Thursday, March 31, 2011

Full Circle

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer will meet in Miami today for the 23rd time since 2004. Excuse me while I kiss the sky.

Ah, yes, Christmas in Miami -- and this ain't no April Fools joke!

With 25 Grand Slam singles titles and 100 million dollars of prize money between them, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal aren't exactly desperate for accolades, or triumphs for that matter, and yet, as they prepare to lock horns for the 23rd time Friday evening in Miami, one can't help but feel that surge of electric anticipation that has energized this rivalry since it began in the very city of Miami in 2004.

Back then it was a swashbuckling and quicker-than-lightning 17-year-old Nadal who took out a more proven yet still largely unheralded Federer in straight sets. See the video below if you don't believe me.

Six years later, it's hard to really sum up the magnitude of a Federer-Nadal meeting -- or to predict who will do what to whom -- but we can say with sincere certainty, that no way in hell could we have ever imagined that the tennis would be this transcendent between the two.

So I say rejoice. Beat your fists against your chest and scream "I love tennis!" at the top of your lungs. Make some popcorn. Do some push-ups or shave the image of Rafa or Roger into your chest hair. Get a tattoo that says "Vamos Rafa!" or "Roger That!" But whatever you do, I implore you, do not take tonight's match for granted.

It's too late in the rivalry, and we're too much closer to the end than the beginning of this spontaneously combustible ceremony to be taking even one point of it for granted.

Simply and unequivocally put, if these two tennis paragons see fit to bless us with their awe inspiring athleticism, artistry, and desire, then who are we not to bask in its glory?

Now that Federer and Nadal have arrived precisely back at the place that their rivalry burst out of the womb in 2004, I think it's high time to basically spend the day getting jacked-up about these two scissor-handed sorcerers of shot making, and what type of paranormal points they will play.

After seven years of epic battles, it's all come back to the place it began.

Two of the greatest heavyweights that the game has ever seen, duking it out again in front of a packed house of crazies who are probably going to frame their ticket stubs the minute they get home.

Yeah, it's that special people. So go ahead and scream about it. I'll be right there with you.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Fish's Second Coming

After two huge wins over Juan Martin del Potro and David Ferrer, Mardy Fish is the highest- ranked American, and headed for the top ten.
You have to love a feel good story like Mardy Fish's. A little more than a year removed from a soul-sapping knee surgery at the age of 28, Fish is back on tour with a vengeance, seemingly bent on proving all the things he failed to prove in his younger years on the tour.

With his win over David Ferrer today in Miami, Fish has grabbed a career high ranking, in addition to becoming the highest-ranked American player currently on tour, and having a shot at the ATP's top ten.

It's been a long time coming.

It was seven years ago that Fish last shot up this high in the ATP's rankings. Back then, Fish appeared to have a bright future. At 22 he was inside the top 20 for a spell and he narrowly missed winning the gold medal in the '04 Athens Olympics, finally bowing out to Nicolas Massu after holding a two sets to one lead in the gold medal match.

"The Olympics were very painful," Fish told Deuce Magazine earlier this year. "It was one of my greatest highs, but it also became one of my greatest lows."

As Fish's career approaches its final chapters, the SoCal resident is anxious to take editorial control of the tone of his manuscript, and he's now going about the business of trying to insert a few more highs near the conclusion.

Long regarded as a gifted natural athlete who can dominate his fellow Americans on the golf course (he's a scratch golfer), baseball diamond (he once homered in Batting practice at Shea Stadium before a New York Mets game) and the basketball court (Fish and Andy Roddick were basketball teammates in High School, and Roddick attests to Fish's abilities), Fish was never known for his commitment to tennis — until lately, that is.

These days, Fish is a man on a mission. After returning from a season-ending knee surgery in 2009, Fish has admirably done everything in his power to give himself the best chance to compete on the court. "Resurrection and commitment are the first things that spring to mind when I think of Mardy's career," U.S. Davis Cup Captain Jim Courier told Deuce Magazine this year.

Following in the footsteps of Jurgen Melzer, another late bloomer on the court who just recently reached the top ten for the first time at the age of 29, Fish has focused his energy on maximizing his potential on the court, in spite of being beyond the typical peak of a world class tennis player in terms of age.

