Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Prince of Abu Dhabi

I honestly don't know how much of a correlation you can make between the winner of this weekend's exhibition in Abu Dhabi and who is going to make some noise at the upcoming (yes, really) Australian Open, but if there is any correlation, all signs are pointing to Novak Djokovic being in fine form once again in 2012. He was dominant in Abu Dhabi, just as he was dominant in 2011.

As for Roger Federer, he'll still be "officially" riding a 17-match winning streak when he takes the court in Doha vs. Nikolay Davydenko next week, but the 6-2, 6-1 thrashing at the hands of Djokovic probably won't do much for his confidence (nor will the straight sets loss to Rafa in the consolation match). Then again, maybe he's forgotten it already. I guess only Roger truly knows. And similarly, probably Rafa only knows what the fact that he was beaten in straight sets by David Ferrer means for his chances in Melbourne, bad shoulder and all.

So here's my question regarding Abu Dhabi: Should we pretend it never happened, even though it did? I'm confused.

That said, you can have a look at some of the highlights and form your own opinions.

Here you go:




And you can keep an eye on Federer and Nadal next week as they make their way to Doha for their first official event of the year.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"Rafa" The Book: Understanding Uncle Toni's Profound Influence

I've spent the last few days curling up with Rafa's recently published book "Rafa," by Rafa himself and writer John Carlin. It's been a surprisingly entertaining read about one of the most compelling personalities of the sport, and I must say, it has only made me appreciate all of Rafa's remarkable character traits even more.

There are a lot of topics discussed in the book, but for me the most interesting and eye-opening content concerns Rafa's unique relationship with Uncle Toni and Rafa's symbiotic relationship with the rest of his family.

I'll focus on Uncle Toni in this post, because I felt that the book was particularly revealing in that regard, and, anybody who hasn't read the book might not fully understand or appreciate just how significant the bond that Rafa and Uncle Toni share is.

First, I was struck by the similarities between Rafa's relationship with Uncle Toni and Andre Agassi's relationship with his father Mike. There are certainly differences, but the similarities struck me immediately. Like Mike Agassi, Uncle Toni believes in discipline; more specifically, in making practice almost unbearably difficult, so that tennis matches would seem comparatively easy.

"Yes, he might have gone too far, but it's worked very well for me," says Rafa of his Uncle in the book. "All that tension in every single coaching session, right from the very start, has allowed me today to face up to the difficult moments in a match with more self-control than might otherwise have been the case. Toni did a lot to build that fighting character people say they see in me on the court."

While Agassi developed a keen sense of contempt for his father, Nadal, due to the strength of his family life (which provided him with balance and joy, and kept him from getting too tightly wound) and perhaps his docile nature, never rebelled against Toni. "By pushing me always to the edge, he built up my mental strength," said Rafa. "But the intensity of his desire for me to triumph was complemented in a healthy way by my father's relaxed attitude to the whole thing."

The book certainly raises questions about the best way to build a tennis champion. Families such as the Williamses, the Agassi's and the Nadal's have used familial relationships to bend the rules of discipline and to push the coach-player dynamic beyond acceptable societal limits. In doing so the relative/coach gains entry into the deepest parts of their pupil's psyche, which allows them to push buttons that other coaches with less access might never get to push.

The player-coach dynamic wasn't always so simple for Nadal, and Toni's role in Rafa's tennis did not always go unquestioned. "Toni was hard on Rafa because he knew Rafa could take it and would eventually thrive. He would not have applied the same principles, he insists, with a weaker child," wrote John Carlin in the book. "This argument prevailed in the family at least to the point that no one, not even Rafa's mother, ever really confronted Toni and told him to ease up on the child. They understood that spending so many hours and hours with Toni was wearing in the extreme, but that the two of them had reached a point where they could not live, much less succeed in tennis, without each other."

It wasn't always pretty, but Toni, strong-minded ex-tennis player that he was, had his plan. More importantly, he had the families' support when it came to Rafa's tennis, even when things got awkward, as they did quite often.

When Rafa was 12, he returned home from an important victory in South Africa to a big party at his Grandparent's house. But before he could begin to celebrate, he was ushered away by Uncle Toni, who then said to the Grandmother: "What are you trying to do to Rafael? You'll ruin him. Don't give what he does so much importance."

Another example, from Rafa's 11th year, is also telling. After winning the Spanish under-12's, Toni took the initiative to phone the press to get the list of the previous twenty-five winners of the tournament. "Then, in front of the rest of the family, he read out the names and asked me if I had ever heard of any of them," writes Rafa. "'So and so, do you know him? No. This guy? No. And this one? No.' There were just five who had reached a decent level as professionals, whose names meant something to me. Toni was triumphant. 'You see? The chances of you making it as a pro are one in five. So, Rafael, don't get too excited about today's victory. There's still a long, hard road ahead. And it all depends on you.'"

Toni's influence over Rafa, and his ability to motivate him, has not wavered over the years. Even now, his words are what motivates Rafa to never be satisfied with himself, to always be humble, and to keep sharpening his mental focus in order to defeat opponents who are believed to be more naturally gifted than he is.

"Whether he's made me a better player, or I him," writes Nadal, of his rival Roger Federer, "it's hard for me to say. Toni has never ceased to remind me -- and I know he is right -- that Federer is more technically gifted than I am, but he does so not to cause me despondency, but because he knows saying so will motivate me to sharpen my game. I watch Federer playing on video sometimes, and I'll be amazed at how good he is; surprised that I have been able to beat him."

Tennis fans have always known that Rafa and Uncle Toni shared a special bond. After reading "Rafa," we now know some of the quirkier details of the union. John Carlin aptly calls them the "Dynamic Duo,", and the compelling book that he has co-authored with Nadal pays heed to their unique relationship, and the undeniably important role it has played in Rafa's success on the ATP Tour.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Perspective: Ryan Harrison Needs a Stabilizing Coaching Relationship

A lot has changed with regard to Ryan Harrison's coaching situation in the last nine months; then again, a lot hasn't. For Harrison, the coaching carousel continues to spin. He's beginning a relationship with Grant Doyle as of this week. That's great news for Doyle, who did some fine coaching work with Sam Querrey and has also made a name for himself running a high performance academy in Austin, Texas.

As far as what it will mean for Harrison, I guess we'll have to wait and see. Will Doyle stick? Will he be able to gain the trust of his young charge and really make a difference, or will he play the role of chaperone, while Harrison's father steers the career of his son from a distance?

I hope it's the former. I think that Harrison would benefit greatly from a trusting coach-player relationship. Here's what Harrison said about the subject in March (which was two coaches ago, fyi):

Q: Is having your coaching situation, or having it in flux -- has that affected you at all?

Harrison: Obviously we're looking to get the coaching situation sorted out as soon as possible. You want to have that stable environment around you, and that's exactly why it's taken so long. Because it's tough to just bring someone in and say 'okay, I trust this person.'

Just meeting somebody new and trusting that person is just -- you can't just do that. You have to build a relationship with somebody and get to a point where you do trust what they're saying. And that's what a coach has to do.

Nine months later, stability is still a missing ingredient. But there is hope that things might be heading in the right direction. Doyle, who was a former No. 1-ranked Australian junior, topped out in the ATP Rankings at No. 173, but he's been a dedicated coach and mentor to young players for quite some time now.

Doyle's tour results are not important here. What really matters is his ability to fill a void for Harrison. While Harrison has made great strides in the last two years, he has also demonstrated the ability to sabotage his own progress with counterproductive tantrums.

The recurring Harrison theme? Steadily improving play marred by steadily recurring meltdowns. There are some who believe the youngster should stick to his guns and play with an edge to honor the fiery American tradition, but those in the know realize that emulating the temperament of a John McEnroe isn't necessarily a blueprint for climbing the ATP ladder. Let's keep in mind: McEnroe was different in that he was able to overcome his temper issues with uncannily brilliant tennis. People seem eager to attribute McEnroe's success to his "edge," but I've always believed that he might have been more successful had he not had the volatility issues (see 1984 French Open final).

Let's face it: having a temper is a liability. Harrison needs to get the memo: temper tantrums are so 1980. The players who are winning Slams in this day and age have the ability to compartmentalize their stress. Elite players are zen in the modern era. If Harrison wants to earn elite status, he should pay heed to the temperaments of the Federer's and Nadal's of the world.

