Saturday, February 26, 2011

Welcome to the Dollhouse

Alexandr Dolgopolov has been a force to be reckoned with in 2011. But last night's loss to David Ferrer proved that consistency is still a problem.
Unlike the other next big thing (Milos Raonic) currently speeding up the ATP rankings, Alexandr Dolgopolov doesn't have the glacial demeanor or the pragmatic mindset. When you watch him it's hard to get a read on what he's thinking out there.

Does he think, I wonder, or does he just flow?

Whatever he does, he's done it well this year, with an electrifying feature piece-inspiring quarterfinal run at the Australian Open, and a fast and furious climb that has taken him into the top-30 as of this week.

Still, even while playing the best tennis of his career, there are incongruous stretches during matches where Dolgopolov can't seem to keep the ball in the court. It begs the question: Can Dolgopolov sustain his current scorching form while performing his jeckyll and hyde brand of tightrope walking on a near nightly basis?

That's what I'm wondering right now as I've watched Dolgopolov completely deconstruct against David Ferrer in the second set of their semifinal on the red clay in Acapulco. If I didn't know him I'd assume that he's in deep trouble, that he's dug a hole for himself that he'll likely never climb out of.

But there is something inexplicable about Dolgopolov that leads me to believe that you can throw out all your preconceived notions about the importance of a linear and focused mental game on the court. The kid is clearly different, and therefore I'll do him the honor of looking at him through different parameters.

Dolgopolov is one of those rare animals that can get away with being haphazard on the tennis court. But getting away with it is one thing (he's done it admirably this season, to be sure); Getting to the top of the sport while getting away with it is entirely another.

I've been watching the kid they call "the Dog" for a few hours tonight and it hasn't always been pretty. He's playing against the consummate grinder in David Ferrer, and while he got off to a good start in taking the first set, he's currently swimming in a sea of unforced errors and doesn't appear to have any desire to attempt to play steadier.

I can't help but wonder, as Ferrer goes up a break in the third, is this going to be the curse of Dolgopolov? Is he going to be the next Gulbis, an infuriating combination of red-hot shotmaking ability and ice-cold decision making?

I hesitate to lump him in with Gulbis, but there are similarities between the two that are hard to deny. Then again, I see a difference, and the difference, strange as it may seem, may prove to be the difference.

While Gulbis tends to become downtrodden, gloomy, and sarcastic, wading in a pool of his own self-loathing, Dolgopolov seems to have a more positive spiritual makeup.

Case in point: Here he is, in the third set against the devil incarnate and on the short end of the momentum stick, but he still seems to be enjoying himself. And in between his slew of unforced errors are some of the most dynamic strokes I've seen in a long time. Not only can Dolgopolov tattoo the ball from both wings, but he can also mix in tantalizing drop shots, ground-biting slice, and deceptively dangerous first serves that can wreak havoc on even David Ferrer.

So where does all this leave us?

In Dolgopolov we clearly have a wildly entertaining athlete with all the tools to be a top player. But, once again, we have a long list of questions about his tactical approach, his mental maturity, and his ability to govern his souped-up engine when the tone of the match calls for it.

Tonight, his early flourish proved to be a mere speed bump in another convincing David Ferrer bloodletting. It could have been different, if Dolgopolov would have downshifted somewhere in the second or third set and taken the time to get his legs back underneath him.

Could have, would have, should have.

Dolgopolov's tempo, it appears, can be as bad for him at times as it is good for him at others. If there are holes in your game, leave it to a guy like David Ferrer to shine a light through them. That's what happened tonight.

When plan A was clearly not good enough for Dolgopolov, plan B was nowhere to be found.

The eternal optimist in me says that Dolgopolov is a few more hard lessons away from realizing that sometimes plan B is the only way to go, and that the young Ukranian's best days are just around the corner.

Here's to hoping I'm right.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Ode to Althea Gibson

Appalling racial discrimination didn't stop Althea Gibson from becoming the first African-American to win a Grand Slam in 1956.
It's never easy to contemplate insufferable injustice, which is why I shudder to think of tennis before Althea Gibson. To think that just over 60 years ago America was encased in an ignorant bubble of seething racial contempt is beyond surreal. And yet, even to this day, we live in a world where people still can't seem to get beyond their puerile obsessions with race, religion, or sexual or political orientation.

It is one of life's most maddening mysteries.

Still, true spirits trudge on, and even in the face of brutal oppression, they seek to enlighten.

Thankfully, in the late 1940's and early 1950's America was on the cusp of enlightenment. Its populace was heedlessly defiant, but slowly becoming aware of the errors of their ways. Still, it needed a reason to believe, because all the obvious reasons hadn't been good enough to eradicate the societal cancer that had stifled the country. The civil rights movement needed forces to be reckoned with, and Althea Gibson -- whether she intended to be or not -- was one of those forces.

But, as immense as her burgeoning talent was, Gibson was no natural messiah. She would need to be spirited.

Alice Marble was one such spiriter, and she had the courage to stand up for what was right. In 1950, after several years of watching the USLTA deny Althea Gibson the opportunity to play in the U.S. National Championships (and all other USLTA tournaments) based on her race, Marble penned a vehement editorial that was published in the American Lawn Tennis Magazine in July, 1950.

In it, Marble stated that if Gibson was denied the right to compete in the U.S. National Championships "then there is an ineradicable mark against a game to which I have devoted most of my life, and I would be bitterly ashamed."

By the end of the summer, the 23-year-old Gibson would become the first African-American player, man or woman, to compete in a Grand Slam tournament.

Gibson had come a long way from her early days in Harlem, where she first took up tennis, to her formative years in the south where she honed her game (and finished her education) under the tutelage of Dr. Hubert Eaton and Dr. Robert Walter Johnson. In addition to learning the finer points of tennis, education, and etiquette, Gibson had to endure learning the finer points of living in the segregated south where degradation was more commonplace than goodwill.

