Monday, April 18, 2011

The Road to Roland Garros is Paved With Unknowns

No Serena. No Kim. No Elena. No Venus. Sounds like the opportunity of a lifetime for rising players like Petra Kvitova and Andrea Petkovic.
The race to Roland Garros is on, and most of the heavy hitters on the WTA Tour are nursing injuries that they suffered while dancing. Huh?

I'm serious, and as outlandish as it sounds, it's true. It's also pathetic, but that's another rant for another time.

It's just plain screwy that Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters are unlikely to make the 2011 French Open, and the reasons are even more mind-boggling than the pure athleticism that each women has displayed at the height of their tennis ball-pulverizing powers.

It's also pretty damn sad that Elena Dementieva and Justine Henin have retired and that Venus Williams is too banged up to get back on the court yet.

Stupid and sad, yeah -- that about sums it up.

But one woman's trash is another woman's treasure. While the 2011 French Open is shaping up to be sorely lacking in star power, it also promises to be an exciting opportunity for a hungry stable of young players and surly veterans who have been biding their time patiently on the WTA's fringes.

The events of the last year -- currently sidelined are a whopping 31 Grand Slam titles (Serena, 13/ Venus, 7/ Henin, 7/ Clijsters, 4) -- could very well bust the door wide open for a first-time French Open winner to walk through.

I don't know if there's ever been a kookier lead up to a Grand Slam, but the bizarre fizzle is presenting many with an opportunity to sizzle.

Works for me. How about you?

Usually it takes a few rounds of a Slam for a WTA draw to get completely busted open. The 2011 French Open is going to begin that way -- and who knows where it will go from there.

Caroline Wozniacki is the clear No. 1, but when it comes to winning majors, she'll have to defer to last year's champion Francesca Schiavone, 2009 Champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, 2008 Champion Ana Ivanovic, and three-time Grand Slam Champion Maria Sharapova. But don't think for a second that you can rule out young guns Andrea Petkovic and Petra Kvitova. Or recently rejuvenated Victoria Azarenka, who has long been a woman in search of a career-defining Slam run.

But that's not all. I couldn't even begin to list every woman with a chance to win this year's French Open because there simply are too many.

The door is wide open.

Pay attention Vera Zvonareva!

Did you hear that Na Li?

Are you listening Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova?

Do you have your ears on Jelena Jankovic?

Feel like getting the monkey off your back, Sam Stosur?

Some Grand Slams have wide open fields. Others are hard to predict. The 2011 French Open is in another league entirely.

They say luck is where preparation meets opportunity. The preparation for the French Open will be over in 32 days, but the opportunity will still be there.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Bow Down!

Novak Djokovic will take a much needed break this week. That gives us all time to stop and appreciate his incredible start to 2011.

It's hard to fully comprehend the magnitude of Novak Djokovic's achievements this year because it's all happening so fast, but it's pretty safe to say that no matter what transpires for the rest of the year, the 23-year-old Serb has gone above and beyond any and all expectations.

Of course, you have to look at the numbers first -- 26 consecutive wins and 8 consecutive wins against top ten opponents being the most impressive of those -- but there is much more to the story than just pure numbers.

Djokovic's story is one of maturation, more than anything else. Long considered enigmatic, inconsistent, and a trifle unfocused, Djokovic has somehow transformed himself into a picture of stern concentration and stoic self belief. In the past, he'd often come unglued, falling off the tracks at inopportune moments, mailing in a match here or suffering from a heat related malady there, but these days Djokovic is playing as if possessed by some higher power.

The results have been startling, and most of all, inspiring.

What's not to love about Djokovic's renaissance? We're always so quick to point out what's wrong with the best players in the world, and Djokovic has not been an exception, so why shouldn't we be just as quick to heap our praise on the man?

Ever since he stormed the top of the tennis ranks with huge back-to-back victories over Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in Montreal in 2007, we've been expecting the world from Novak Djokovic. Now that he's valiantly knocking at the door of the No. 1 ranking, it's time to recognize -- and give props to -- the remarkable turnaround that Djokovic has engineered.

What he has done is what we wish for so many young stars to do -- think Murray, think Gulbis, think Berdych, think Querrey. We want them to do everything in their power to reach their highest potential, even though we're very aware of the fact that only a select few of them will do it.

Djokovic, through hard work and spirited determination, has done it, and he's done it with aplomb. Possessed by some inexplicable desire to improve on his already world-class game, he has dug down deep inside himself and pulled out more brilliant tennis than probably even he could have expected.

He's overcome his propensity for breathing issues under extreme stress. He's repaired his serve to the point where it's no longer a liability but a bona fide weapon. And, probably most importantly, he's built a furnace of belief inside his belly and found a way to keep it burning.