Doyle's mission will be threefold when it comes to his budding acolyte: 1. Let Harrison's game continue to blossom (that's the easy part, as Harrison has all the strokes and heightened tactical awareness) 2. Develop the trust and stability that Harrison spoke of in March and 3. Get the kid to stop blowing up on the court.

Is Doyle qualified for such a mission? And even if he is, will Harrison deem him so?

With Harrison only 13 spots off his career-high ranking and still six months from his 20th birthday, he's in a nice position to start 2012. He's a feisty kid with the burning desire to improve.

Maybe a little too feisty at times, but that is -- hopefully -- where Doyle can help.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Droppers: Becker Asks Ballgirl to Sub For Him Vs. Agassi

Now that there are finally no tennis scores to check on livescore, I've been spending my time perusing the voluminous YouTube tennis library a bit more than usual. You know what? It's pretty damn fun. Okay, okay...REALLY DAMN FUN!

Look at this clip of Boris Becker, having a terrible time of it in a match against Andre Agassi in Florida. Becker finally becomes so disillusioned with his game that he hands his racquet to a ballgirl and asks her to have a go at the young "rebel" on the other side of the net. The kid is clearly amused, but she's not quite sure what to do with the racquet (no doubt it's heavier than the ones she's used to), but Becker urges her on.

Finally the happy kid takes to the baseline to receive Agassi's serve. Of course, Andre, long hair and all (can you say wig?), was up for a little walkabout at the time too. He entertains the girl with a half-speed first serve (which she returns) and the crowd goes wild. Eventually he lets the smiling ballgirl win the point, and she walks back to a furiously applauding Becker, hands him the racquet, and takes her spot against the back fence, still smiling.

She's probably still smiling now, decades later. What a classic moment.

Droppers: Nice Video of Lendl Almost Killing Emilio Sanchez

Was doing some late night tennis viewing on YouTube, and came across this hilarious video of Lendl nearly decapitating Emilio Sanchez in a mixed doubles match. Even when you watch it on slo-mo, it looks like the ball is traveling at light speed. It's a good thing that Sanchez took that first split step backwards or it might have been worse.

Seems like everybody got a good laugh out of it, so I guess all was well that ended well.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Second Serving: Looking Back at Spain's Davis Cup Triumph

Wow. Next time you hear me calling for a drastic revamping of the Davis Cup format, just tell me to kindly shut my trap. After this weekend's rousing final between Spain and Argentina, it's painfully clear that if anything needs to be wiped off the men's tennis calendar, it certainly isn't an emotionally gratifying event like La Copa Davis. Take off a few 250 events, even scrap the World Tour Finals if you have to, just leave the Davis Cup alone.

It's a total 180 for me, as I've been in the Davis Cup revamp camp for quite some time, but after being moved to tears on several occasions over the course of an amazing Davis Cup weekend, I now realize that having an international team tennis competition has to be a priority of massive importance to the tennis powers that be.

Granted, this weekend's final was a perfect storm. We had the forlorn Argentines, desperate to pull the miracle on Spain's home dirt. We had probably the best clay court player of all-time, looking to cement his Davis Cup legacy. We had young (Nadal, Del Potro) players looking to carry the old and grizzly veterans (Ferrer and Nalbandian) who were questing for swan songs. We had tennis-mad fans of every age, singing, dancing, laughing, crying.

You don't get this perfect storm anywhere else in tennis, and there lies the hidden unassailable beauty of the event. Even in a Grand Slam, there isn't quite the magnetic pull for the players, but with the pressure to perform for country, for family, and for your peers so high in Davis Cup, it provides the impetus for more soul-churning, gut-wrenching effort than any other competition.

I think that we all, as tennis fans, fantasize about the event where retirements are an impossibility. We secretly long for tennis players to earn the term gladiator, letting the competition preclude health concerns. You have a pulled groin? Tough it out. You snapped your elbow on that last 100 m.p.h forehand? Get some tape. What, your leg feels like it's going to fall off? Do you not hear the enlivened cries of your compatriots?

Well, this weekend, that fantasy came true. This was tennis on a primal level. Nothing was going to keep Juan Martin Del Potro from leaving every ounce of his being out there on that clay, even as he was fighting what was perhaps the most uphill battle in the history of tennis (nobody has ever beaten Rafa on clay in Davis Cup, and perhaps nobody ever will), you could feel Del Potro being willed forward by a higher power. Amazingly, in spite of the fact that he suffered two backbreaking losses, they were not soul-crushing. In fact, I think that Del Potro's stature has risen two-fold, both in the eyes of his compatriots and in the eyes of Spain. Hopefully, in his own eyes, too.

We don't even need to mention the stature of the five-time Davis Cup champion Spaniards, or the greatness of Nadal. But I will say this: Nadal's greatest gesture of the competition might have come after the last ball was struck. After joining his teammates in a celebratory dance, he quickly moved to the net to console his downtrodden victim. When he was done, he didn't go back to partying with his boys. He headed to the Argentine side of the court and congratulated each and every person on their team in a heartfelt manner.

As the Spanish celebration continued, Spain's players quickly gravitated to the Argentine side and surrounded the dejected Del Potro, offering him kind words. Moments later, Del Potro would rise from his chair and thank the crowd to a thick round of applause, fit for a king. He wasn't the king of the clay, but he was king to many in attendance, even in defeat.

It was yet another beautiful moment that only Davis Cup could have produced, one of so many that occurred over the course of this final.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Singing Hearts, Bleeding Hearts: Ferrer Trumps Del Potro

David Ferrer's five set win over Juan Martin del Potro was replete with emotional gravitas.

After the final ball of David Ferrer's 6-2, 6-7(2), 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory over Juan Martin Del Potro was struck today in Seville, Spain, I found myself resonating emotionally with the players as they went to their respective chairs, one crying in anguish, the other in the throes of heartfelt euphoria. For those who rejoice in more than strokes and strategy, and look for the sublime in every match, today's epic struggle was an insta-classic, plain and simple.

Whether you chose to root for Juan Martin Del Potro and his almost deceiving gentle aura or you were rooting for David Ferrer, the indefatigable warrior who deserves so much more recognition for what he brings to the ATP Tour, you had your moments. And whether you took it hard in the end or were sky-high in the sweetness of it all, when it was said and done I think we can all agree that this match was more a collective work of tennis distinction than a singular statement of success or failure by either player.

When viewed against the backdrop of all that has taken place between Spain and Argentina over the years, and when placed in context with the spiritual similarities of the two competing nations (and the two competing players), one could easily sit back and feel sweet joy for one and sweet sadness for the other, simultaneously. Either way, it was sweet, which is nice.

As a neutral, with only the purpose of reporting on the match, I felt an ebb and flow throughout the tilt, and was constantly reminded of how much respect I had for both players involved on an almost per-game basis.

With regard to Ferrer: How is it that the top 4 players can defeat him so regularly? I think if you took a person who had never watched tennis before, and told them that Ferrer was the greatest player in the history of the world, they would believe you after watching only a few points.

With regard to Del Potro: Is there any player on tour with a higher OMG quotient? The brute force he puts behind the ball is staggering. It is a testament to his fitness and strength yes, but I also believe it is a testament to his will. In other words, it is impossible to hit a tennis ball with Del Potro's might unless you want it badly, oh-so badly.

Both Ferrer and Del Potro are notorious for having a big, brave heart, and neither disappointed today during this 4-hour and 46-minute slugfest. Each worked the rowdy crowds into a frenzy at regular intervals, and each was improbably resilient when things looked to be turning sour.

It was a classic struggle, with Ferrer jumping to an early and decisive start only to see Del Potro strengthen his resolve in the second set and second set tiebreaker to draw even. Then in the third set, they wrestled for control again, each dishing out their most noteworthy body blows. For Ferrer it was the punishing mid-court forehand and the dropper that often put him in position to pass Del Potro; For Del Potro it was the filthy forehands that whizzed through the court like weapons-grade fire.

Throughout the match, as they soldiered through exchanges and jockeyed for control, the two were in contrast to one another physically, but almost identical in spirit. There was the 6'6" Argentine, gritting it out, struggling to defend the court with everything he had. And there was the 5'9" Ferrer, a Tasmanian Devil in tennis shoes, part wrestler and part sorcerer, gritting it out as well.