It's easy to get bogged down in the facts -- where Gibson played, who taught her, what titles she won, and when she won her first Grand Slam -- and lose sight of the ethereal eloquence of Gibson's journey. But the true magic in her game, like the true blessings of freedom, should never be forgotten.

Those who love the game of tennis have always seen it as the ultimate metaphor for life, and in the case of Gibson's ascent in the 1950's this axiom was never more apparent. When one athlete can help to reverse a misguided mindset, we realize quickly that sports can be larger than life.

That is the power that Althea Gibson wielded, and with each winning stroke, eyes opened. Gibson believed herself to be apolitical, and while she was a believer in the civil rights movement, she was not interested in carrying a banner for the cause. She was less concerned with fashioning her god-given talent into an agent of change, and more concerned with winning tennis matches.

She did just that, and decisively. After taking several years to fully develop her skills, Gibson became the hands-down best female player in the world from 1956 to 1958. She became the first African-American woman to win a Grand Slam in 1956 when she won the French Open, then in 1957 she became the first African-American woman to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. She would repeat her Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles in 1958, and she added six Grand Slam doubles titles by the end of 1958 as well.

Althea Gibson was an elixir for racism in tennis, America, and the world beyond. She was a necessary tonic that served to temper racial oppression in the middle of the 20th century.

How Americans could have fostered a such an antagonistic social climate in the first place, god only knew. But thanks to Gibson's exploits, the tide that had already begun to turn with Jackie Robinson's shattering of baseball's color barrier in 1947 had now flowed through tennis.

With her tall frame, easy power, and fierce competitive fire, Althea Gibson blessed the tennis world with her singular abilities on the court. Her goddess-like body was the perfect vehicle to inspire her faithful advocates to carry the vision of equality to the doorsteps of the oblivious.

Gibson, meanwhile, kept it simple. She did what any great tennis champion learns to do. She didn't overthink things -- she just played.

She played her way into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971, and the world became enlightened in the process.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Learning On The Job

Kader Nouni's controversial call against Agnieszka Radwanska yesterday may have been bad, but at least we can all learn from it.

Yesterday's relatively slow tennis news day did provide one very interesting nugget of news that is still being debated as I write.

If you take a moment to look at the video above, or have already seen it, you know what I'm talking about. To most it seems a no-brainer. If there is an overrule on a "playable" ball, then the default scenario should be to play a let. Nouni himself admits that this would have been the result of the overrule if Radwanska hadn't decided to take a seemingly innocent shot at winning the point through a challenge.

Here's where the crap hit the fan: Nouni, either having no recollection of an in-place policy on such calls or having his own independent views on such matters, elected to give the point to Radwanska's opponent Lucie Safarova when Aga's challenge of the call was unsuccessful.

This is where Radwanska went ballistic. Well, ballistic might be the wrong word, but to say she was merely sticking up for herself would be an understatement (kudos to her by the way).

Anyhow, I've read various opinions on the subject, and was surprised to see that there was a significant group who felt that Nouni made the right call -- Really?. I'll not argue that Nouni is very cool, and that I generally like him very much in the chair. But in this case, I'm of the opinion that his call was horribly wrong. The worst possible thing that should have happened to Radwanska -- or anybody in a similar situation -- is that a let be played.

But, even worse than Nouni imposing his judgment on a call that should have been made according to a precedent that SHOULD HAVE already been set (see above video, from the 2008 Australian Open), was the fact that Nouni made the judgment call at all.


If it wasn't learned in 2008, when Ana Ivanovic got the exact opposite ruling (they played a let) from Alison Lang in the semifinals of a major, then the ITF sure as heck better learn it now and take the time to implement the scenario into its training manuals.

I don't think it's too much to ask that players get the same call every time when they encounter the same situations that they've seen in the past.

It might have been okay if Nouni took the time to explain to Radwanska that she would lose the point if her challenge was wrong BEFORE SHE CHALLENGED, because at least Radwanska would have known that she was taking a risk.

The way it went down, Radwanska had no idea that she was in danger of losing the point, and I think, at the very least, Nouni should have warned her of the possible ramifications of a challenge before he shocked her with his verdict.

So, yeah, a lot went wrong here, but the good news is that Radwanska's protestations, and the WTA's apology afterwards, has set the wheels in motion for a necessary period of enlightenment for ITF officials who are sure to see the same exact call again in the future.

Thanks to @footfault_ for pointing me to the Alison Lang video from 2008!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Follow Files: Episode 3

In this episode of the Follow Files I take a stab at answering some of the more provocative questions from ATP and WTA Pros.
===The Twitterverse

1. "Don't you think we look a bit alike?" asks Andrea Petkovic of Germany, referring to the picture above.

-- Well, now that you mention it, in a weird way, yes. I'm sure John Isner would say no, because he's enamored and obsequious, but for me -- the unbiased tennis journalist -- it's different. I have to call a spade a spade out here in the trenches, and the fact of the matter is that, from the perspective that this picture was taken, you both appear to have necks that are of above average length. Therefore I conclude that you and that camel do look a bit alike, but I'm sure you're a much much better dancer.

2. "Who should I s/o for #FF," tweets Serena Williams of the U.S.A.

-- Um, well, you should "s/o" whomever you feel will help you promote whatever it is that you are currently promoting. I don't recommend "s/o'ing" all the people who are currently ranked higher than you in the much maligned WTA rankings -- because that would take a while -- but you can do that if you want to as well.

Serena, who are you kidding anyway? You are asking the question, but you're gonna "s/o" whoever the heck you want whenever the heck you want, and that's what we all love about you anyway.

Just don't forget to "s/o" yourself when you finally return to the tour!

3. "What is more important to follow your heart or head.....?" writes Michaella Krajicek of The Netherlands.

-- I think there are a lot of different ways to approach this one. I'd say that in general it's best to follow the lighter of the two. By light I mean figuratively light. Thus, if you're heart is heavy because your cat threw up and you don't know why, or you're ankle is stiff and you fear it might get better before it gets worse, I'd say follow your head. In other words, I'd recommend a structured and analytical approach to the problems you are facing. Keep both hands on the wheel and realize that better days are sure to come.

