is insanely competitive, and as much as she and Kim are amenable to each other of late (very nice to see, imo), you just know Justine is burning up to prove herself worthy of the BBE claim (Best Belgian Ever).

Can she do it? Can she stay healthy, and can she keep the stress of her own expectations from bringing her down?

5. Masha: We keep expecting Maria Sharapova to do two things -- go deeper in a slam, and return to the top-ten -- and we keep getting surprised when she falls just a smidgen short. One things for certain here. It's not for a lack of effort. Maria's added a fiance and a new coach to her entourage -- perhaps it will make the difference in 2011. Let's not forget that her surgery forced her to pretty much relearn her serve. She did some of her best post-comeback serving in the latter parts of 2010, and better serving should improve her chances of overcome her most glaring weakness: footwork.

6. Grigor Dimitrov -- Ah, you punk. Grigor, you had everything going for you, excellent challenger play, the smooth, svelte ground strokes, the net presence, the all-court abilities, the hell-bent-on-moving-up-the-ladder swagger, but you forgot the main rule of tennis in these softer, gentler times: Don't act like a spoiled little baby. (for those not in the know, see this.)

That being said, we all realize, $%!* happens. Just show some remorse, keep gunning for the top-100, and there will be a crowd of crazed fans ready to root for you when you get there.

7. Gulbis -- Deep breath here. Remember Rome, when it looked like Ernests was going to put the hammer down on Rafa in the Semis just a few days after his monumental upset of then No. 1 Roger Federer? Yeah, who could forget.

As we all know it didn't turn out so well for Gulbis. Not that losing to Rafa in a hotly contested three-setter on clay is reason for anything but pride, but Gulbis' follow-up to his near-miss ended up being a huge dud.

He was on many dark horse lists for the French Open, but Julian Bennetteau zapped him in round 1 (a leg injury played a role, if you're scoring at home). Afterwards, a reversion back to the same maddening inconsistency kept Ernests from making a dent in many draws afterwards. He skipped Wimbledon, and lost in the first round of the U.S. Open against Jeremy Chardy.

Though he finished the year ranked No. 24, the 22-year-old still appears a long way from backing up his astronomical talents with consistent results.

But, as is the case with everybody I've mentioned today, hope springs eternal in 2011. Hard work and commitment can take a player further than he or she ever thought they would climb. Anything is possible, for Gulbis, Azarenka, Sam Querrey, or anyone else for that matter.

Just ask Francesca Schiavone if you're not sure of that.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Year in Random Blurbs, Part 1

David Ferrer was the energizer bunny of the ATP tour in 2010. And he made pretty good money doing it, too.
San Francisco --

Like most of you, I'm not really sure when this whole adventure begins or when it ends. I'm just happy to be around to witness some of the grandeur, some of the tennis gospel that goes down over the course of a season. I'm not sure why all of you have chosen tennis as your religion -- as for me, I can only speak for myself and say it was purely random -- but I do know that if you're reading the Fan Child, you've either got issues or you're hooked on tennis. Maybe both, like me.

Whichever one is closer to the truth, I just wanted to take the time to say happy holidays to y'all, and to mention how thrilled I am that we are sharing this moment in cyberspace.

I don't want to write the typical run-of-the-mill year-end piece for my blog, so I've decided to take y'all on a little adventure. Think of this piece as your antidote to a million top-tens gone awry. Call it a quest for authenticity if you will.

Anyhow, the show must go on, so here goes:

1. David Ferrer -- I chose him as the Year in Random Blurbs (YRB) cover boy, because he's a freak of nature and he deserves some credit. At this point and time, it's pretty clear that David Ferrer is a very long shot to win a slam, but that doesn't mean we can't spend a good chunk of our valuable time appreciating the fact that he is a guru of fitness and the epitome of sheer grits.

2. Vera Zvonareva -- Holy crap is she a player to watch in 2011. Vera has been to the finals of two consecutive Slams. If I need to say more, you need to check yo'sef.