The end was a splendid culmination and the emotional high point that all had hoped for. Ferrer's post-match celebratory scream was silenced by the thunderous growl of the crowd, but the look on his face was louder than love. Del Potro stood slumped at the net, a spent warrior in agony, yet he still managed to dignify Ferrer with his final gesture to him as they shook hands.

For a moment, it felt as if everybody had won. Even Del Potro's sadness seemed sweet.

But we know in the end there can only be one winner. Ferrer gave Spain a 2-0 lead, and Argentina has its back against the wall again. For the fourth time in four finals, the Argentine squad appears to have missed out on a chance to win its first Davis Cup title. Ferrer is overjoyed, the valorous hero. Del Potro is downtrodden, the lamentable loser.

We know in the end it's only going to be about one team, Spain or Argentina, when we check the record books. But today it felt like it was about all of us. The beauty of the sport and the heat of the moment. The power of desire and the heartbreakingly poignant feeling of loss. It was about Spain. It was about Argentina. It was about tennis. It was about us.

And now I hear the familiar refrain in my head: If you leave it all out there on the court, you can never lose.

And, for the first time in a while, I believe it's true.

Droppers: Wozniacki, Young, Bogomolov and More

Today in Droppers we will discuss the week's torrent of tennis news.

1. Caroline Wozniacki chooses Ricardo Sanchez as Coach

Well, what can you say about this move that hasn't already been said? Hmm...maybe I'll take a crack at that: I like the Wozniacki-Sanchez pairing because the parties have emphasized on ensuring that Piotr stays heavily involved. I think that's a good idea for the sake of stability. I also like the fact that it's reportedly a one-year deal instead of a "trial."

Before we chastise Wozniacki and her father/coach for what she hasn't done, let's acknowledge what the world's No. 1 has done. And let's not forget that Piotr has given his daughter some pretty sound fatherly advice over the years. It's clear that he's been very instrumental in Caro's rise to the No. 1 ranking, and it's also clear that the two work together exceedingly well. To keep him in the mix will only make them stronger.

Here is why I like the move: It's always good to get a new set of eyes.

I'm not sure how much we can expect Wozniacki to change her game though. The Wozniacki's seem to believe that Ricardo is valuable because 1) they know him and feel they can work with him harmoniously and 2) he is very familiar with the games of women on tour, and therefore would be an excellent scouting and gameplanning asset.

For those who now believe Wozniacki will appear in Australia next year hitting 100 mph forehand winners, keep in mind that Ricardo Sanchez's previous charge never hit very big, and never seemed to be encouraged to do so either. That said, Jelena Jankovic, who worked with Sanchez on two different occasions, did learn to become a very aggressive player who used angles and space very well.

2. Bogomolov to play Davis Cup for Russia

There has been a lot of talk about Alex Bogomolov joining with the Russian Davis Cup team, so I'll discuss my take briefly here. Remember, when Bogomolov first stated his interest in playing for the motherland, Peter Bodo wrote some very scathing commentary about it. Pete has strong feelings about the subject, and he's earned his right to speak his mind about it.

That said, I've got my own views on the subject. If Bogomolov wants to play for the moon, and if Bogomolov was born on the moon (he was born in Russia), then he should be entitled to play for the moon. If the USTA wants players to remain loyal to them for whatever reason, then they should have the kids sign on the dotted line, so their intentions are clear. Since they didn't, I think he's free to go, and while we are free to judge him, I think that we're wrong to do so.

We don't know what it's like to be Bogomolov -- with his bills to play, his family to provide for, etc... -- so I think it's pretty wrong of us to jump to conclusions about who he owes and for how much.

The news got a little weirder today when Dmitry Tursunov called out tennis journalist Ravi Ubha, saying that he wasn't responsible for what he was quoted for in this piece about Bogomolov. Apparently Tursunov never said it; somebody who had posted a comment on Bodo's original piece had said it. It's a long, convoluted story, so you'll have to go to to Tursunov's Twitter page to get a feel for it.

The bottom line? Tursunov didn't say it. Got it? Get it? Good.

Donald Young back with mom Ilona as coach

I really don't have a lot to say about the recent reports that Donald Young is backing out of his USTA coaching agreement to work solely with his mother. This is another case where it's better to keep quiet and observe, rather than sanctimoniously rush in with judgement. I don't know the whole story, and I'm not sure who does. Reportedly, a source says that Donald was asked by the USTA to attend one of its training centers for workouts during the offseason, and he refused.

Is it true? Who is the source? What is Donald's side of the story?

I'll defer until I know more.

I will say this about Young and Bogomolov. They both had great seasons and they should both be really proud. End of story, for the moment.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Deuce Court: Loving Davis Cup

On the eve of the 99th Davis Cup final in Seville, Spain, The Deuce Court is here to get you fired up.

Deuce #1: The Potential

It will be pretty hard for this year's final to top what happened last year in Belgrade, when Novak Djokovic and Co. won their first Davis Cup. That said, there is something highly intriguing about this weekend's clash between Spain and Argentina. Just hearing those two nation's names in the same sentence gets my head running with images of gauchos and matadors, conquistadors and flamenco dancers. Throw in the improbable nature of what Argentina is trying to do in Seville (break Spain's run of 20 consecutive home Davis Cup victories), add a dash of the revenge factor brought about by Spain's colossal upset of Argentina in 2008, and you have a recipe for for a clay court delicacy the likes of which we may have never seen.

Deuce #2: The Reality

Okay, now let's come down to earth, where the clay is clumpy and slow, and the footwork of the top two Spaniards is quick and decisive. Is there really any way that Argentina can do this? Neither Nadal nor Ferrer have ever lost on clay in Davis Cup play, and that's over the course of twenty-five matches. Can we realistically expect one loss from the vaunted pair, let alone two?

Ad In: The Mysticism

Ah, but there is something about the spirit of Argentina. The fire, if you will. Everybody is confident in Spain's chances right now, but you can't get through a single preview that doesn't at least mention the fact that Argentina is very dangerous, very hungry, and very talented. Juan Martin del Potro may have only gone 3-7 vs. the top ten in 2011, but is there anybody out there who doubts that the man is capable of greatness on the grandest of stages? David Nalbandian, too, will be lurking in the shadows, ready to contribute on the doubles court and, should the opportunity arise, in the reverse singles on Sunday.

Deuce #3: What about Juan Monaco?

He's been labeled the sacrificial lamb by some members of the media, one supposedly sent out to make nice with his video-gaming buddy Nadal (yes, you should click on that last link) and possibly steal a set after playing some long, physical points. But are we selling Monaco short by labeling him so? He's been playing some great tennis this autumn, and he's no doubt going to be inspired by the confidence that his coach Tito Vazquez is showing in him.

Ad In: How bad does Argentina want it?

Since none of Argentina's team members played tour events in the last three weeks, they've all been gearing up for this tie by working extremely hard on the clay. Meanwhile, Nadal and Ferrer have been playing on hard courts, and feeling quite "passionless." Could the difference in preparation have an effect on the outcome, or will fumes be enough to power the clearly superior Spaniards to the title on clay?

Deuce #4: What about Dubs?

Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco have been hit and miss in Davis Cup play, but they have won their matches in the last two finals. Argentina will need to win the doubles to have any hope, and David Nalbandian and Eduardo Schwank will have to find a way to beat them, in their first Davis Cup match as a team. Can they?

Ad Out: My pick

Spain is just too good, plain and simple. But they will need their big guns to close it out on Sunday.

Spain 3, Argentina 2

Is Argentina Capable of a Miracle?

Fernando Verdasco's summation of the mindset of his team as they prepare for the 2011 Davis Cup final is telling, and it bodes well for Spain. A healthy respect for the competition has never been a problem for the Spanish, and it has a lot to do with their success. "I think they [Argentina] will come with everything," he said. "I think it's going to be more difficult than everybody thinks."

Spain is, of course, well versed in Argentina's long and agonizingly fruitless quest for the Davis Cup; they were the thieves in the night that raced into Mar del Plata to dash the Argentine hopes of victory in 2008. To their credit, the Spaniards know to be prepared for a hungry bunch of unsung adversaries when the 99th Davis Cup final gets underway in Seville tomorrow.

In '08, Argentina was heavily favored to win its first title at home against a Spanish team that was without Rafael Nadal. But the pressure of making history amidst throngs of tennis-mad companeros proved to be to much for the squad. For the fourth time in four Davis Cup finals, the end was not pretty for Argentina. In fact, it was downright snarky, with Nalbandian and Del Potro giving each other the silent treatment as the final balls were struck. No doubt dejected about the loss, and wearied by the infighting, dejected captain Alberto Mancini resigned after the tie.