If, on the other hand, your head is heavy from drinking too much champagne at breakfast, I'd recommend following your heart. Don't let the throbbing get in the way of the fact that you want to dance, or hit forehands for hours, or sprint on the beach and tackle a group of children who are flying a kite. You're on this planet for a reason, after all.

4. "Is it bad that I have exact change ready for my Chipotle before I've ordered it?" writes Rajeev Ram of the U.S.A.

-- I think it is actually quite admirable to have exact change ready at Chipotle before you've ordered it for myriad reasons. First, there is probably a queue of tennis players behind you, and it is best to keep the line moving in order to facilitate the practice schedules and dietary needs of each. Second, the exercise of knowing the price, including sales tax, proves that you are either a creature of habit (these creatures find success in tennis) or very good at calculating state or country sales tax (math is sexy). So, don't feel any shame about this Rajeev. Be young, have fun, and eat Chipotle.

5. "Do you actually laugh out loud when you write LOL?" writes Ivo Karlovic of Croatia

-- Actually, Dr. Ivo, writing that phrase is one of those weird things that I simply can't seem to bring myself to do. Sure, if I am quoting you, fine, but if I am creating original content, and trying to bring a crowd of discerning tennis readers to the edge of their seats, I think it is better to avoid brutally overused clichés such as this.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Flying High Again

Caroline Wozniacki has reclaimed the No. 1 ranking. But with finals points to protect at Indian Wells she may not hold it for too long.
Caroline Wozniacki made short work of Shahar Peer in Dubai today, and in the process she also made short work of Kim Clijster's most recent reign as the WTA's No. 1.

But don't think that the final chapter of this saga has been penned. Wozniacki has final points to defend at Indian Wells, quarterfinal points at Miama, a title at Ponte Vedra beach, and a semi final at Charleston.

Clijsters, meanwhile, has a Miami title, and pretty much nothing else until grass court season. Things will get interesting for her when the U.S. hard court swing begins, and continue all the way through next year's Australian Open.

Even as Wozniacki was decisive -- shrewd might be a better word -- in her trouncing of an overly impatient and error prone Shahar Peer yesterday in Dubai, she'll have her work cut out for her if she wants to maintain the No. 1 spot through this spring and summer.

As fiery as the debate has been about the legitimacy of No. 1's who've ascended to the top of the rankings without winning a Grand Slam, the underlying treasure in all of this is that we have a dogfight for the top spot, and both women appear bent on staking a claim.

(I wish the same could be said for Serena Williams, but for now, we can only hope.)

The struggle will undoubtedly inspire a lot of debate about the WTA's rankings system like this and this.

Personally, I think the criticism of the WTA's points system is much ado about nothing. There's a system in place, and all the players know what it is, and why it is the way it is. The WTA wants (and needs) it's top players to show up and play at big events. The fans want that too, so why knock a system that encourages precisely that?

Questions about the legitimacy of the No. 1 ranking isn't really a sign of a catastrophic deficiency in the system. It's just the way that things are at the moment. Woz isn't Serena, and neither is Kim for that matter. But that doesn't mean they can't be No. 1 or that they can't be legitimate No. 1's. Moreover, it doesn't change the fact that doors are opening on Madison Ave. for the person that is good enough -- or diligent enough, or defensive enough, whatever -- to hold the top spot.

The public can badger Caroline all they want about her lack of a Grand Slam trophy, but it won't change the fact that A) Wozniacki is a hell of a player and b) she doesn't really seem to give a kangaroo punch about all her naysayers.

She's intent and doing what she does best: Playing a maddening brand of defensive tennis that infuriates all but the most patient and clever players, and eventually turns them into error-spraying, overhead-missing, racquet-smashing messes. It may not be the highest form of athletic achievement, and she certainly doesn't remind us of the wildly creative Suzanne Lenglen when she plays, but that shouldn't take away from Wozniacki accomplishments to date, nor should it cause us to rule her out as an even more legitimate No. 1 in the very near future.

She's improved a lot in the last two years, and she's handled the scrutiny with a lot of aplomb, and a sense of humor to boot.

She'll play Jelena Jankovic in the semis tomorrow. She's yet to win in four tries against Jelena, but the points on the line are sure to bring out Wozniacki's best tennis.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Score One For Sentimentalists

Why keeping the French Open at Roland Garros means one less thing for me to be bitter about when I'm old.
Here in America we've got a colossal tennis stadium named after one of the greatest men to ever play the sport -- Arthur Ashe. But the stadium plays nothing like the man. Ashe was a master of nuance, an executor of subtleties, while the behemoth that bears his name is more reminiscent of the aisles of a Costco than a virtuous contrivance of sporting architecture.

The players seem to enjoy it, but good luck watching a match from the cheap seats. If you've ever wondered what it's like to watch two ants chasing a single yellow crumb for three hours, just come to New York around Labor day, take the 6 train to Queens, and hand $100 to the guy inside the glass booth at the box office.

Over the pond, in London and in Paris, they don't do the colossal thing -- thank heavens for that. What they do there is honor tradition. Not with words, but with actions. They've done it at Wimbledon since 1877, and they've done it at Roland Garros since 1928.

So why all the fuss about Roland Garros opting to embrace their tradition by renovating the grounds? Why the sudden desire to see a giant sprawling McMansion of a tennis facility in Versailles? How much more space do they need, and for what?

Space is an issue, I'll not argue that. But to me, it's not an issue that can't be overcome. Roland Garros will be adding 50% to it's acreage by 2016, and they'll still be playing the final in that magical structure that is THE PERFECT SPOT -- perhaps the most perfect on god's green earth -- to play a Grand Slam final.

I'm a guy who believes in ghosts, and when I go visit a place -- whether it be Fenway Park, Old Trafford, or any other of sport's certifiable cathedrals -- I yearn for the connection. I want to sit in my seat and revel in the magic and the mystery. Take Yankee stadium, for instance. I was there in 1978 to watch Reggie Jackson hit a home run on opening day. I've often reflected (especially lately, as they've knocked the old Stadium down) that the very same patch of earth where Reggie's feet were planted as he prepared to swing was the same patch that Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle planted their feet as they prepared to do the same.