He's lost 30 pounds, he's made the realization that to compete with the game's younger generation he'd have to reach a new level of fitness, and now Fish is reaping the benefits. In addition to his latest rankings milestones, Fish has also gone 6-3 against the ATP's top ten since the beginning of 2010, and he's overcome thyroid issues and a floating piece of cartilage in his ankle in the last few months too.

"Obviously, it's very humbling," said Fish of his newly-elevated status. "It would only be a number next to my name. I certainly wouldn't feel like the top-ranked American given what I've accomplished and what Andy (Roddick) has accomplished."

That is precisely why there is so much to love about Fish's surprising rise in the rankings, and Fish the person in general. His is a redemption song, and its chorus is a reminder that hard work and determination — even for the most naturally gifted of athletes — is a necessary ingredient to success. Not only is he resuscitating his career by the force of sheer will, Fish is also conducting himself with dignity, humility, and profound respect for his opponents. He's got none of Roddick's punky theatrics or Querrey's sourpuss woe-is-me proclivities. He's just a likable guy who wants to make good on his talent before it's too late.

Fish is apparently not willing to allow the last chapters of the book about his career be about a thyroid problem, a knee surgery, falling short, or gently fading into the abyss.

He may have turned pro in 2000, but ten years later, thankfully, we are getting a chance to see what Mardy Fish is really made of.

Turns out he might be the real deal after all.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Federer's Further Proof

Roger Federer tied Pete Sampras on the ATP's all-time win list today. Let's put the Federer obits on hold and celebrate.

While most of us have been busy declaring the Federer era largely over in men's professional tennis, Federer himself has been busy doing what he's always done: racking up wins.

Yesterday, he notched his 762nd ATP victory, tying him with Pete Sampras for seventh on the ATP's all-time win list, and while Federer is clearly not the tennis sovereign that he used to be, today's milestone victory was a reminder that the Federer of today is often unfairly judged against the Federer of the last 10 years.

In other words, yeah, we get it, Federer is not the player he used to be. But let's keep in mind the fact that nobody else is the player that Federer used to be, either. Not even Novak Djokovic, whose current mind-boggling winning streak will need to stretch another twenty wins before it matches Federer's career best. Federer in his heyday reached stratospheric levels of awesomeness, and there's certainly no shame in the fact that he's not able to dazzle the opposition in the same manner these days. And just because the Swiss Maestro has come down a level from his earth-shattering 3-Slam-a-year pace of 2004-2007, does not mean that he's destined for a near-term future as the whipping boy of the young guns of the game.

My point here is that today's achievement by Federer is a nice place for all of us to stop, take a deep breath, look around and fully acknowledge the exquisite brilliance of Federer. Whether he be No. 3 in the world or No. 1, there's no denying that the man is, was, has been and always will be poetry in motion.

As much as we all love to demonstrate our tennis acumen by criticising every flubbed backhand and stubborn decision that the man makes, maybe today we'd all be better off spending a few moments praising Roger for what he has done, and more importantly, what he's still doing. He's approaching 30, still ranked No. 3 in the world, and he's only been beaten by one player thus far in 2011.

As Federer attempts to beat Juan Monaco for career win No. 763 in his next match, I think it's time to give the "Will he ever become No. 1 again?" and "Can he win another Slam?" questions a rest, and just sit back and enjoy the fact that Federer is still here, still hungry to improve, and still highly compelling to watch.

And to top it all off, he's breaking records too.

Maybe the glass that we see as half-empty is actually quite full?

ATP All-Time Win Leaders

1. Jimmy Connors: 1242
2. Ivan Lendl: 1071
3. Guillermo Vilas: 973
4. John McEnroe: 875
5. Andre Agassi: 870
6. Stefan Edberg: 806
7. Roger Federer: 762
7. Pete Sampras: 762

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Long Hard Road

Could this be the week that Maria Sharapova finally cracks the WTA top ten again?
I came across a stunning stat last week while perusing my WTA notes: Maria Sharapova has not been ranked in the top ten since January 30th, 2009. I knew it had been a while, but I had no idea that it has been over two years. Wow.