3. Sam Stosur -- Sam is pretty much in the same boat as Vera -- 2011 is THE YEAR to get over the hump. Yeah, there's always the chance to pull a Schiavone, but wouldn't it be better to win the next two French Opens and have everybody convinced that you're unbeatable?

4. LaMonf -- What can I say? Once again, while consistently maligned for his perceived lack of "tennis IQ" the guy plays some of the most inspiring tennis in the history of the sport. Monfils is an artiste, end of story.

5. Funky Fed -- What a funky year Rog had, but the plain truth is that he started strong and finished strong, and he cried less. All three are good news. Now is not the time for Roger to cry. Now is the time for him to prove that he can still kick ass.

6. Serena -- Man if I had a nickel for every time I was confused about what was REALLY AND TRULY going on with Serena this year, I'd be rich, but still confused. And still waiting...

7. A Rhetorical Question -- How can you really decide which match was the best of the year when they were all so incredible? I really love tennis on TV but my favorite ones were the ones that I saw in person. I'm a sidecourt kind of guy. Honestly, I watched Blake and Almagro play this year at Indian Wells and it was some of the most remarkable smashmouth tennis of the year. Things like that always get overlooked in these year-end pieces.

8. Give it up for Rafa -- This was his year, one of the most remarkable I've ever witnessed. It's really hard to put it into words, what this guy does. I think the best word I used all year regarding him was SHAMAN.

9. Masha the Masher-- This woman is INTENSE and don't expect marriage to change that.

10. U.S.A. Men -- All that hype about the crestfallen stars and stripes and we finish the year with 4 in the top-20?

11. Elena -- When you watch Elena Dementieva strut her stuff on the practice courts in her short shorts, you realize the type of physical presence she is. She has the body of a world-class athlete, if you were a statue maker, Elena's the one you'd want posing with the racquet in her hand. Her shoes will be pretty tough to fill, that's for sure.

This is the first of 10 installments leading up to the new year -- think of it as the gift that keeps on giving.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Quest for Comfort: Ana Chooses Van Grichen

Ana Ivanovic will pair with Antonio Van Grichen on a trial basis to start the 2011 campaign.
It's been a wild few years for Ana Ivanovic. After we saw her climb to the pinnacle of the sport in 2008 (a NO. 1 ranking AND a Grand Slam -- what a rare and precious combo!), we watched her unravel before our very eyes, quite spectacularly at times, until finally she began a rediscovery period under the tutelage of the legendary Heinz Gunthardt in 2010.

After dropping well out of the top-50 for a spell, Ana engineered a stunning turnaround this season that saw her climb all the way back into the top-20 before the curtains closed on the season. It was a moving rebirth, and it brought joy to the hearts of Ana's legions of die-hard fans (though it isn't just her on-court results that make her so deserving of their affections).

Temporarily, the skies over Ana's camp were as blue as they'd been in a while. But ominous clouds would drift in shortly thereafter. When the news broke that Gunthardt and Ana would not continue their relationship in 2011, many wondered if Ana would be able to continue her resurgence. Sure, losing a coach is not the end of the world, but it isn't exactly a recipe for consistency for a woman who admittedly craves a long term relationship with clearly marked channels of communication.

"The team is very important," Ana said last summer, referring to her tutelage under Gunthardt at the beginning of a stretch of improved play that fueled hope that she might soon return to her former greatness. "Confidence comes from yourself but also it helps if you have a good team around you."

She went on to say that she longed for stability, and that she was finding that with Heinz and her new fitness guru, Marija Lojanica. "I was surrounded with so many people, and I changed a lot of people, but I feel that for me I don't need a lot of people. A fitness coach and a coach -- I think that's all you need. With three people it's much less people to communicate to."

Ana will still have two people to communicate to in 2011, but one of them will be a slightly unfamiliar voice. News broke Tuesday that Antonio Van Grichen will begin working with Ana (in fact, he already has) on a trial basis for 2011.