There's a karmic synergy to this fact, and there's magic in the places that give birth to our memories. The fact that I could sit in my seat and not only watch a game, but also ponder the tremendous history of ALL THE GAMES that have taken place on the exact same speck of earth is part of the package for me.

For me, to even consider severing the cosmic vein connecting our pasts to our presents is an abomination. It's sacrilege, and a lot of the time it's unnecessary.

I feel I'm in the minority here as there are many who've spoken up about the need for more space to grow for the French Open. Amelie Mauresmo has said her piece, but I wonder -- would she be saying it if she'd ever kissed the clay at the conclusion of the French Open?

Philippe Chatrier, who was the head of the FFT from 1972 to 1993, gave his entire life to restoring the dignity of the French Open. According to Chris Gorringe, the former CEO of Wimbledon, "It is not overstating it to say that he almost single-handedly turned Roland Garros around...He refurbished the facilities at Roland Garros, which were looking tired. He improved the practice facilities, the prize money, the medical facilities, and all the elements that were important to the players."

It's good to know, even as Chatrier passed away after a bout with Alzheimer's in 2000, that the storied tradition of Roland Garros will continue where it started. Where the ghosts of Rene Lacoste, Suzanne Lenglen, Yannick Noah, Bjorn Borg, Rafa, Roger, Justine and Francesca are all resting, their droplets of blood and sweat all mashed into that beautiful red clay.

You can call me sentimental -- I'll take it as a compliment.

There are far too few bastions of excellence remaining in our world, and we need to embrace the process of ensuring that we don't cut ties with everything as soon as it becomes more profitable to do so. Sometimes, there's a steeper price to pay for a higher reward. The French have done a great service to the tennis world by resisting the call of commerce and heeding the groans of the ghosts that made their tournament a viable enterprise in the first place.

Now I can grow old with the knowledge that the spot that Francesca kissed, and the spot where Guga carved his heart, will be underneath the feet of future generations for years to come.

Isn't that a beautiful thing?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

More Milos Musings

He's climbed 97 spots in the ATP rankings since the beginning of 2011. What's next for mighty Milos Raonic?
How does that Monkees song go? You know the one..."then I saw his serve, and I'm a believer."

Okay, excuse me for getting carried away -- and for writing three of my last four blog posts about Milos Raonic -- but really is there anybody else on tour who deserves the ink as much as this kid?

Not at the moment. So, at least for a few more days, Dolgopolov, Berankis, and Dimitrov will all have to wait. Right now it's Milos, Milos, and more Milos.

As Raonic prepares for his highly anticipated rematch with Fernando Verdasco in Memphis tomorrow evening, I thought that now would be a good time to look at his stats to try and make sense of his rise, and to try and use the numbers to see what we can expect from the Maple Leaf Missile as the year winds down.

Please keep in mind that there are several huge intangibles regarding Raonic that will only reveal themselves over time. I hate to be the one to spoil the party, but Raonic has yet to give us any indication that he can handle the beastly grind that is life on the ATP Tour.

He hasn't had a chance yet, but he will get that chance in the upcoming months.

When and if Raonic starts to make a habit of going deep into draws, his body will face a new level of strain, one that he's likely never experienced. Judging from his physique (his legs are very sturdy, and I know because I sat less than 10 feet from them on two occasions last week), Raonic should be fine, but only time will tell how he can handle the grind.

Aside from adjusting to the increased physicality of being a major player on tour, Raonic will also have to deal with going from being the hunter to being the hunted. As his résumé grows, all the players on tour will gain a level of familiarity with Raonic's game. It might not make returning those intercontinental ballistic serves (ICBS's) any easier, but it might mean that his opponents will have more insight as to what kind of tactics can break the big Canadian's game down.

I'm not saying Raonic won't pass all these tests, but the only way we are going to find out is to sit back with some popcorn and see what the kid is made of. It ought to be pretty interesting between here and the end of Miami to see if he can keep performing at this level.

Now, let's take a look at some of Raonic's year-to-date statistics in order to understand what he has done well, and what he hasn't done so well.

First off, the serving numbers are OFF THE CHARTS. Raonic leads the ATP in first serve points won (80%, tied with Berdych, Soderling, Roddick, Karlovic) and he also leads the ATP in second serve points won (61%, tied with Istomin). In terms of service games won, Raonic is second only to Ivo Karlovic.

Clearly, there are no issues with the serve. Furthermore, Raonic's lower body strength, impeccable timing, and smooth, repeatable delivery should keep him near the top of all of those categories for a long time.

Raonic told the press room last week in San Jose that he has been focusing a lot of his effort on two things.

First, he's been trying to do a better job of taking care of his second serve by moving the serve around the box and also by playing a better shot off his opponents returns. It was clear in San Jose that he was having success, because even when players like Berankis and Verdasco returned his second serve deep, Raonic stayed on the offensive and peppered them with another of his deadly weapons -- his very nasty forehand.

Second, Raonic has been trying to do a better job of winning points on his opponents second serve. This hasn't been so simple. In fact, his return game, like many of the other big men on tour (think Isner, Karlovic, Querrey, but don't think del Potro), has been the sticking point for Raonic. He's currently ranked 87th in return games won, and he's tied for 99th in winning 2nd serve return points.

This is an area of significant concern for Raonic, but he hasn't had to pay for his lack of service breaks as of yet this year. That, however, could change.

Raonic started the year winning 8 of 9 tiebreakers, and it's not really surprising to see that he's had that kind of success because the serve gives him an advantage in breakers. But should his tiebreak performance start to slip, matches will become a lot more difficult for Raonic to win, because he isn't a good enough returner at the moment.

Sam Querrey and John Isner each win a lower percentage of return games (13 % and 11 % respectively) but each appear to have plateaued just inside the ATP top-20.

If Raonic wants to go higher than that, he'll have to keep winning 90% of his tiebreaks, or find a way to get more out of his return game.