That could all be changing next week in Miami as the current No. 13-ranked Sharapova has zero points to defend, and two players ranked just above her (Venus Williams and Marion Bartoli) have 700 and 450 respectively to defend. Also working in Maria's favor is the fact that a third player ranked above her is Serena Williams, but she's only ahead by the thinnest of margins (9 points).

One win will leapfrog Sharapova past both Williams sisters (who are inactive this week). That leaves Marion Bartoli, who was a semifinalist last year, as Maria's final hurdle to end an exasperating 26-month period of non top-ten rankings. (Provided that she isn't passed by Kuznetsova, Radwanska, or Kanepi, who aren't far behind her-- see below).

It's outrageous to think that it has taken this long for Sharapova to reach the top ten. When she stormed to the French Open quarterfinals in only her second tournament back (May, '09) from shoulder surgery, it seemed as though Maria would be a cinch for the top-ten by the end of the season.

Nearly two years later, we're still waiting. That 2009 French Open performance ended in a lopsided defeat at the hands of Dominika Cibulkova, and Maria has gone seven straight Slams without getting to the quarters since.

It has been a bumpy ride, to say the least.

The list of challenges that Maria has faced in these last two very trying years is long: there were tough draws, brought about by a low ranking; there was trepidation in her game, brought about by learning to serve with a surgically repaired shoulder; there was an elbow problem that kept her from gaining momentum in 2010. There is also the fact that the women's game places more emphasis on fitness, quickness, and agility than ever before -- these are not exactly Sharapova's greatest strengths.

In spite of it all, Maria has been close. Oh, so close.

And never, not even for a nanosecond, during the whole frustrating period of nagging injuries, near misses and inexplicably bad losses (21 double-faults vs. Oudin, 3 match points vs. Clijsters, 72 unforced errors vs. Kirilenko) has she ever wavered in intensity.

A lot of weaker players might have considered giving up the chase, or at least hanging their head and crying about it.

Not Sharapova. She's done neither, and 26-months after a 10-month hiatus, she's ready to make a statement to the rest of the tour. It's one that she's been making all along, but now she'll have the ranking to back it up: I'M STILL HERE, AND I'M STILL DANGEROUS.

It hasn't been the greatest two years of Sharapova's career by any stretch, but it has been entertaining.

Her trials and tribulations have provided us with a unique glimpse into the character of Sharapova, and the experience has been eye-opening for those who underestimated her love for the sport. We have been witness to the epic courage of the 6'2" Russian as she has fought tooth and nail to become relevant in the sport again.

Two years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine that we'd ever see it as a grand accomplishment for Maria Sharapova -- a three-time Grand Slam Champion -- to reach the top ten, but considering how much she's struggled, it is how it should be perceived.

Just a month shy of her 24th birthday, Sharapova appears determined to find a way back to the top of the sport.

One thing's for certain: if she doesn't make it, nobody will fault her for not trying.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The New Sheriff

Caroline Wozniacki has the cheese, and the rest of the WTA is trying to find it in vain.
With each passing week there is more reason to believe that Caroline Wozniacki might extend her stay at the top of the WTA rankings well into the year. In addition to the 20-year-old's solid play of late, the recent shoulder ailments of Kim Clijsters, the retirement of Justine Henin and the absence of both Williams sisters are all working in her favor.

Yesterday's episode of trench warfare -- a 6-1, 2-6, 6-3 victory over Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli at the BNP Paribas open in California -- conducted mostly from the baseline, and conducted mostly on Wozniacki's terms, was another example of why Wozniacki is so damn hard to beat.

And the fact that she is so damn hard to beat is precisely the reason that it's unlikely that anybody will knock her from her perch at the top of the WTA rankings for some time.

While there are critics who say that Wozniacki's lack of power is a sign of weakness, it appears to be more of a strength at the moment.

But Why?

Because the more that Wozniacki keeps the ball in play, the more her opponents remain lost in the maze, searching for a way to win points like tired mice would search for cheese. They become confused, frustrated, unnerved; they are forced into a state of desperation when they realize that their opponent is not human. No, she's a robot. A ball machine. A devil incarnate.

Her opponents -- Bartoli, Sharapova, Schiavone, you name it -- quickly realize that they must step outside their comfort zone to have a chance to win. Meanwhile, Wozniacki simply must do what she's been doing, and wait for them to crack.