Van Grichen, known most for helping deliver Victoria Azarenka to the doorstep of greatness, has been through a lot in the last few years as well. After parting ways with Azarenka (he left her firmly planted in the top-ten, thank you) he ran through two short-lived pairings with Vera Zvonareva and Sorana Cirstea, until he was forced to take a hiatus for a back surgery. After a long rehab stint he had a quick spell with Alize Cornet that also lead to a dead end.

But when the news broke of Ana and Heinz' split, Van Grichen's name was considered by many in the know as a possible replacement. It's hard to know what kind of a working relationship a player and a coach will have until you put them together in the same cage for a while, but when you think about it, Ana and Antonio seem like a good match, both tactically, and more importantly, psychologically and emotionally.

And, after turbulent periods in their careers, each is searching for a comfortable union that might create a shed of security in an environment where there seems to ever hardly be any.

Van Grichen obviously knows the game, and he is revered by many for the wonderful job he did with Azarenka, in terms of quieting her fragile psyche while simultaneously creating the perfect tactical blueprint for success with the weapons she had at her disposal.

His new player has quite a few weapons at her disposal too. And she's looking for some stability as well. On the surface, it appears like this could be a great match for both Ivanovic and Van Grichen, but the results that follow in the first few months of the year might have a lot more to say about the long-term possibilities of the pairing than their comfort level as human beings.

Their union presents an interesting storyline to start the 2011 season. Two young superstars in their respective fields pairing up to reclaim their places at the top of the tennis pecking order.

Van Grichen's presence in Ana's life could be just the thing she's looking for. An overlooked role of the tennis coach is his or her influence on the emotional well being of a player. Alleviating stress and boosting a player's self confidence are major ingredients in the coach-player dynamic.

Ana has all the tools to make it to the top of the game, and if Van Grichen can help her see herself as the champion that she once was, perhaps this trial will turn into something far more satisfying.

That, no doubt, is something that Ana's legion of fans have been waiting patiently for since her rise to glory in 2008.

For now, at least, the glass is half-full.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Year In Adjectives, part 1

By October, tennis writers were running out of ways to describe Rafa's domination. But true scribes always find a way.
The 2010 tennis season was very similar to the Nile river -- before it reaches its destination (in the Nile's case the Mediterranean Sea, in the ATP's case a well-deserved month off), it passes through a bunch of countries that aren't quite superpowers, and undergoes a lot of twists and turns in the process.

Now that the season has finally dumped its waters into the seas of history, we're left with a whole lot of memories, a sizeable number of shattered records, some fragmented nerves, and the vague recollection that if only we had a deep enough vocabulary, we could make some sense of the season.

On that note, I'm going to try to do just that.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the year in adjectives, tennis-style (part 1).

1. Terrifying, Juan Martin del Potro - He's a pretty scary guy in general (would you want to play him?), but 2010 was terrifying for different reasons for Juan Martin del Potro. When he started the season with a lacklustre Australian Open it was worrisome. A near loss in a 5-setter to James Blake (awesome match, btw) and then a frustrating beatdown at the hands of Marin Cilic in the quarters were enough to have us worrying about the kid from Tandil. At the time it seemed like it might be Marin's coming out party, but now that we look back it was actually the end of the rope for Juan Martin.

In 2011 the Argentine with the albatross reach will begin the long hard climb from an ATP ranking of No. 257. We won't know for a while how this will turn out, but part of me can't help being deeply afraid that delpo will never be the same again. It's hard to explain exactly why we need delpo so bad in our sport (he adds a whole new dimension to the game is the concept that comes to mind), but tennis people are unanimous at the moment in agreeing that we do.

2. Magnanimous, Rafa Nadal - Oh man, the guy was a veritable tour de force from the day he broke his eleven-month title drought in Monte Carlo until the evening he clinched the career Grand Slam on Ashe after a hard fought 4-set win over Novak Djokovic.