Such is Argentina's forlorn Davis Cup history, a prime example of the classic quandary: so close yet oh so far. How does a nation so steeped in brilliant tennis go without a Davis Cup title for all these years? There are 13 nations who have won the Cup. Spain, of course, broke through with a bang in 2000 and are now looking for their 5th title. Serbia won its first in remarkable fashion last year. South Africa has been crowned, as well as Croatia, the Czech Republic, and Italy.

It makes one wonder: Will the day ever come for Argentina? Not even Guillermo Vilas, the original King of Clay and the holder of tennis's longest winning streak of all-time, could take Argentina to the pinnacle of team tennis. Not that he didn't try. Vilas and Co. lost in the finals to the Americans in 1981, with John McEnroe proving to be too much for Vilas and Jose-Luis Clerc on the fast American hard courts.

But enough history. Let's talk about the here and now. Does Argentina have a shot?

At first glance the answer has to be HELL NO! When you consider the gory details of Spain's domination of this event since the turn of the century, it seems like impossible might be overstating Argentina's chances. Nadal has won 18 straight Davis Cup singles matches and has never lost one on clay; Ferrer has also never lost on clay, going 11-0. Meanwhile, Spain is in the midst of a 20-tie win streak at home that has now spanned over 10 years.

And what is Argentina's answer to that intimidating body of work? Honestly, they have none. At least on paper they don't. But when you take your microscope out and start to explore the psychological underbelly of this one, there are a few things that favor Argentina.

Backtrack, if you will, to Fernando Verdasco's comments at the top of the page. While it's prescient of he and his teammates to be aware of the fact that Argentina is a very dangerous squad to face, the fact that they do consider them dangerous means that they may believe it. The roles are reversed this year. As bad as Argentina wants this title, nobody expects them to get it, and they could benefit from the fact that they really and truly have nothing to lose.

Secondly, if there was ever a more perfect chance to exact revenge for that heartbreaking defeat in 2008, this would be that chance. We must consider the character of the Argentinians before we write them off in this one. Anybody who witnessed Juan Martin del Potro at his most inspired in 2009 knows that improbable victories are not at all out of the question.

Finally, I think it's fair to say that the Spanish, though they are taking painful strides to alleviate any worry about it, are still slightly fatigued from a long year in the trenches. Though it's hard to envision anybody outlasting David Ferrer in a battle of grinders, at this point, I'm not completely convinced that the Rafa who takes the court tomorrow is going to be the swift assassin that we have been accustomed to seeing.

That said, there may several ways to spin this thing, and some of them might make Argentina's chances look a little better than they actually are, but considering what's at stake, where they are playing and who they are playing, revenge might be a dish that never gets served.

Argentina will need a miracle to win this one, and that is a fact. For some reason (there is just something about Del Potro and, to a lesser extent, Nalbandian), I consider them to be capable of a miracle this weekend.

Though I don't expect it, I'm still excited to see them try.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Shine On, You Crazy Diamond

Roger Federer defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga for a record 6th ATP World Tour Finals title today. Many are now wondering: What will he win next?

Sunday's 6-3, 6-7(6), 6-3 victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was yet another shining example of Roger Federer's current status as a force to be reckoned with on the ATP Tour. The landmark victory (it was Federer's 100th career ATP final) not only moved Federer back into the current ATP top 3; it also moved him past Stefan Edberg into 6th place on the ATP's all-time win list (with 807), and scooted him past Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras with 6th ATP Championship titles.

But for Federer, who seems to break a slew of records each time he takes his racquets out of his bag, this wasn't about padding his legacy, or stoking a once-burning-brightly fire. Today's win was about the Federer of here and now. His never-ending hunger for competition, his indefatigable passion for the sport, and his belief that he is still a player who is very much in his prime, more than anything else, are what is driving him.

Can a man who has just hit thirty, an age often associated with tennis's version of senior citizenship, still be a terror on the court? Federer thinks so. "It's interesting how you evolve as a tennis player," Federer told reporters after defeating David Ferrer in London yesterday, "For me it's only logical to improve."

Words are one thing, but Federer's play of late is entirely another. The Swiss won his 17th consecutive match today, and after starting the year 3-9 vs. Top 10 competition, he's finished the season by reeling off seven straight vs. the top 10.

That's improvement any which way you slice it, and for Federer it must be doubly sweet, given that he had just recently dropped out of the top 3 for the first time in over eight years. Now, he's back, and today's thrilling cliffhanger vs. the hulking Jo-Wilfried Tsonga stands as yet another testament to that fact.

Still, there are skeptics who'll argue that Federer's re-emergence has been timed perfectly with a pull-back from his competition. It's no secret that both Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal hit the wall somewhere between New York and London this season, and it's also no secret that Federer benefited from this.

But it only proves that Federer -- old "codger" that he is -- is finding ways to win in spite of the rousing improvements that Djokovic and Nadal have made to surpass him in recent years. This is what we find so endearing about Federer's recent ascent. He's still as silky as ever on the court, but his recent gains have been due to his maturity. Yes, the fatal forehand is still running full blast, and yes, the feathery touch is there too, but Federer's recent renaissance is more a product of another skill that is vastly underrated in tennis today: the ability to stay healthy.

It may sound simple, but it is not. The essence of Federer has always been his technique: the lightness afoot, the easy power and the ability to shorten points with volleys, flattened-out winners, or aces. Now -- whether by design or good fortune (I'm thinking design) Federer's essence is a big reason that he's able to keep breaking records, even on nights when his twins keep him up until 4 A.M.

It's uncanny. In a day and age where 25-year-olds have great difficulty playing consecutive tournaments, let alone making 30 consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinals, it seems that Federer doesn't age. Well, we know that he does, but his ability to preserve his body is, at least in the short term, making him appear ageless.

Today was no exception. Even after a scare from the bullying Frenchman, who can overpower anybody when he's hot, Federer stayed calm. Calmer, perhaps, than he has been all year. He won this tight three-setter like he's won so many Grand Slams in the past. By staying light on his feet, and by saving his best for last.

Now we are thinking that maybe his best has yet to come.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Deuce Court: Is Nole's Season Diminished By London?

Today The Deuce Court will discuss the merits of Novak Djokovic's 2011 season, even though it isn't technically over yet.

Deuce #1: So, How Good Was His Season?

Djokovic was as succinct as could be after losing in three sets to Janko Tipsarevic today, when asked about what was missing from his game in London by a member of the media: "Freshness," was his reply, and the word spoke volumes. Of course, in tennis, there are no excuses for losing. As a result, Djokovic will have to face the fact that his mind-bending 2011 season will forever be tainted in the eyes of those special few who decide which player had the "Best Season Ever," due to this lack of freshness. How much will it be tainted? Not much at all. But, enough to place him below John McEnroe in 1984 and Roger Federer in 2006, most likely.

Deuce #2: Not So Fast

Personally, I'm not so quick to write off Djokovic's accomplishments. Look, he was running on empty in London, and that has to be taken into account. But placing too much emphasis on two uninspired matches would be a mistake, especially given the sheer brilliance of Djokovic's Grand Slam season. Novak may tap out at 70 wins and 6 losses, leaving him with a decidedly lower winning percentage than McEnroe's 96 % or Federer's 95%, but can either Federer or McEnroe say that they disrupted the most legendary duopoly in the history of the sport during their critically acclaimed seasons?

There is an element of transformation to Djokovic's ascent that makes his season even more remarkable. Who could have predicted, before the year started, that we'd be looking at a sport with a Serbian No. 1, a player who had been cast off by so many as an underachiever, as one who'd never be able to overcome his physical limitations or the otherworldliness of Federer and Nadal?

Ad In: Fine, Have it Your Way

I'm not trying to argue that we should give Djokovic a pass for not finishing his season with a flourish. But I will argue that you should take into account the following things: 1) The sheer physicality of the game is astounding these days, so it's no surprise that Djokovic played some flat tennis in London (see Nadal, Murray...) and 2) the depth of the men's field is perhaps as strong as we've ever seen it. So, if you're going to dock Djokovic's 2011 body of work for his London letdown, you should also take into the account the very tangible reasons for the lack of "freshness" that he experienced (namely, that he played off-the-wall highly inspired tennis for 9 months).