Usually, they do.

Wozniacki isn't unbeatable, but players who want to beat her have to walk a very thin tightrope in a very stiff wind to do so. Because of Wozniacki's uncanny -- freakish might be a better word -- ability to keep the ball in play, and to do so with depth and precision, her opponents are routinely forced to ignore what their good judgment tells them, and take their shot at playing low percentage tennis in a high percentage way.

Usually, it ends up being a losing proposition. Nobody can play low percentage tennis in a high percentage way for very long. Eventually, fatigue or frustration sets in, and the court starts to tilt in Wozniacki's favor.

Marion Bartoli (in a supreme effort, might I add) had great success with the drop shot in the second set yesterday, and it does appear to be a great strategy against Wozniacki. But the very essence of the drop shot is that it is a risky ploy. Rather than being a surefire way to get off the treadmill that Wozniacki puts her opponents on, repetitive attempts at the dropper only seem to be a recipe for disaster.

To play Wozniacki, and to engage in baseline tennis against her, must truly be maddening. She is a master of the gentle ground stroke, and her indefatigable footwork makes her a master from virtually anywhere on the court and against balls hit at any pace. The longer the rallies go, the more her opponents want to just smash the ball -- somewhere, anywhere -- where Caroline can't retrieve it.

More often than not, that somewhere is far outside the lines.

Even as the critics banter fills the tennis pages of the sports section with reasons that Wozniacki isn't as good as her ranking -- the lack of a true weapon, the lack of a true heavyweight in the WTA's top ten without Serena, the fact that she's lucky (see Kim's withdrawal from Indian Wells) -- if you read between the lines you'll see the writing is already on the wall as far as the 2011 WTA season is concerned.

There's a new sheriff in town, and even if she only has a BB gun, she's a pretty sure shooter.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Rising Star Wars

In defeating Milos Raonic at Indian Wells, 18-year-old Ryan Harrison has reminded us that he just might be the real deal.
Ryan Harrison has a lot of respect for Milos Raonic. He's spoken about it in press conferences on several occasions, and he showed it at the net when the two shook hands after two-and-a-half hours of hotly contested tennis on Tuesday. But if you really wanted to understand how much respect the 18-year-old American had for his rival from North of the border, all you had to do was watch Harrison's celebration after match point of his 7-6(1), 4-6, 6-4 victory last night.

Harrison dropped his racquet, pinched both both elbows to his sides, faced his box and let out a guttural scream. You'd think he just won the tournament with that kind of reaction, but even if it seemed a tad incompatible with a 3rd round match at Indian Wells, there was good reason for Harrison to be excited.

Some of the tension that Harrison released after match point against Raonic dates back to last September, when he was the player -- more so than Raonic, who had already lost to Carsten Ball in the first round -- that seemed poised for a huge breakout at the U.S. Open. There, while riding a huge wave of American support after knocking out Ivan Ljubicic in the first round, Harrison squandered three match points against Sergiy Stakhovsky in a fifth set tiebreaker. Unfortunately for Harrison -- a fiery competitor with a well-crafted multi-dimensional game and eye-catching quickness -- the future hasn't looked as bright since.

When Harrison was asked last Friday if he still thought about the devastating loss, he was forthcoming with his thoughts. "I mean, obviously you think about it," said Harrison. "Anybody who was ever in a situation that was really important to them and failed would be lying if they told you they didn't think about it and aren't haunted by it," he added.

Clearly Harrison, who has had great difficulty scouring up ATP level wins since that fateful match on Grandstand, has had ample time to think about what he might have done differently that day.

That is why it must have been so sweet for him to blow three match points AND WIN yesterday, against a player who has recently achieved pretty much everything that Harrison is dreaming about doing on the ATP Tour.

Raonic has knocked off seven top-25 players, played two finals, and earned his first ATP title. He has also climbed over a hundred spots in the rankings since January 17th, from 152 to his current spot at 37.

Things haven't moved as quickly for Harrison.