The fact that he has fairly reliable groundstrokes from both sides should help, but if I were Raonic I would be focusing a huge portion of my energy into winning 20% of return games. I'd be picking the brains of all the good returners on tour, studying their tapes and experimenting with different tactical approaches.

If Raonic can significantly improve his return game, it's hard to imagine him ending up anywhere other than the top-10.

If he doesn't, the climb to higher ground is going to be a hell of a lot more treacherous.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Follow Files: Episode 2

Lot's of screaming can be a good thing, as long as you finish the week with a trophy in your hands.
===The Twitterverse

Another fun week in the twitterverse, as big-time tennis was being played in pretty much every corner of the globe. The Netherlands? Check. Paris? Uh-huh. San Jose? Oh yeah. Thailand? C'mon, do you really have to ask?

As exotic as it sounds, it isn't as easy as it seems. While many of us never left the white glare of our computer monitors this week (don't knock it 'til you try it!), travel mishaps were as common as deuce games on the tour. It is an often overlooked fact of life in the big leagues. Not only does the physicality of the season take it's toll, the numbing level of air travel can also be a drag.

"On 3 flight detour round the USA thanks to another cancellation," said Kate O'Brien, who finally made it all the way to Memphis only to lose in the final round of qualies. "All that change in air pressure will do my ear infection the world of good!"

"Yep well done Qantas," said Sam Groth, "manage for my bags to not make a domestic flight and then tell me that maybe they get delivered today maybe not!"Groth had just come back to Australia from Hawaii, where he lost in the first round of the Caloundra, Australia challenger, earning $520 in the process.


And speaking of ouch, Gael Monfils had to head back to France to get his left wrist looked at by doctors, after withdrawing from San Jose with an inflamed wrist. "Gggrrrrrrr....," said Monfils. 15 hours later, La Monf was in better spirits. "Enfinnnn a la maisonnnnnnnnn...," he tweeted, adding some extra n's and d's for effect.

But let's not spend all day feeling sorry for our heroes, because if we are feeling sorry for our heroes, well, what does that say about our state of affairs?

"Patience is a virtue," says Sloane Stephens, and damned if I don't agree with her. Hopefully Samual Groth, Kate O'Brien, and Gael Monfils do too.

"Should I pull for Duke or UNC tonight," chimed in John Isner, early last week. Oh, the dilemmas that some of these tennis pros must endure. How to decide? "I'm not a fan of either," he added.

Then why worry about it John? Why not worry about something more important, like what Caroline Wozniacki is doing for Valentine's Day?

"Is it bad that I like the new Avril Lavigne song What the Hell?" he adds. So many questions John. So many difficult questions. I wish I could help you, I really do.

"Sometimes you have to realize that not even a leash will keep a dog from playing with dirt," says Sloane Stephens, proving that even young women are wise beyond their years these days.

"How are u doing guys," asks Svetlana Kuznetsova out of the blue. Hmm, not bad Svetlana, since you asked. I saw "The Social Network" this week and made it down to San Jose for the ATP event. Life is good.

"Brian and I took Jada to the Eiffel Tower this morning," says Kim Clijsters. Really, Kim? How very Number one of you. And I thought I was cool for seeing "The Social Network?" Guess not.

It seems like our heroes want to talk about anything but tennis on twitter these days. Unless of course you are Robin Soderling. All he wants to talk about is his latest title. Doesn't he know that if he keeps it up he's going to make people like Gael Monfils jealous?

"Quality victory by Man Utd today, Rooney back to his top form," says Rohan Bopanna. Ah, so much soccer, so little time, and what little time we have is devoted to tennis. But since you mentioned it Rohan, I'm for Arsenal, and we're not out of it yet.

P.S. Why are you not in Memphis with Aisam? You do realize that this mad world needs you guys to stay together more than ever, don't you?

Speaking of the English Premier League: If anybody wants to help Andy Murray out, he wants to debate who the 10 best players are at the moment (and he doesn't think defenders get enough credit-- WHY IS THAT NOT SURPRISING?).

I'll close this segment of the follow files by demonstrating that even tennis players do talk about tennis sometimes. "I'm getting better at understanding the USTA level of rating your level of play," says Venus Williams. "I'm a 7.0 what are you?"

Leave it to her kid sister Serena to turn the conversation away from tennis again. "Still awake....Another long night....Ugh." (Time of tweet: 3:20 A.M.)

Friday, February 11, 2011

Raonic Rises Above Berankis

In a battle between two of the three youngest ATP players in the top-100, Milos Raonic prevailed in straight sets, 6-4, 7-6(2).

===San Jose, Ca.

Two ascendant players clashed in an intriguing quarterfinal match today in San Jose. Milos Raonic, the imposing Canadian oozing with effortless power, and Richard Berankis the feisty Lithuanian with first-rate ground strokes and a world-class return game.

It didn't take long to tell that no matter how good of a returner Berankis is -- he's an intuitive returner who is exceptionally quick and anticipates well -- he'd be facing an uphill battle in dealing with the Raonic serve, especially on a relatively fast indoor court. If there ever was a task worthy of being called a Sisyphean struggle, it would be the task of trying to mount a serious threat against the Raonic serve these days. You can get the rocks half way up the hill, but a big ace or a service winner is all it takes for Milos to send them tumbling down, down, down.

It didn't help Berankis' cause when he dropped his second serving game of the match, thereby giving Raonic the opportunity to play relatively pressure-free tennis.

These days, losing an early service game is a recipe for disaster against the 20-year-old Canadian, because unlike most 20-year-old's, he's not prone to letdowns. Raonic may be young, but in the last few months he's proven that he's wise beyond his years. He knows the value of an early break, and when he gets one -- like he did today, thanks to some shaky Berankis serving (he served two doubles and faced three break points in the first two games) -- he makes it his business to get maximum value out of it.

Today was no exception.