Deuce #3: It's not quite over

As I write this, David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych are warming up for the last round-robin tilt of the week. If Ferrer wins, Djokovic will face Federer in the semis. Will naysayers have a change of heart if Nole somehow rallies to take the title?

Ad Out: Summing it Up

Regardless of where Djokovic's season stands on the all-time list, it's pretty clear that the fact that we have been debating the merits of his season since early spring means that something UTTERLY AMAZING has been achieved by Djokovic in 2011. When you put everything into perspective and consider how far he had to climb, who he had to defeat and how often (6 finals over Nadal? Are you serious?) and what kind of style and verve he did it with (the match point miracle in New York? Are you serious?) you pretty much have to bow down and show respect, regardless of how his less-than-devastating performance in London might lead to criticism from the pundits.

Finally, when we think about how Djokovic's season stacks up, I think it's a good idea to realize that numbers, while telling, aren't the only way to measure a season. Can a 70-win season with six losses be as good as an 82-win season with three losses, or a 92-win season with five losses? Sure.

Now that so many are now secure in the notion that Djokovic's season, because of his performance in London, cannot be considered the best season ever, the precedent has been set. Djokovic's season, at least the way it will be perceived in the future, has dropped a notch.

I'm not so sure that's a proper thing, nor am I sure that it's warranted. I'm not a betting man, but if I was, I'd be betting that tennis doesn't see another season as remarkable as Djokovic's in the next 30 years, maybe more.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

WTF Group A Semifinal Scenarios

In my last post we tackled the convoluted Group B semifinal scenarios. Now we will check out Group A.

Group A: Singles

Oh, geez. Since when did a year-end tennis tournament turn into a probability and statistics experiment? Check this out.

To put it in layman's terms, Ferrer is already in, but he isn't a lock to finish first. But, there are still ways for Ferrer to finish first even if he loses in straight sets (if Djokovic defeats Tipsarevic in straight sets too). Remember, head to head record doesn't matter if there is a three-way tie for first. This would happen if Djokovic beat Tipsarevic and Berdych beat Ferrer. Djokovic, Berdych and Ferrer would all be 2-1, and sets would have to be counted.

If you are still confused, I recommend reading this post over and over and over.

Group A Doubles:

The Bryans are not a lock to make the semis, but they can only miss by losing in straight sets if Lindstedt and Tecau win in straight sets. Below are all ten possible permutations.

Confused yet? Me too. Happy Thanksgiving, and enjoy the tennis!

WTF Group B Semifinal Scenarios

I decided that a post that covers the various convoluted WTF semifinal qualification scenarios would be a good thing right now. If it leaves one or more of you less confused then you were when you started reading this, then I'll consider my job done.

Group B Singles:

Group B singles are actually very simple. All you kneed to know is...

1) Federer wins the group no matter what


2) The winner of Tsonga-Nadal gets the 2nd spot.

Wasn't that easy?

Group B Doubles:

Key: ZimLlod=Zimonjic and Llodra, NesMyr= Nestor and Myrni, Indo-Pak = Bopanna and Qureshi, FyrMat = Fyrstenberg and Matkowski.

Myrni and Nestor are the only undefeated group, and on the strength of those two wins, they will qualify for the semis, win or lose. Bopanna and Qureshi are already eliminated. There are actually only four ways the Group B Dubs can play out. They are as follows:

1. if ZimLlod d. NesMyr and Indo-Pak d. FyrMat, then ZimLlod get 1st and NesMyr get 2nd.
2. If NesMyr d. ZimLlod and FyrMat d. Indo-Pak, then NesMyr get 1st and FyrMat get 2nd.
3. If ZimLlod d. NesMyr and FyrMat d. Indo-Pak, then ZimLlod get 1st and NesMyr get 2nd.
4. If NesMyr d. ZimLlod and Indo-Pak d. FyrMat, then NesMyr get 1st and ZimLlod get 2nd.

I hope this helped you as much as it helped me.

The Deuce Court: Oh, Janko!

The deuce court looks at Tomas Berdych's win over Janko Tipsarevic today.

Deuce #1: Wow, Tipsarevic

Janko Tipsarevic had a match point against Tomas Berdych today, but sadly, he couldn't convert. I'll start by paraphrasing something I read by Steve Tignor this week, that definitely applies: "Big points and momentum, that’s what drives tennis, we hear. The player who wins the former, gets the latter." He's right, you know. It always comes down to that. A few points here, a few points there, all these matches turning on dimes...

Today, you could throw away three sets of tennis with one errant volley. Janko Tipsarevic learned that -- the hard way.

Tipsarevic had trouble in today's 2-6, 6-3, 7-6(6) loss. He didn't execute on match point, and that was trouble. But what made the trouble ever more troubling was his reaction to his match point failure: a double fault. It was a second serve that more resembled a pity party, and it's truly a pity for the Serb, who continues to be one of the ATP's most entertaining players.

It was a car crash at the end, and it's unfortunate. But Tipsarevic needn't hang his head. Yes, he blew it, but at least he blew it in style, and he will be stronger because of it.

Deuce #2: A Fine Year, Really

It's been a very solid year for the Serb. Tipsarevic reached a career-high five finals this year. He also earned his first and second career titles, his first Grand Slam quarterfinal, and his first Masters 100 semifinal.

The 27-year-old need not be discouraged. There is clear proof that he's rapidly improving. This is not a time for him to be dejected, it's a time for him to continue to grind. It's also a time for him to learn to deliver in the clutch. If he can improve his tiebreaker results (he's 19-19 on the year) and his record in deciding sets (he is 8-9 after today), he can definitely have another top ten year, maybe better.

Ad In: Berdych deserves props, too

Berdych, meanwhile, deserves all the credit for staying with Tipsarevic in a very tense third set that featured much elevated tennis. He failed on a match point against Djokovic in his first match, so maybe it was fitting that he was able to save one against Tipsarevic.

It certainly wasn't a case of luck. Berdych was bombing the serve, and playing some very effective "aggro-tennis." More notably, Berdych has been competing very well. I've always wondered about what I've perceived to be indifference by Berdych in big matches in the past, but in London he appears to be feisty.

Deuce #3: Bryans Take Group A lead with win over Lindstedt and Tecau.

The Bryans are starting to play some good tennis. And when the three-time WTF champs start heating up, watch out. Bob and Mike were never threatened today, as they stormed to a 6-1, 6-2 56-minute thrashing of the No. 6 seeds.

Ad Out: Rafa-Tsonga set to meet Thursday

Thursday's marquee match-up will feature a reeling Rafael Nadal, fresh off a head-scratcher at the hands of Federer, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who is a beast of an indoor player and still very much alive in the hunt for a semifinal spot. Tsonga is only 2-6 lifetime vs. Rafa, but given Rafa's current form and the fact that one of those two wins came less than 6 months ago, I'd say Tsonga has a really good shot to win this pivotal tilt.

Before this tournament started I was tipping Rafa; after what Roger did to him yesterday, I'm not feeling so confident about that call.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Deuce Court: Rafa's Rambling Presser

The Deuce Court tries to decipher the meaning of Rafa's post-match presser. Nadal only managed three games against his long-time rival Roger Federer in London today.

Deuce #1: Rafa's shoulder: Not Great

For those who were caught off guard by this talk of Rafa's shoulder bothering him, there were reports surfacing that Rafa was having difficulties with the shoulder as of ten days ago. To his credit, he said very little about the shoulder until he was pressed for the reason that he did not practice yesterday, at the end of the interview.

So what does it mean going forward? Hard to say. It seems like planet Rafa is destined to always have a wide range of nagging injuries orbiting around him. Right now it's the shoulder. With more matches to play in London, a huge Davis Cup final the following week, the primary concern has to be what kind of recovery work can he get done after Davis Cup and before Australia.

Deuce #2: Read between Rafa's lines

Throughout this presser Rafa paints a very bleak picture about his next few months. Not only is he hurting in London, he's also under immense pressure to perform in the Davis Cup final. So he might be hurting even more when it's over. As soon as Davis Cup ends the clock will start ticking to Australia. Talk about no rest for the weary.

Rafa isn't fuming mad, but I think it's clear to anybody watching this presser that he's fed up. There's so little time to rest and recover, and he seems desperate right now. For a player who relies heavily on being in almost freakish physical condition, this is a very big deal. Just like Federer has done over the last few years, Rafa will have to make very wise decisions regarding scheduling, maintaining fitness, etc...