His win over Jeremy Chardy in the first round at Indian Wells was his first ATP level victory since the U.S. Open. That is why the victory over Raonic must have felt so sweet for the 18-year-old -- and probably why his post-match celebration was so jubilant. Harrison ought to be thrilled that he beat a player that has gone from promising to lethal during 2011 -- only three others have been able to it, two of which were in the top-10 -- and that he did so in front of a boisterous crowd which very closely resembled the one he has bitter memories of disappointing in New York last September.

After the match, Harrison was asked about the differences he felt between the experience in New York and the experience of last night. "Well, for one, I won a tight match," he said. "You know, very similar feelings when it comes to the crowd and when it comes to being in the moment."

When Harrison came within two points of blowing his two break advantage in the third set, he was able to compose himself enough to make a clutch touch volley to secure his fourth match point, then he served an ace down the T to clinch the win.

It wasn't the match to end all matches, but in tennis, growing a career full of big wins has to start with one or two. Harrison needed this one, and the confidence that comes with it, to get to the next level. Now he can breathe a sigh of relief and forget about last September.

The future is bright again.

"I can't remember the thoughts going through my head at that point," said Harrison, of how he felt when he hammered the match-winning ace. "I was extremely excited."

"That was the biggest thing that I did well today, is that I stayed composed."

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Nole Zone

With a Grand Slam title and 12 consecutive wins to start the year, Novak Djokovic's future has never looked better.
After Novak Djokovic won his 2nd title of the year in Dubai, convincingly might I add, I started to wonder if perhaps this could be the beginning of something utterly gargantuan for the 23-year-old Serb.

Now that he's 12-0, with two wins over Federer, two wins over Berdych, and a Grand Slam title on his mantle, who's to say that he can't be 24-0 in three weeks time, with a few Masters Shields bookending that Slam trophy?

It seems far-fetched, and it's probably stupid of me to even speculate that Nole could go the entire season without losing a match, but right now it's fun to imagine.

Imagine if John McEnroe's stunning 82-3 record in 1984 became the second best winning percentage of all-time after 2011.

Imagine how upside-down the tennis world would be if Djokovic sustained this wild ride even for a few months longer. What if he heads into the French Open without a loss? Will Novak Djokovic highlights be as viral as the bipolar videos of our current obsession, the ever-shocking Charlie Sheen?

Of course, we know it isn't possible, because if going undefeated for a whole season was possible, it would have been done already, right? We know the sport of tennis is just way too stacked at the top for a guy -- even one who is playing so out-of-his-skull -- like Djokovic to run the table for a full 12 months.

Even Rafa, as dominant as he was in 2010, had his slip-ups (he was 71-10).

Even the majestic Roger Federer, architect of 81-4 and 92-5 seasons back-to-back in '05 and '06, couldn't survive without several blemishes.

It's impossible, and I think I'm a complete idiot for even writing about it. But if you're like me, and you are a sucker for a hot streak -- think Joe Dimaggio's 56 game hitting streak or the '72 Miami Dolphins perfect season -- you're sort of hoping that Nole can run the table in the states over the next two weeks, just to make things interesting.

Roger Federer -- that majestic dude -- is the only active player to have won Indian Wells and Miami in the same season. He did it in '05 and '06, and those are some pretty mighty shoes to fill for the young Serb to be certain.

But the way he's played so far this season, I don't think it's completely crazy to surmise that if anybody is going to do the Indian Wells-Miami double in 2011, it will more than likely be Djokovic. He's been that good this year. He really has. So good in fact, that I just devoted a whole blog post to the fact that he might go undefeated this year.

Yup, that's right. He might. And until he loses, you can't argue with me on that point.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

No Rest For the Weary Warrior?

The ATP’s season will be shortened by two weeks starting in 2012. It sounds good on paper, but will it be enough?
When ATP Tour Chief Adam Helfant announced last November that the ATP season would be shortened by two weeks in 2012, the news was music to a lot of tired ears.

But now that the change is being made, one wonders if it will actually be enough, or, will further changes to the calendar need to come in the years to follow. When comparing the length of the ATP off-season – even after the change – to the length of the off-seasons that other professional athletes are enjoying, it’s hard not to wonder if tennis isn’t doing itself a disservice. Especially given that tennis – seen in the past as a genteel non-contact sport – has become so brutally physical in the last ten years.