After securing the break, Raonic brushed aside Berankis' one break opportunity of the match (6th game of the 1st set) by sneaking into the net after a few baseline strokes, and knocking a volley into the open court. It was one small point, but it said a lot about Raonic's ability to play his best tennis at the biggest moments.

It's no secret that Raonic has the game to be great, but there is such a huge chasm between having the tools and actually putting them to use at crunch time. That's big-time tennis, and today, as has been the case all week in San Jose, there were myriad signs that this kid has a champion's mind to match his potent strokes.

But Berankis, ever the scrappy dog, was undeterred by his seemingly unwinnable proposition. He seemed to have a good read on the Raonic first serve, guessing right on several instances, but to no avail. 140-145 M.P.H. can make even the most astute returner look boorish. Still, he battled on valiantly, never seeming to lose belief.

In the second set, a determined Berankis took the initiative on his serve, winning 17 of 18 first serve points, and rattling off three love holds to let Raonic know that he'd have a battle on his hands, whether he liked it or not.

Raonic didn't seem to mind. When things got relatively edgy in the second set -- he was 30-30 at 4-5 and 5-6 -- Raonic unloaded his best stuff from the service line to keep Berankis at bay.

Particularly impressive was the decision by Raonic to start mixing in serve and volley midway through the second set. "He was further back," said Raonic, when I asked him about his decision. "This serve, I feel like I can always get it outside the doubles alley, so all it does it puts a little more pressure on him and a little more doubt. This was more to make him think and sort of bring him out of a comfort zone," said Raonic.

As if things weren't hard enough already for the 5'9" Berankis. He was gaining traction by backing up several feet on the Raonic second serve and plopping returns to the baseline, and while the strategy hadn't given him the break he coveted it was at least giving him chances to win points (he won 6 points in each set against the serve, 12 overall).

The headiness to make changes in a match where nothing was going wrong is the type of thing that will set Raonic apart from other hard-serving usurpers. He doesn't just play the game, he thinks and feels the game.

Berankis does to, and even in defeat, it was impressive to watch him collect himself time and time again after another big serve would siphon the oxygen directly from his lungs.

But Raonic was too much today. He won a spirited baseline rally to secure the first mini-break of the 2nd set tiebreaker, and reeled off 6 of the next 8 points to stake his spot in the semis.

The victory makes him the first Canadian to make the semifinals of the SAP Open since the Open Era began.

I've got a feeling that this is the first of what will be many milestones for Raonic and Canada both.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Donald Young Has Time On His Side

Once a prodigy, now nearly forgotten, Donald Young's game still has the sparkle that turned all those heads in the first place.

=== San Jose, Ca.

It was just a little over three years ago that Donald Young finished 2007 as the youngest player in the ATP top-100. The gifted southpaw, who finished 2005 as the No. 1 junior in the world, was a natural on the court -- he had smooth well-oiled strokes, and a pair of soft scissor hands at the net.

What was there not to get excited about? Young was trampling his peers, and he turned pro at the age of 14.

So the press got their fingers typing. They'd been hip to the story since John McEnroe touted Young's deft hands when he happened upon the 10-year-old at tennis tournament in Illinois. Intrigued by McEnroe's praises, they continued typing away, mentioning Young alongside Barack Obama in Newsweek's "Who's Next 2005" issue.

Many argue vehemently that the attention did a still developing Young a disservice, but who could blame the press for churning out stories about the young phenom? It's what the press has always done and it's what the press will always do. Consider it an unwritten law of nature. And for those who think that Young was cursed by his fate, consider the alternative: toiling away in relative obscurity -- what fun is that for a young kid who wants to be a pro?

Expectations do present a complex challenge to any developing prodigy, but for those who have designs on making a living as a professional tennis player it's bound to happen sooner or later -- why not get it over with early in the game, and find out what you're made of? Tennis is, after all, about handling pressure more than anything else.

Whether Young wanted it or not, the pressure was going to come to rest on his shoulders. The fact that Young was worthy of the press as a junior, and moreover, the fact that he continued to produce huge success in spite of the growing attention, alluded to the fact that Young might very well be the real deal.

His promise as yet still unfulfilled, Young was in action against Richard Berankis in San Jose today. And while we can all agree on the fact that Young is not the next John McEnroe or Arthur Ashe, it's still quite clear even to the casual observer that Young has exceptional talent.

Still, three years after his professional breakthrough (3rd round U.S. Open appearance in 2007 and a career-high ranking of No. 73 in early 2008), Donald Young's career is stuck in neutral. Sure, his game still shines at times. He's still got that gorgeous topspin forehand, and he can still put it pretty much wherever he wants when he's going good. He's still a very clever and creative shot maker that can open the court with improbably placed angles.

Young is a talented player -- make no mistake about it -- and he always has been. But something is still holding him back. He hasn't been to an ATP level quarterfinal in three years.

That was, however, about to change today.

Perhaps Young was aware that his opponent, the up-and-coming Lithuanian Richard Berankis, was now the youngest player in the ATP's top-100, just like he had been three years ago.

Perhaps Young was bent on giving the Lithuanian a dose of the type of disappointment that he himself has been experiencing for what must feel like an eternity.

Whatever the case, young was playing inspired tennis, and it was good to see.

Entering the tournament ranked 146, Young fought off a one set deficit to level the match, then surged to a 5-2 lead in the third set by being the more decisive player. He was fierce, aggressive, and imposing. Young was taking an excellent young player in Berankis and making him play second fiddle to him.

Tennis matches are like turf wars, and Young was wielding the heavier artillery.

I'd like to end this story here, and tell you all that Donald Young finished Berankis off with a huge service game, but that would be too easy.

Easy just wouldn't be Donald Young.

The harsh truth of the matter is that Young melted down and coughed up the match by losing the final five games of the third set. However thick the 21-year-old's skin has gotten over the last three years, it wasn't thick enough to avoid another gutwrenching defeat. And this was one that he should have won. Young was serving at 5-3, 30-0, when he inexplicably lost his mojo.

It's the grave axiom that always comes back to haunt you in tennis: You can be a physical phenom for two hours but you can ruin it all with one mental midget minute.