The wins have been amazing, but the most endearing part of the Djokovic story this season has been his continued evolution as a person and as a player. The Serb has followed his own muse, and now he's become a man before our very eyes. While he's still the same light-hearted happy-go-lucky comic at heart, it's apparent that Djokovic now possesses that champion's yoke, the inner calm, and the stiffened resolve that has made all his success possible.

Down 5-1 in the first set of last week's final in Miami against Rafael Nadal we witnessed a classic example of just how far Djokovic has come. He was in huge trouble, playing far below his best tennis, and nobody would have faulted him for letting his game disintegrate after running the table for all of 2011. Here, we thought, is a reasonable place for this unbelievable run to stop.

Not so fast.

Here was yet another chance for the new Nole to let his belief do the talking.

In the end, the match against Nadal wasn't so much about the end result. Whether he won or lost, you got the feeling that the changes that have taken place in Djokovic's head will guide him to more than his share of victories going forward.

He's a man now -- or should I say THE MAN -- and it's time to give him his due.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

No Shame For Federer

Rafael Nadal put a serious hurting on Roger Federer last night in Miami. Should we be surprised?

Before we turn our collective thought to Sunday's sure to be compelling final, I want to take a few moments to air out my thoughts on Rafael Nadal's decisive victory over Roger Federer last night in Miami.

What Does It Mean?

Before we assume that last night marks the end of hope for Federer, I think it is prudent that we all take a step back and think rationally here. Yes, Federer is on the verge of turning 30, yes, the game is evolving in such a way (think slow high-bouncing hard courts, CoPoly strings, and modern fitness and swing techniques) that will forever favor young bucks like Nadal and Djokovic against an old-school technician like Federer, and YES, the image of Rafa is embedded in Roger's head just as deeply as it ever has been, but still, one match does not make a rivalry.

Rafa was the better player last night, and convincingly so. But let us not forget that Roger was the better player when the two met last November in London.

Was Nadal Good, Federer Bad, or Both?

Rafa was clearly hungry for victory last night, and this was obvious from the onset. He was switched on in every capacity, and his court coverage was awe inspiring throughout. In the early going, even when Roger blistered ground strokes, Rafa was there to make strong defensive returns, which without fail landed near Federer's baseline, then took a lively bounce off the hard court.

Faced with Rafa's near perfection, Federer elected to go for more and more, searching for the one millimeter of court that Rafa might not be able to cover. This would be a high risk proposition, even for the miraculously good Federer of 5 years ago. For the Federer who took the court last night, ranked No. 3 in the world, it was an impossibility.

The Matchup Favors Rafa, Period

When we look at the history of the rivalry, it is easy to say that most of Rafa's domination has taken place on the clay, and that the two have played to a near standstill on other surfaces. This might be partly true, but on a slow, high-bouncing hard court like Miami, Rafa will be able to exploit some of the same trademark advantages -- by deploying a steady diet of outlandish topspin to Federer's backhand, and by basically using his ultra heavy topspin game to keep Federer pinned behind his baseline and making contact with the ball higher than he would like to.

But, of course, it's not all about the surface, the technology, or the mindset. I think it's important to recognize here that Rafa is an absolute beast right now. If it weren't for the incredible streak of Novak Djokovic, there would be nobody in the game that could give him trouble when he was at his best.

Last night he was at his best, and Federer had his hands full to say the least.

In other words, pretty much any matchup involving Rafa and somebody else is going to favor Rafa. That's just the way it is. He's one of the best to ever play the game, and he's pretty much developed and perfected playing the modern game the modern way. He's charted a path, much like Federer did just four or five years ago, that has pretty much left the rest of the tour a step behind.

Credit to Nole for pushing him the way he has lately, but please, let's not throw Federer in the trash heap because he lost 3 and 2 to the guy.

Is The Rivalry Dead?

No. People, let's be rational here. It was one match. Who knows what kind of tennis these two players will produce the next time they meet?

With last night's drubbing fresh in our minds, it's easy to think that Federer is out of options here, particularly because he is the one forced to do all the thinking when it comes to Rafa. Federer is tasked with finding a way to tilt the court in his favor, while Rafa just needs to be Rafa and let the chips fall where they may.

It's not going to be easy for Federer to gain ground on Rafa, but perhaps on grass or a very fast hard court like the ones the U.S. Open is known for of late, he might be able to get balls past Rafa for winners.

I'm not so sure I'd count on it, but the fact that it might happen is enough reason to be excited about the rivalry should these two legends of the game meet again later in the year.