Using the first two months of the season as a gauge, staying healthy is clearly a challenge for the ATP’s top players. Case in point: World No. 1 Rafael Nadal has already been out for more than a month (adductor), world No. 2 Novak Djokovic has pulled out of a tournament (shoulder) and a Davis Cup tie (fatigue) and the world No. 4 Andy Murray recently pulled out of Dubai (wrist). None of the injuries are season-threatening, but they are signs that top players are not only finishing seasons fatigued, they are also starting them that way.

Complex issues color the players’ negotiations with the ATP. First of all, some of the tournaments are owned and operated by the players. This dynamic creates a stalemate that other sports don’t typically encounter. Next, there are a different set of physical and financial needs for virtually every player on tour. While the big breadwinners are more than good with a jumbo-sized off-season, there are plenty of other journeymen-type players who need the extra months to put their financial houses in order.

Even top players are aware that the issue is not as cut and dry as it appears. “I think Adam (ATP President Adam Helfant) is doing a great job,” said Rafael Nadal before the schedule change was made official. He knows the season is too long. But even for some players – maybe not for the top players, but for other players – they prefer to play during all the season because they have more chances to keep winning money and to keep playing.”

Nadal showed sensitivity to the issue here, but he’s also been very adamant about telling his side of the story over the last few seasons. He’s been one of the workhorses of the tour, and his body has paid the price for that. He has alluded to the fact that the shorter schedule might be shortening the length of careers, and this is something that the ATP can ill afford, given what a boon Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have been for the sport this century.

“In terms of these guys playing at their peak potential and remaining injury free throughout an extended season, the more time they get in the off-season to either heal or rehab injuries that they suffer over the course of the season, the better,” says Jason Riley, the director of The Athletes Compound at Saddlebrook in Tampa, Florida. Riley, who works with John Isner and other big names across several sports, knows that life on the ATP tour is extremely tough on a body. “The thing that most people don’t take into account about the ATP is that these guys fly all over the entire world, not just the United States, they have jet lag, and they’re playing every week, up to five matches a week – so there bodies are taking a beating.”

Riley also went on to mention the nature of tournament play makes it hard for the athlete to say no to playing opportunities, and sometimes these decisions are made to the detriment of better long-term fitness.

While a professional football, baseball, or basketball player is paid a set amount of money (though his contract may have incentives) for a designated season with a clearly defined beginning and end, players on the ATP Tour are perpetually tempted by the allure of making more money. It is a system that makes the sport that much more compelling, but it is also a system that has lead us to a season that seems never-ending.

“You’re cramming for the exam,” says Joe Regan, a nutrition and exercise physiologist with Peak Progress. “You’re just kind of rushing it (with the short off-season). You need to anatomically prepare yourself, then you need to up the load, then you need to transfer your work to the court. In my opinion, seven weeks is just not enough time for that.”

Clearly it’s not the best scenario for the health of the athlete, and we’ve seen in recent years that schedule management has become an art almost as important as a good serve or a world-class backhand. Top players who can afford it are starting to pick and choose what events they play in order to recharge their batteries for the big events like the Grand Slams. Federer takes mini-vacations over the course of the year, and Rafael Nadal has followed suit of late.

But the top athletes, in spite of their desire for more vacation time, still find the time to play exhibitions. Nadal and Federer played two this December. “That’s a very complex question,” says Nick Bollettieri. “If the players are going to have a shorter season, is it going to be rest, working on their game, more time with their families, and working harder physically? Because if they are going to throw in four or five exhibitions here and there and everywhere, you can answer that yourself.”

Before you roll your eyes at the insincerity of Federer and Nadal to be campaigning for shorter season so that they can play more tennis, consider the facts. Exhibition tennis is not stressful in the way that tournaments can be. Money is not an issue, as it is decided ahead of time, and since each exhibition is only one friendly match, players can enjoy them without having to stretch for every ball or risk injury for the result.

And while we are taking the opportunity to investigate the nature of the toll that the ATP season takes on the players, it is only fair that we note that the ATP is listening. They are showing their commitment to their players by shortening the season, and if they feel that there needs to be more tinkering down the line to prolong the careers of their stars, one gets the feeling that they’ll do whatever is necessary to maintain the integrity of the game.