One slight hiccup -- a double fault at 30-all -- when serving for the match and the floodgates opened for Berankis to play his way through.

For five straight games, the intuitive and mature-for-his-age Lithuanian made Young play. And Young, who'd become rattled after blowing his chance to serve it out, became timid. All I could do was roll my eyes and feel for Young. He had played nearly three sets of ball-to-the-walls tennis, then he tried to finish the match by sitting back and waiting for Berankis to go away.

Not a solid plan by any means.

To his credit, Young kept fighting even as he grew despondent. But you could tell he didn't believe he was going to win. Even as he saved three match points with Berankis serving, there wasn't enough belief.

Knowing he was two points from a monster win will probably sting. But maybe, when he wakes up tomorrow, he'll realize that the fact that he gave himself a chance to win is a good thing.

There's hope.

And if Young can forget where he has been, and who he was supposed to be, maybe he can find a way to turn that hope back into the dream.

There's plenty of room for improvement in Young's game, but to say he's washed up at 21 would be a sin.

Young doesn't deserve the pedestal, but he doesn't deserve the trash heap either.

Here's to hoping he proves us all wrong someday, by proving that we were all right in the first place.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Maple Leaf Missile

Milos Raonic is making his presence felt in California, and he's coming to wreak havoc on a draw near you soon.

===San Jose, Ca.

Well, I saw Milos Raonic up close and personal today, and I'm here to tell you what you more than likely already knew: He's good, with a capital G.

I stepped out from my little desk in the bowels of the Arena that we like to refer to as "The Shark Tank" -- walking past Teymuraz Gabashvili, Lleyton Hewitt, Dustin Brown in the process -- to find that Milos had already put the smack down on the No. 4 seed Xavier Malisse in the first set.

As I settled into my seat my eyes were struck by the vision of Raonic. Here he was, the guy that a lot of people have been talking about, and here I was, sitting right behind him on the baseline as he prepared to serve.


Okay, so we all know about the serve, I realize I'm not going to tell the true tennis fan anything new about Raonic there. But still, when you see it close up it's hard not to entertain visions of this young man climbing all the way up the ATP ladder of success -- where he stops, nobody knows!


Boy, was Malisse looking a little dejected. Much in the same way that Ivo Karlovic, John Isner, and other big servers can take away another player's rhythm, Raonic made Malisse miserable today. You could see the words "get me out of here" written on his face, and even though the match was relatively close (1 break per set made the difference for Raonic), it felt as if Raonic was absolutely dominating.

Psychologically speaking, Raonic will find himself in good shape if he can make his opponents feel inferior based on the strength of his serve in matches like he did today.

He hammered 20 aces in 10 service games and basically left Malisse -- a very accomplished player -- feeling that he was out of his league.

Raonic wasn't tested much today by Malisse, but he did have to face a break point half way through the second set. On that point he hit a purposeful approach shot, snuck into the net like a ninja and flicked a touch volley that landed just on the other side of the net. Malisse was so far from the ball that he would have needed a private jet to make a play on it.

Two points later, the veteran Belgian was throwing his racquet in disgust. That's how small the windows of opportunity are when facing a server of Raonic's stature.

But ultimately, if Raonic wants to fulfill his promise, and the growing expectations that are being heaped upon him since his breakout performance in Melbourne, Raonic will have to be more than just the serve.

I tried to get a feel for what kind of a player Raonic is when he's not serving, and here's what I came up with:

1. He has good court sense. He knows where he is on the court, and he knows the difference between an offensive and a defensive position on the court. He's also got a great tennis demeanor in that he's very calm, and pretty much constructive when he plays.

You don't see Raonic get into many baseline rallies because he generally looks for opportunities to end points quickly, either with his inside-out forehand (his best shot by far) or some other type of aggressive ground stroke.

2. Raonic doesn't appear to be a horrible returner at all. He's actually won 15% of his return games this year, which is higher than John Isner (11%), but it's obvious that he could do a better job of returning at this stage. Today, he was opportunistic in terms of taking advantage of a relatively bad serving day for Malisse, and as the year (or years) progresses, he'll likely develop more of a feel for how to make his opponents play, and how to score the crucial breaks under pressure.

He won't need many the way the way he serves. He didn't today, and that'll probably be the story for him in the future. Can he get enough breaks against enough good servers to give him the edge?

3. When Raonic has the advantage, he is deadly. He attacks short returns and never lets his foe get back in the point. This killer instinct will serve him well, as it will allow him to save his energy for the return and it will help him demoralize the competition.

4. When Raonic gets in extended baseline rallies, he's in trouble. He'll need to develop in this regard, both in holding his own in the longer rallies, and in doing what he can to avoid playing points on his adversaries terms.

He's still a work in progress, but the fact that the 20-year-old came in here and absolutely hammered the No. 4 seed can't be a bad sign.

He'll be a factor against anybody he faces, and I suspect that Malisse won't be the last player to flash a desultory look of defeat after facing a barrage of aces from Raonic this year.

Raonic will play James Blake in the next round.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Follow Files: Episode No. 1

What I learned about tennis on Twitter this week, and why the world will be a better place because of it.
There was snow in Moscow on January 29th. I know because Svetlana Kuznetsova tweeted such. "So nice...I'm going to practice," she said.

Meanwhile, in a galaxy far, far away, Gael Monfils was getting ready for — of all things — "bowling time."

Your guess is as good as mine on that one, but I am kind of into the mental imagery of Gael bowling. I can see him flying through the air as he lets go a tweener for a strike.

Just another normal week in the tennis twitterverse, where we die-hard tennis folks are always happy to bear witness to the latest bits of wit and wisdom bursting forth from the pda's of our globetrotting tennis icons.

"I hope Torres will not leave Liverpool," says Caroline Wozniacki, "he is such a great player." It was wishful thinking for Caroline, but we know if anyone dares to dream on the WTA Tour it is the Great Dane.