Ad In: The problem with Rafa managing his schedule is that he likes to play himself into form. If he needs to skip events to stay healthy, how will he stay match tough?

Deuce #3: All this said, if Rafa can manage a win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Thursday he'll be in the semis. He could still win this thing.

Ad Out: The consolation? Next year will be slightly better.

Next year should be a little better, with the ATP lopping two weeks off the schedule, but what are they going to do about that Davis Cup Final date? Someday, as much as I'm loving late-November tennis, I hope the ATP can find a way to put their season to bed before November begins. It's just too taxing for the top guys right now, and it's becoming painfully obvious with the growing number of walking wounded (Fish, Murray, Nadal, Djokovic) in London.

Roger-Rafa: 10 Quick Thoughts

Roger Federer defeated Rafael Nadal 6-3, 6-0 today in London. Here are 10 quick thoughts on the match.

1. It just occurred to me that Rafa's period of dominating Federer might be coming to an end. I didn't consider this to be a possible byproduct of the drop in confidence that 2011 might have caused Nadal, but it makes sense. Is it happening, or was today's result a one-off?

2. One possible implication of Roger having more success against Rafa (assuming that it actually happens) is that Slams come back to the table in the short term. Federer's match-up problem has been Nadal, not Djokovic. If Fed proves that he's capable again of beating Rafa in a Slam, we could see No. 17 as early as February.

3. I can't quite put my finger on what is missing from Rafa's game right now. How is it that Roger is hitting him off the court? Has Rafa lost a step or has Roger gained another? Today's winner count: Federer, 28 Rafa, 4

4. Federer is playing perfect tennis right now. But you know what? There were a lot of other losses to Nadal where Federer played perfect tennis. Rafa had an answer and then some back then; today he's got nothing but confusion.

5. This is what I love so much about tennis: There is always another chapter, another set, ANOTHER GAME. Anything can happen and quite often, when it does happen, it will be when you least expect it.

6. Flashback to Roland Garros, when Federer broke Djokovic's streak to set up a final date with Nadal. I was not happy at the time because I felt (knew?) that Rafa was going to demolish Fed in that final. If it happens again next year, I will not assume that Rafa is going to demolish fed -- even on clay in a Slam.

7. How is Federer -- at 30 -- looking more sprightly than Rafa, who is 25? You have to hand it to Federer here for being healthy when everybody else is in walking wounded mode. Hey, staying healthy is a big part of the sport, and Federer gets the "check" in that column every time.

8. Did you know that today was the first time that Roger and Rafa have met where neither player was ranked No. 1 in the world? It truly is a new era...

9. Is it safe to say that there is no dominating force in tennis anymore? Maybe Novak Djokovic will have something to say about that, but my gut tells me that Djokovic will drop a level and Rafa and Roger will both come up a level next year. That's a three-way dogfight at the top with Muzz and Tsonga and maybe a few other courageous souls creating major chaos at the Slams. I welcome that wholeheartedly.

10. Food for thought: True or False? The "Annacone effect" is playing a large role in Roger's recent rejuvenation.

Second Serving: Group B Dubs Update

Very quick update on the Group B dubs standings before Rafa-Roger, episode 26 begins. FyrMat is in very good shape, having defeated Llodra-Zimonjic on Sunday, they will qualify if they win on Thursday. They will also qualify regardless of their outcome if Llodra-Zimonjic lose to Myrni and Nestor.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Deuce Court: Rafa-Roger, Round 26

Deuce #1: Remembering the epics

There's a reason the tennis world basically stops every time Nadal and Federer play. It's been a while since episode 18 (see video above), and yes, not all their matches are resplendent with genius, but because of what we know -- that these two titans are capable of creating the most stirring of dramas -- we'll always be tremendously excited whenever the pairs shall meet. Maybe it won't happen tomorrow, but if it does, do you want to be one of the one's who wasn't watching?

Here's a scene from another epic, since I'm waxing poetic:

Deuce #2: Is Rafa is pulling away?

Whether Federer fans like it or not, Rafa has gained the edge in this storied rivalry, and he hasn't given any indication of giving it back this year. He thumped Roger on hard courts in Miami, winning 60 percent of the points; he was strong on the clay too, beating Fed in Madrid after losing the first set, then getting the best of Roger in their biggest match of the year, the Roland Garros final. Rafa has won nine of eleven against Federer, including four in a row in Slams, and two out of three on hard courts.

Is it realistic, now that Federer has turned 30, for Federer to expect more wins against the 25-year-old?

Ad In: Federer needs the backhand to function well

Federer, who usually struggles from the backhand side against Nadal, was flawless with the one-hander when he defeated Nadal at this event last year. If he can do that again, it will allow him to dictate with more than just his serve.

In case you missed it, here is one of those aforementioned backhands:

Deuce #3: They are even on hard courts

Before you get too bent out of shape about the 17-8 advantage that Rafa holds in the head-to-head over Federer, make note of the fact that the pair have split their eight previous matches on hard courts.

Ad Out: Fed chasing Edberg, Rafa chasing them both

At 803 wins, Federer has a chance to reach and possibly surpass one of his heroes, Stefan Edberg, on the ATP's all-time win list. Federer is currently seventh on the list. Nadal has 539 career wins, good for fourth among active players, behind Federer, Roddick and Hewitt.

Second Serving: The Bryan Brothers Make Me Proud to Be American

Every time somebody starts riding their persnickety high horse, saying that American tennis ain't what it used to be, I think of those knuckle-bumping, chest-thumping gurus, the guys that break doubles records like they are bad habits, the dudes that ooze enthusiasm for the sport, the No. 1's, the real deals...

I'm talking about the Bryan Bros, and if you begin or end a discussion about American tennis without mentioning them, you have most certainly been remiss. And you're probably not as proud of American Tennis as you deserve to be.

The California kids were up to their usual hijinks (hint, hint, click link to see tweener) in London today when they defeated the German-Austrian pairing of Jurgen Melzer and Philipp Petzschner, 6-7 (4), 7-5, 10-5. Down a set and a break, the three-time Barclays ATP World Tour Final champions were basically walking the plank. Then, as their opponents served for the match, it began: a veritable clinic on how to simultaneously control and feed off your emotions in a time of great distress. All at once, the Bryan Brothers became pillars of focus, dialing in their rapid-fire volleys, dispatching each with purpose, directing them to specific spots on the court, and instinctively knowing what responses they would elicit. It was pure unadulterated jedi mind-tricking, and it was beautiful.

Sure, it was doubles, a form of tennis not typically plastered on billboards, discussed on the splash pages of ESPN, or, even televised. But just because the mainstream doesn't cover doubles tennis as fervently as it does singles, doesn't mean that Americans shouldn't be immensely proud of what the Bryan Brothers are achieving on a year-in year-out basis. We should revel in their uncanny greatness, and when somebody starts telling us that "American tennis sucks," we should carry a glossy photo of the Bryan Brothers chest-bumping after winning a Grand Slam, so that we can provide them with evidence of the fact that no, we do not, in fact, suck.

Yesterday, the Bryan Brothers snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, and that didn't suck either. To put it another way: Rafael Nadal may be Spanish and Roger Federer may be Swiss, but goddammit the Bryan Brothers are American, and for that I am thankful.

Even if American tennis fans tend to downplay the significance of their dominance, it doesn't stop the Bryan Bros. from doing what they do: winning in style, with style, and for the cause.

So, if you ever find yourself in need of a bandwagon to join, a place to come when you want to feel pride...the Bryans should be your guys.

The Bryan Bros will continue their quest for a fourth Barclays ATP World Tour final on Wednesday.

Second Serving: Day 1 WTF's: Federer Loves Indoor Courts and More

Editors Note: From this point forward, The Fan Child will refer to the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals as the "WTF's." Please take note.

Now, let us dissect day 1...

Rafa? Roger? Anybody? Beuller?

Was it just me, or did it seem like everybody had a difficult time maintaining an elite level today. Roger was guiding the ball rather than driving it. Rafa's forehand was too round, and his slice was too fluffy. Jo-Wilfried was asleep for the first 30 minutes. Fish was good at times, but his forehand lost its will at others.

In other words, it wasn't necessarily pretty...