Remember Rafa lying on his belly and sobbing like a baby while Djokovic climbed the net and trotted over to give him a hug? To me, that sliver of the season -- the camaraderie that Nadal and Djokovic exhibited, was another fine example of tennis as a sport of dignity, respect, and charisma. I'll lay off comparing Rafa to heroes of other sports, but I will say that tennis certainly doesn't long for a genuine hero at the moment.

3. Ecstatic, Serbia - Davis Cup naysayers were quickly converted when they watched the Serbian team celebrate with a lustful pride of accomplishment after they dispatched the French in the final. For those unfamiliar with the history here, this was a victory of epic proportions for a country/ region that has endured more than its fair share of hardship in the last 15 years.

We are talking constant bombings, political turmoil, and economic disarray. But the spirit of the Serbian people is what we are talking about now. Their fire, their emotional flair, their intensity, and most all, their success. How sweet it was to see, and how lucky tennis was to feature this storyline in 2010.

4. Perplexing, Serena Williams - She stepped on what? She'll be out for how long? She embedded what in her walking boot? She's going to play again when?

I don't know if perplexing does what Serena has gone through -- and put us through -- justice, but I do know that I can't wait to see her play again.

5. Inspirational, Francesca Schiavone - The day Francesca Schiavone won the French Open I realized that life is a miraculous journey. You can go years without any excitement, without growth so to speak, but if you keep battling, keep fighting, and keep believing, the time will come for you to shine.

Francesca Schiavone was there at the door when opportunity knocked. She let it in. She gave herself fully to her dreams, and she harnessed all the magic of the moment to produce a moment that will forever transcend the lore of Italian tennis.

This was one of those anything-is-possible moments that goes down as the highlight of the year for me, and maybe the highlight of the last ten years. And no, it's not only because I'm Italian!

More to come, so stay tuned -- and happy holidays everybody!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Djokovic and Monfils: Men on a Mission

With huge wins in Belgrade on Friday, Novak Djokovic and Gael Monfils set the table for a monumental finish to the weekend.

It may be just tennis in December for the rest of the world, but for France and Serbia it is so much more. For Novak Djokovic and Gael Monfils, the charismatic leaders of their Davis Cup squads, it feels like each is at a very crucial point in their development as a tennis player.

For Djokovic, the 2008 Australian Open champion who has developed a reputation as an enigmatic yet superbly talented player -- one who stands perpetually one rung below where we think he should be on the ladder of tennis success -- his impassioned Davis Cup season just may be a new high water mark in his already fantastic tennis career. After struggling with mysterious heat-inflicted maladies and coming up short against the top two players in the world more often than not, Djokovic has engineered a massive turnaround in fate over the back half of 2010.

Could this be the emergence of the Djokovic that we all expected when he stormed the upper tier of tennis in 2007 and 2008? It certainly appears that way. While his immense will to prove himself provided the impetus for his original climb to the No. 3 spot in the ATP rankings, now it appears that another immensity is guiding Djokovic's efforts: His love of country.

Djokovic has gone 6-0 in Davis Cup singles in 2010, and it's clear that he relishes being depended upon to provide massive wins for a Serbian squad that is hell bent on winning its first Davis Cup title in the same year that it won its first World Group match.

While it would be a huge mistake to discount the contributions of the other Serbian players -- Janko Tipsarevic, Viktor Troicki, and Nenad Zimonjic -- it was once again made clear on Friday that Djokovic will have to be the one to pilot the Serbs to victory.

During his straight set win over Gilles Simon, Djokovic was the epitome of a world class player -- calm, authoritative, remarkably skilled, and clutch -- today.

And make no mistake about it, his task of revitalizing his squad, and the shocked partisan crowd who bore witness to Janko Tipsarevic's shellacking, was no small feat.

Djokovic played it so cool in the first set, all the time displaying a look of focus and calm while he and Simon walked a virtual tightrope deadlocked for the first six games of the match. One mistake at this point and the air might have fully left the building, but Djokovic stayed patient, assessing his foe and choosing the perfect moment to strike.