Pauly Pisani, a strength and conditioning coach who has worked with Sam Querrey, Amer Delic and Robert Kendrick, is happy about the change. “I love it,” he says. “As a coach it’s a great time to train the player in a stress free environment while also spending time with the family. “I see how the players can get burnt out,” he adds. “It’s a long year. Players are chasing points relentlessly, and that can be quite draining after a while.”

No matter how long the season, or how short the off-season, there is no denying that the physicality of ATP tennis is cause for concern, debate, and two-way dialogue. Injuries are a part of the game, and finding balance between earning a living and preserving the body for longer-term success will never be black and white.

The shorter ATP schedule is definitely a step in the right direction. Whether or not it will be the final step remains to be seen.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Federer's Race Against Time

How long will Roger Federer be able to tolerate his new place in the pecking order of tennis?
In my mind he's a god, but on my television screen he's a conundrum. At times Roger Federer looks invincible, the nimble virtuoso that we've always revered: smooth, svelte, and incandescent. At others he is coming apart at the seams, missing so badly that it hurts to watch.

It's hard to tell where Roger Federer is headed in the short term, but it's not difficult to tell that he isn't the player he once was. Gone are the seemingly limitless stretches of dominant play. Missing is the intimidation factor that had many of his opponents beaten before they stepped on the court to face him.

(Insert melodramatic music and emotional Federer highlight montage here).

The final act of the magical mystery tour known as Federer's bedazzling career might be closer to a conclusion than we think, and there is a growing fear that his last Grand Slam title might already be behind him.

Then again, we've written the maestro off before, and the last time we really had him pegged for dead he promptly won three of the next four Grand Slams. So maybe Roger's confounding error-prone loss to Novak Djokovic on Saturday in Dubai was nothing to be concerned about. Maybe he's playing possum, fooling his adversaries into thinking that he's dead in the water so that he can sneak up on them in the Slams when they least expect it.

More Grand Slam triumphs certainly aren't out of the realm of possibility for a player his age. Federer's only 29 and he's remarkably fit. Plus, he's got recent history on his side.

Agassi and Sampras each tallied Grand Slam titles beyond the age of thirty, so it's not ridiculous at all to expect the same from Federer, who has spent the better part of the last eight years casually collecting Grand Slam trophies like children collect baseball cards or matchbox cars.

That being said, it can't be enjoyable for Federer to be taking his lumps against players he used to annihilate. He's still brilliant but he's not the epitomé of brilliance that he used to be, and if Roger finds himself in the same or a worse form by the end of 2011, will he do more than entertain thoughts of hanging it up after the 2012 Olympics in London?

There are six Grand Slam events between now and the next Olympic Games, and if Federer hasn't found a way back to a Grand Slam final by then (hard to imagine a year ago, but easier to imagine given his recent form) I'm not so sure he'll want to continue plying his trade as a less than elite player.

It's comforting to hear Federer speak of his love for the game and his desire to play for many more years so that his kids can watch him perform, and I have no doubt that he genuinely feels this way at the moment, but a lot can change in a little time. Just ask Bjorn Borg and Justine Henin. What Roger feels and wants today is not necessarily what he'll want and feel tomorrow.

At the moment, we are faced with the bittersweet reality that the sun is slowly setting on one of the greatest players to ever play to game. As much as we all want to believe that he'll play on as long as we want him to, the fact remains that a lot hinges on his performance for the remainder of 2011. If Federer continues to produce erratic tennis and puzzling losses to what used to be lesser opponents as he did in 2010, he'll inevitably start to weigh the value of tarnishing his legacy versus the chances of winning another Grand Slam title.

Federer won't have the luxury of being judged easily. He'll always be judged against what we witnessed him to be -- one of the best, if not the best, to ever play.

Getting out of bed and trying to measure up to that standard every day can't be easy. Since he's the player that created the standard in the first place, maybe he will be up to the task.

It's worth it to mention that Federer has only lost to one player this year, and that he's still a threat to win against anyone, anywhere. But Federer is not accustomed to being a threat. He's accustomed to being the threat.

How will he respond to the challenge of turning 30? Can he rein in the mistakes and wreak havoc on the elite again? Is there really anything left to prove for him?

Questions abound, and, as the sun sets, the answers will come.