Let's Talk About Day 2 Then:

Murray-Ferrer and Djokovic-Berdych are on tap for Monday. Here are some stats/ analysis:

Murray leads Ferrer 5-0 on hard courts, but let's not forget how tough Ferrer played Muzz in their biggest match of 2011. Ferrer won the first set and also pushed Murray to second and fourth set tiebreakers in their Australian Open semifinal match.

Djokovic on His Shoulder:

"I have been serving almost 100 percent the last two or three days," said Novak. "So for me the shoulder is fine at this moment." My worry: Almost 100 percent? I'm not sure that's such thrilling news...

Tracking Back to Noah's PED rant:

Read about it: Rafa's reaction, Uncle Toni and Ferrer were quoted in this Telegraph Piece.

Fed With Gimel:

On Sunday, Tennis Channel aired Fed's interview with Justin Gimelstob on the practice courts (filmed at least a day before his first match). Federer expressed minor concerns about the speed of the London courts. "I think conditions are a bit faster here. I'm still struggling a little out here a bit actually, so that's a little bit of a slight worry, but I still have another day to prepare," said the five-time WTF titlist. "The thing with Tsonga, and with Fish -- because he's also in my group -- is they can sort of hit you off the court."

Fed also said that indoors are a great love of his: "This is where I did the breakthrough, back in '98 actually. I went to the quarters of Toulouse, and then the year after that I had the breakthrough beating Moya, who was world No. 4. So I think indoors has always been sort of my first love on tour."


You want dubs? We got your dubs...

Both doubles tilts went to Match Tiebreaks today, and both ended 11-9. The Indo-Pak express had the balls to serve, up 6-3 vs. Nestor and Myrni, but still lost. One of the teams I know the least about, Fyrstenberg and Matkowski (Who? The ATP website is calling them 'Polish Power') pulled a big upset against Zimonjic and Llodra in the other 11-9 Match Tiebreak.

On Monday, The No. 1 Bryan Bros. will battle Jurgen Melzer and Philipp Petzschner. Incidentally, the Bryans own a 4-0 vs. MelPetz. Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes will face Robert Lindstedt and Horia Tecau for the first time in the other round-robin tilt.

The O2 Arena: an awesome tennis venue:

Check out this photo of the 02 Arena ready for tennis. The court looks like an oasis of light. This is rock-n-roll tennis, baby. Let's hope the players follow suit tomorrow...

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Federer Wins in Less Than Pretty Fashion

Roger Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga have developed a nice niche rivalry in 2011. Theirs may not fit the classic definition of a rivalry and it may not possess the cachet of Federer-Nadal or Nadal-Djokovic, but from a purely aesthetic standpoint, the regal and refined Federer pitted against the dynamic and flamboyant Tsonga is about as dreamy as it gets.

The pair’s seventh meeting of the season, a 6-2, 2-6, 6-4 Federer victory, started anticlimactically. Each player was tentative early, but it was Tsonga whose nerves bit him first, in the fourth game of the first set. The Frenchman didn’t make a first serve in that game, and to make matters worse, he missed badly on two consecutive inside out forehands – his bread and butter when he’s going good – to hand Fed the first break of the match.

Federer had expressed slight concern about the speed of the courts at the O2 Arena earlier in the week, but he didn’t seem to mind serving on the speedy surface as this match began. He lost three points on serve in the first set, facing no break points. Meanwhile, Tsonga continued to look badly out of sorts. He double faulted at 2-5, 0-30, and Federer had the set when Tsonga dumped a volley into the net on the next point.

But Tsonga rallied, buoyed by the support of the crowd when he held to draw even in the second game of the second set. His feet started to move with a sense of urgency, and when Federer missed on two identical forehands from 30-all of the very next game, Tsonga had taken advantage of an oft-recurring Federer theme: the inexplicably loose game. With Tsonga holding the break advantage in the second set, things were finally getting interesting.

In the third set, Tsonga took the dominant role, attempting to hit Federer off the faster court, while Federer stayed defensive, looking to find the crack in the armor of his now emboldened opponent.

The two traded holds, until the crack in Tsonga’s armor finally opened up. On a day that loose play was the norm rather than the exception, Tsonga’s final walkabout (a botched volley and a double fault) while serving to stay in the match left him facing triple match point.

He saved one, but Federer sailed a nifty backhand pass past Tsonga to seal the deal on the next.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Deuce Court: Noah Gone Wild, Rafa's Chances

Welcome to The Deuce Court, where we wax poetic about tennis while keeping it sweet and short...

Deuce #1: Really, Yannick?

Most of you know by now that France's last Grand Slam champion penned some scathing commentary about Spanish sports having "la potion magique" while other nations like France are too strict and law-abiding to enjoy the benefits of PED's. As is always the case with these type of allegations, Noah's unfounded accusations are at best irresponsible, at worst harmful, Whether Noah intended to do it or not, he has unfairly cast the Spanish players in a very negative light.

The whole piece smacks of a bitterness that I never suspected a person as happy-go-lucky as Noah to possess, but the craziest ideas of all came in the last line: Noah wrote "La meilleure attitude à adopter est d'accepter le dopage. Et tout le monde aura la potion magique." which roughly translates to "The best attitude to take is to accept the doping, then everybody will have the magic potion." This is wrong on so many levels. So, we are just supposed to ban all attempts to curb doping because some athletes in some less-policed nations are allegedly gaming the system and gaining an illicit advantage? Great, and while we're at it, let's make sure that the 6-12-year-old's are getting there share of dope as well.

No, no, no. Not good at all. As messy and expensive as policing doping is, and as unfair as it may or may not be (because there will always be some who have found "la potion magique" and, more importantly, found a way to avoid detection), just giving up the chase entirely will never be the solution. There are lives in the balance Yannick, not just wins and losses -- get with the program.

Deuce #2: Tipping Rafa

It's been a month since Rafa's disappointing loss to Florian Mayer in Shanghai, so it's somewhat of a mystery as to what form he'll actually be in when the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals begin. Based on what I've seen from his practice vids, and what he's telling the press in this piece, Rafa basically pulled the plug on playing in Asia because he wanted to go home, regroup, and come back with a renewed focus for this event and for the upcoming Davis Cup final with Argentina. We all know what Rafa can do when he sets his mind to something. I think more than anyone else in the field, Rafa wants this title. Because of that, he's my pick to win it. That could change after I see his form, but for now, I'm tipping Rafa to do the deal in London.

Ad In: Less than 24 hours to go until the #finalsshowdown begins in London.

What a fantastic way to finish the season. As Federer said (paraphrasing) in a pre-tourney media interview, opening a tournament against a top ten players really gets your blood pumping. Mine too. No offense to the rest of the top 100, but how nice is it to get all this talent bundled up into one delectable holiday package, at the perfect venue, with throngs of tennis hungry fans, and no chance of an early round upset? And even better, if your favorite player loses his first match, he's still got two more to play. No offense to Shanghai, Houston, or anyplace else, but since the finals moved to London, I have been all-in. I sense that I am not alone in this sentiment.

Deuce #3: Tsonga Not Intimidated

Good luck to the rest of the field trying to top this quote. He may not win the event, but the Frenchman has best quote wrapped up.

Ad Out: Helfant's replacement

Christopher Clarey's must-read on the future of tennis looks at the search for a new Chief Executive, possible changes to the rankings systems and more.

Friday, November 18, 2011

ATP WTF Group A Preview: What Can Nole Do For An Encore?

2011 has been the year of Novak Djokovic, but strangely, as we head into the final event of the year, talk has centered around Roger Federer's rejuvenation and quest for a 6th World Tour Finals title. In addition to Federer, a lot has been made of Andy Murray, who reeled off 17 consecutive wins this fall, and jumped into the No. 3 spot in the rankings.

Well then, who's year is it anyway? When you are blessed like the ATP is, with a star-studded cast of elite players who have all made significant statements throughout the year, a bit of confusion and competition at the end of the year is not such a bad problem to have. And if Djokovic wants to win this prestigious title for a second time, he will have to compete just as hard as he did over the course of the year, when he compiled a 43-match win streak, took over the No. 1 ranking and won three Grand Slams.