He closed the set with two breaks of serve in three straight games and the rest of the day was saved for Serbia.

Djokovic's next singles opponent has also done his country proud in 2010. Much maligned for his disappointing Davis Cup loss last September to Thiemo De Bakker, Gael Monfils had a lot to prove to his captain, Guy Forget. Many thought it was a lost cause, assuming that the young flamboyant Frenchman was too self-centered to truly embrace the art of playing for the flag.

Man were they wrong.

Monfils' perfect record in Davis Cup play in 2010 has been the biggest reason that the French are now seeking their 10th Davis Cup title, and their first since 2001. True, Michael Llodra has been a small miracle to the French team, and yes, the depth of the French is second to perhaps only Spain, but does anybody in their right mind think that the French could have gone this far without Monfils coming of age?

Monfils' wins over Kolschreiber, Ferrer, and Nalbandian set the tone in each of France's last three wins, and Friday's romp over Janko Tipsarevic on enemy turf,erased many doubts that Monfils wouldn't be the same player with 16,000 rowdy Serbs hooting and hollering for the other guy.

While Djokovic's ascent in the back half of 2010 was more noteworthy than Monfils, the two players both enjoyed a better-than-expected run in New York, and followed that up immediately with a monumental Davis Cup semifinal victory two weeks later. They are completely different personalities, each captivating in their own way, but they do share a similar bond now.

Both knows what it is like to play for a cause, and to thrive under that pressure. No matter what comes of the next two days in Belgrade, both will be steps ahead in their maturation process when all is said and done.

It's only fitting that Monfils and Djokovic will duke it out on Sunday in a live rubber that will be perhaps the biggest match in each player's career.

Only then will we see which player has come the farthest.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Home Cooking and National Pride

Nationalism and tennis are poised to intersect as France and Serbia prepare for their Davis Cup final in Belgrade this week.

Sometimes in life things just fall into place -- they call it serendipity. That's what this year's Davis Cup final between Serbia and France is looking like from where I'm sitting.

I want to take a moment before things get rolling this weekend to direct a huge salute in the direction of the host nation. I'll get to France -- whose accomplishments, both individually and collectively, are not to be overlooked -- in future posts, but right now it seems appropriate to take a moment to reflect upon what Serbia means to tennis these days.

Ah, where to start? How is it that this war-torn nation has taken it upon itself to embrace the sport of tennis, and how lucky are we to bear witness to their maturation?

To say that what Serbia has done over the last ten years to emerge as a world tennis power is mindblowing would be a drastic understatement. I'll spare you the history lesson and another "tennis in a swimming pool" anecdote but I will say this: The Serbians are a godsend for tennis -- they are the embodiment of the type of spirit, perseverance, and character that the sport demands of its participants, and we the tennis fans of the world should view this Davis Cup final (Serbia's proud first) not only as a monumental event for tennis but also a testament to the type of mettle that the people of Serbia are made of.

I've always had a theory that the Serbs wear their hearts on their sleeves, and that theory is consistently backed by the way their stars interact with fans, media, other players, and each other. It may not fit the definition of Western European decorum, but that, I believe, is why it is so refreshing to watch the Serbs go about their business.

It takes courage to open yourself up to the public, to put yourself out there, and yet, time and time again, the Djokovic's and the Tipsarevic's of the world have done it with a beautiful and eclectic flair. They've gone out and layed themselves on the line, for better or for worse. The results haven't always been perfect (Spain they are not), but it has always been joyful, emotional, and honest.

In 2010 it has all come to bloom, and here they are united for the cause in Belgrade, ready to rock the rafters and bring the nation the accolades it deserves.

Win or lose, this weekends festivities in Belgrade will give us all a chance to reflect on what Serbia -- both in theory and in practice -- means to tennis. Our sport is far more entertaining and compelling because of the willingness of this proud nation to emerge from the ruins of war as a unique and impassioned contributor to the sporting world at large.

That's something we should all be thankful for. I know I am.