Sadly, it was all for naught. One day later, Torres was gone to Chelsea, with obscene amounts of money changing hands in the deal. As usual, Caroline displayed her ability to roll with the punches. "Need to get used to not seeing Torres in the red shirt anymore :( but I am sure Suarez and Carroll in front will be a good pair."

That's our Caroline, always seeing the bright side.

Oh, but hang on -- we interrupt this edition of "Football talk w/ Caro" for a public service announcement from recently retired Taylor Dent. No, he's not coming out of retirement for the Delray Beach tourney, but he does want us to know that he's going to stay involved with the sport. "I have been getting a lot of requests on the academy," he says. " should give you all the info."

Thanks for that, Taylor. We miss you man!

Speaking of hard serving Americans, the legendary John Isner (legendary more for his appearance w/ Petkorazzi than the longest match of all-time these days) chimes in to tell us some bad news about a bulldog. "RIP UGA VIII. Damn good doawg. Sad day for the bulldog nation," he laments. Sad indeed, as UGAVIII was only 17 months old before lymphoma took his life.

On a lighter note, the second best quote of the Australian Open, in my humble opinion, came from that same long-limbed American, John Isner: "I won in 4, look at my big chest," said Isner, as Petko's camera lens caught him during a post-match warm-down with resistance bands. He wasn't done. "I'm a beast," he added, "am I turning you on?"

Petkovic, careful not to do anything to deflate the young giant, replied "a little bit."

Priceless. Almost as good as "I feel like I'm the backstreet boys," which was what Andrea Petkovic had to say about playing in the quarters of the Australian Open.

"Happy Chinese New Year to all my Chinese followers," says Kim Clijsters. I can't help thinking that maybe Stacey Allaster put Kim up to that. Stacey: 'Hey Kim, how about throwing those Chinese people a bone? They're pretty upset about what you did to Na in the 2nd and third sets last week.'

"I hope u are good," says our good buddy Gael Monfils, when clearly it is us who should be wishing him well after his thrashing at the hands of Stan Wawrinka in Melbourne. Still, Gael seems adamant. He's interested in us. And he doesn't like the silence. "I hope u are doing good in your life," he adds, as if we didn't see his first tweet.

Gael, I'm doing fine. We all are. But we miss you. Where have you been since Melbourne?

"I had a good training session at P3 sport and science lab," he says. Evidently he took a photo of the wall too.

"On my way to San Jose."

Right on, see you there Gael.

Speaking of San Jose, Ivo Karlovic will be wreaking his unique brand of havoc on the draw at the SAP Open next week. He's already in town, and he's watching the Superbowl. "Today I'm watching #superbowl," he says. "P.S. what are the rules?"

Far across the globe, Vera Zvonareva reminds us all that you don't need anything more than yourself to have a good time.

Amen to that!

Now that you've read this, don't you feel that the world is a better place? I kind of do.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Groth Spurt?

Jarmila Groth will take on Francesca Schiavone in her first Fed Cup match for Australia on Saturday. Can she be the difference for the Aussies?
Jarmila Groth fell in love with Australia on her first trip to the continent as a 14-year-old. These days, she's giving Australians as many opportunities to fall in love with her. Groth was granted Australian citizenship in Nov of 2009, and since then the 23-year-old has engineered a rise from just outside the top-100 in the WTA rankings all the way to her current career-high of No. 31.

She's matured quite a bit over the past year, and the overwhelming consensus is that the Bratislava, Slovakia native has earned the chance to join the Australian Fed Cup team in their quest to upset the formidable Italian squad in Hobart this weekend.

"Jarka's got a very exciting game," Aussie captain David Taylor said. "Anyone who's watched her play [will say] she's exciting to watch. She can hit winners from both forehand, backhand, and she can serve huge," adds Taylor.

Groth has had her two best Slam appearances (4th round French Open and Wimbledon in '10) as an Australian, and now the Fed Cup singles rookie will get the chance to help her new friends and teammates try to knock off the two-time defending Fed Cup champion Italians.

Groth, who snatched her second WTA title just weeks ago in Hobart, has an electric game. A plethora of articles were written about her ambidextrous leanings last summer when she wowed at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, but there is considerably more to her game than smoke and mirrors. She also possesses an easy power on her serve and backhand that can leave even her fleetest opponents flat-footed.

To say that the 23-year-old can do more than hit a ball with both arms would be like saying Roger Federer can do more than hit tweeners. She may have garnered some press with her left-handed overheads, but there's clearly more substance than style in her game. Groth has the explosive strokes that make scouts drool and coaches line up for a chance to refine her skills. She's a raw talent, but an undeniably dangerous one, and the hope is that she's only at the cusp of her potential.

But Groth's greatest successes in professional tennis have come largely on the ITF circuit, where she has 12 titles to her name. It still remains to be seen if she can find away to turn all the immense talent at her disposal into big wins over big opponents.

On Saturday, she'll get the chance, as one of the fiercest women in the game — Francesca Schiavone a.k.a. 'La Lionessa' — will look to punish her early and often for her lack of Fed Cup experience.

It'll be a big challenge, exceptional talent or no exceptional talent. Groth is 1-4 against the WTA's top-20 since 2010, and both of her Italian singles opponents (Schiavone, No. 4 and Pennetta, No. 16) are currently inside the top-20.

The Australian team, which hasn't won a Fed Cup title since 1974, knows that their chances hinge heavily on whether or not Groth can overachieve in Hobart.

"It's a really evenly matched tie, and if she puts in a good performance and gets a win, it's going to be critical," Australian Captain David Taylor said.

Sam Stosur, who holds a career record of 5-2 against Schiavone, is ready and willing to give Groth advice on the matter. "Anything we can do to help each other get through, we'll do," she said.

It'll certainly be a tall order, given the way the Italians have performed at Fed Cup of late, but Groth is happy to be representing Australia and happy to be in Hobart, where the memories of her most recent WTA title are fresh.

"I'm very lucky to be a part of this team," Groth said. "I'm trying to show that even though I wasn't born here, I'm part of Australia now, and I will do my best to represent my country as well as I can."

Visit the Fed Cup homepage for more schedules and features.