The big question: Does Djokovic have the energy to do it? We know he has the game, but he's been ailing since he dropped to the court in agony in Davis Cup play on September 18th with a back injury. After a 41-day layoff, Djokovic returned, but he hasn't been the same. He's been plagued by a shoulder injury in recent weeks, and he's looking mentally fatigued as well. But let's remember, this has been a season marked by Djokovic's ability to turn doubters into believers. Wouldn't we be foolish not to expect one more breathtaking burst of brilliant tennis from him? Marat Safin thinks so, for what it's worth.

The little question: Is it Murray's time to shine? Murray has seemed to gain a lot of confidence from witnessing Djokovic's remarkable transformation this season. Murray's never been one to shy away from a challenge, and now that he's seen first hand how a player can go from a perennial underachiever to having one of the greatest seasons in tennis history, many think that he's next in line for a similar transformation. That said, there are just as many that don't believe that Murray has enough of the intangibles to become a truly elite player. One things for sure: snaring this title would give him a lot of momentum going into 2012.

What about the other guys? I've failed to mention one of the bright spots of the ATP season, David Ferrer. He's the consummate grinder, he's in ridiculously good shape, and he never takes a point -- let alone a match -- off. Ferrer, a former finalist at the ATP World Tour Finals, has a respectable 12-13 combined record against the group, and he is no doubt anxious to prove that he's better than he showed in losing all six sets that he contested at last year's World Tour Finals.

Meanwhile, Tomas Berdych is the wildcard in the bunch, but the hard-serving Czech figures to be a tough out for anybody in the group, especially Andy Murray (he's 3-1 vs. Murray lifetime).

Picks: Murray, 1st, Djokovic 2nd

Head to Heads:

Djokovic: Making 5th appearance, former champion ('08)
19-9 vs. Group A, 6-4 vs. Murray, 6-4 vs. Ferrer, 7-1 vs. Berdych
Murray: Making 4th appearance, reached semis twice
10-12 vs. Group A, 4-6 vs. Djokovic, 1-3 vs. Berdych, 5-3 vs. Ferrer
Ferrer: Making 3rd appearance, former finalist ('07)
12-13 vs. Group A, 4-6 vs. Djokovic, 3-5 vs. Murray, 5-2 vs. Berdych
Berdych: Making 2nd appearance
6-13 vs. Group A, 1-7 vs. Djokovic, 3-1 vs. Murray, 2-5 vs. Ferrer

ATP WTF Group B Preview: Federer and Nadal to Finish Strong?

Just over 24 hours left to go until the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals kick off at the O2 Arena in London. Today we're going to take a look at the groups individually, starting with group B.

With Roger Federer's stellar play of late, the idea of renewing tennis's most storied rivalry seems a lot more exciting that it did earlier in the season. Federer, who is in search of a record-breaking 6th WTF title, might be the fittest player of the eight in the draw, and, he's also coming in red hot, with titles at Basel and Paris just recently claimed. But Nadal, who holds a career record of 17-8 against Federer (including 3-0 this season, with wins over Federer in Miami, Madrid and Roland Garros), will come in fresh after making the decision to skip Paris in order to get healthy for the final.

Little known fact: Rafa has never beaten Roger at this event. He's 0-3 vs. Federer in their three previous meetings (semis '06 and '07 in China, and finals last year). 2011 will also be the first time that the two legends have been paired in the same group.

The big question: How is Rafa's health? In other words, did he skip Paris because he's really dragging after a long, disconcerting season that featured 6 consecutive losses in finals to Djokovic, or did he skip Paris because he is fully committed to winning this prestigious even for the first time in his career? If it's the latter, watch out.

I think the extra rest bodes well for Nadal, and even if he loses to Federer in group play, his combined 13-3 record against Mardy Fish and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga mean that the odds of him not advancing to the semifinals next week are very slim indeed.

The other two members of group B, Fish and Tsonga, will have to hope for inspired performances and perhaps some good old fashioned luck. Fish is a combined 2-14 versus the members of group B, and he's coming in hobbled by a hamstring injury that forced him to retire from Paris. Tsonga, who scored wins over all three of the members of Group B during the season, has a decent shot to break through. By beating Nadal at Queens, Federer at Wimbledon and Montreal, and Fish at the US Open, Tsonga has proved that he might be better than his combined 6-12 career record against the members of Group B indicates.

Picks: Nadal, 1st place, Federer 2nd place

Head to Heads:

Federer: 5-time champion, making his 10th consecutive appearance.
(20-21 vs. Group B): 8-17 vs. Nadal, 6-1 vs. Fish, 6-3 vs. Tsonga
Nadal: Making his 5th appearance, finalist last year
(30-11 vs. Group B): 17-8 vs. Nadal, 7-1 vs. Fish, 6-2 vs. Tsonga
Tsonga: Making his second appearance
(6-12 vs. Group B): 3-6 vs. Federer, 2-6 vs. Nadal, 1-0 vs. Fish
Fish: Making his first appearance
(2-14 vs. Group B): 1-6 vs. Federer, 1-7 vs. Nadal, 0-1 vs. Tsonga

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Why Hasn't Murray Won a Slam? It's The Serve, Stupid.

We call it the "Big 4" in men's tennis, but three of the four have broken through and won multiple Grand Slams (a whopping 30 between Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic combined) while Andy Murray is still coveting that elusive maiden Slam title.

So, why do we even bother counting Andy Murray among the game's elite when the cold hard facts say he is not deserving? Is it an expression of sympathy for the tortured artist who wears his heart on his sleeve, a mere bone thrown to give forlorn British tennis fans something to believe in, or is it justified?

Well, the answer is simple, and yet, it's complicated too: Between the lines, Murray does possess an elite game. He's a physical specimen, he's tactically brilliant, and his shotmaking abilities are on par with Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. But between the ears Murray can become discombobulated at times. Oh, let's be honest, he can fall into a bottomless pit of agony and despair and not come out until the match is over. His last Grand Slam final was a clear indication that Murray is not yet capable of adequately dealing with the pressure of a Grand Slam final.

It's a shame, because Murray's clearly a highly intelligent player, and he no doubt puts great emphasis in his mental preparation on the importance of poise in such situations, but he's yet to conquer his nerves under the brightest spotlight in tennis.

Can he? Sure.

Will he? I don't know.

But before you think that nerves are the only thing keeping Murray from being the next Novak Djokovic -- a player who rises up and takes over men's tennis for an extended period of time --let's look at what I believe to be the real reason that Murray hasn't gotten over the hump yet: his serve.

For years the rap on Murray has been his lack of aggression. Pundits have consistently blamed Murray's failures on the fact that his predilection for cat-and-mouse rallies and his lack of a Berdych or Soderling-like forehand is what's hurting him. I don't agree. I think that Murray was born to be the type of player that he has become, and he should embrace it and stick to it. Can Murray focus some of his effort on being more aggressive when the situation calls for it? Yes. Does he need a massive philosophical overhaul? No.

What Murray does need is to serve better. You don't believe me? Check the stats.

Murray's 46th on the ATP Tour at winning 2nd serve points. If that isn't a recipe for disaster when you are regularly trying to beat two of the best returners in the history of the sport, I don't know what is. Nadal is 1, Federer is 2, and Djokovic is 3, in case you were curious.

Murray's 41st on the ATP Tour in first serve percentage, and he's 23rd in percentage of service games won. Federer is 2, Djokovic is 5, and Nadal is 15.

Murray can strengthen his mind all he wants and become as aggressive as everyone else wants him to be, but until he starts getting better results from his serve, he'll only be able to win a Grand Slam title if he plays perfect tennis in every other facet of the game.

If I was Murray's coach I'd tell him to leave his game the way it is. He's an amazing tactical player, and he gains confidence from being able to execute his unique brand of tennis against the best players in the world. That's who he is and he's damn good at it, so why should he change?

But the serve needs to get better. He needs to make more first serves, he needs to deal with his service games better emotionally, and he needs to construct better points around his second serve.

Until he can serve like the other members of the "Big 4" I think the monumental task of becoming the first British player to win a Grand Slam since 1936 will continue to be too much for him.

2011 First Serve Percentage:

Murray: 59%, 41st
Nadal: 68%, 6th
Djokovic: 65%, 11th
Federer: 64%, 14th

2011 2nd Serve Points Won:

Murray: 50%, 46th
Nadal: 57%, 1st
Federer: 57%, 2nd
Djokovic: 56%, 3rd

2011 Service Games Won:

Murray: 81%, 23rd
Federer: 89%, 2nd
Djokovic: 87%, 5th
Nadal: 84%, 15th