Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Archie's Picks: Sharapova-Petkovic

Archie likes the Petkovic moonwalk, but he's still picking Sharapova to make the semis.

As many of you already know, I have taken on some help with my tennis blog. Archie, the handsome boy pictured above, has signed on for the remainder of the French Open to help me handicap the matches. He's got a pretty keen nose for the game, so please pay attention to what he says or he might bite you.

See Archie's Azarenka-Li pick here
See Archie's Nadal-Soderling pick here

Sharapova-Petkovic: H2H
Archie's Pick: Sharapova
Why: Petko has come a long way, making her second straight Grand Slam quarterfinal, but I just have a feeling about Maria.

My Pick: Sharapova
Why: Maria has finally broken through to another Grand Slam quarterfinal -- it's been two-plus years of struggle and strife for her since returning from shoulder surgery-- and the beautiful thing about her play in that time is that she's never wavered in intensity or desire. Maria's mental toughness is legendary, and those who watch her regularly are in awe of how strong she is in that department.

As far as her game goes, Sharapova is definitely not the smoothest or most nuanced player on the women's tour, but what she might lack in the subtleties (footwork and volleys), she more than makes up for in her uncanny ability to destroy anything that gets into her strike zone.

Petkovic scored a massive win over Sharapova in Australia earlier this year, and she's backed up that quarterfinal win with a clay title in Strasbourg and several other big wins throughout the course of the spring. Her challenge tomorrow will be to keep Maria on the run and to take her out of her comfort zone. She'll have to serve well to do so, but even though Petkovic isn't a huge server, if she's smart about where she serves, and is able to hit her spots, she might be able to keep the vaunted Sharapova return game from hurting her too much.

Petkovic is 4-1 vs. Top 10 players this year, and only Wozniacki has more wins than her 33. She's also bidding to become the first German to reach the Roland Garros semis since Steffi Graf in 1999.

Sharapova is 8-0 in 3-set matches this year, and she's bidding for her fourth Grand Slam title. If she gets it she'll also become the 10th woman to complete the Career Grand Slam.

See Sharapova-Petkovic H2H below.

Archie's Picks: Nadal Vs. Soderling

Archie's concerned about Nadal's sagging confidence, but not enough to pick Soderling.

So my big pitbull (pictured above) is pretty serious about picking these matches, and he absolutely insisted that I get these posts out before play begins tomorrow. See Archie's pick for Azarenka-Li here.

So, here goes.

Nadal vs. Soderling:

Archies Pick: Rafa

Why: Rafa's been barking about how he's not happy with his game, but we all know that on the Roland Garros clay nobody has more bite.

My pick: Rafa

Why: The press have been having a field day with Rafa's last two pressers, and who can blame them? When the No. 1 player in the world admits that he's lacking in confidence, frustrated by his inability to develop his game due to the rigors of the schedule and feels like he's "100 years old," you have to prick your ears up and sound the alarm.

Is Rafa really that downtrodden, and if so, will he snap out of it in time to win his 6th Roland Garros crown?

There's no doubt that Rafa has not been as dominant in 2011 as he has been in the past at the French, but he hasn't lost a set since John Isner took him the distance in the first round. Meanwhile Soderling, who is the only man to ever defeat Rafa at Roland Garros, hasn't lost a set since the first round either, so something will have to give tomorrow.

As good as Soderling is, particularly on clay, this match will rest on Rafa's racquet. True, he's surrendered more games than usual of late (53 is the most he's ever dropped in the first 4 rounds), but he had 20 break points against Ljubicic in the 4th round and 10 more against Antonio Veic in the 3rd round. Rafa may be a level below his best, but the level he's at should be good enough to get past Soderling. The real problem for Nadal is that he's got Djokovic on the brain at the moment, so anything that isn't perfect probably isn't good enough in his mind.

And if his mind isn't right, his confidence could suffer. Tennis is a game of confidence, so Rafa will need to find a way to grow his belief in the next two rounds if he intends on meeting and knocking off Novak Djokovic in the final.

Tomorrow's quarterfinal, against a fierce rival, could provide the impetus that Nadal needs.

As far as Soderling goes, he's been to back-to-back finals now and he's defeated the defending champion in each of the last two years. Counting him out of this match would be crazy. He'll look to impose his brand of quick strike tennis on Nadal, and if Rafa comes out flat, watch out.

Archie's Picks: Li vs. Azarenka

Archie is not a betting dog, but if he were he'd be betting on Victoria Azarenka tomorrow.

I figured I'd have a little fun with some of the quarterfinal matches and see who my best friend in the world (see pic above) Archie was picking. He and I did a trial run last week, after the Djokovic-del Potro match was suspended after two sets. I placed two treats out in front of him -- one labeled Djokovic and the other labeled del Potro -- and asked him to pick the treat representing the player he thought would prevail. Lo and behold, after hesitating a bit (it wasn't an easy pick for him) and drooling some, he snapped up the Djokovic treat. Smart dog, that Archie.

So I decided to put him to the test again today. I asked if he'd pick one of the women's quarterfinal matches for The Fan Child's faithful. He agreed, so without any further ado, here is that pick.

Na Li vs. Victoria Azarenka: H2H

Archie's Pick: Azarenka
Why: He likes the way she howls, and he also likes her footwork.

My Pick: Li
Why: 8 years separate these two ball-crushers in terms of age, but they are very evenly matched when it comes to their respective games. Azarenka has become the betting favorite for Paris, and she is the highest-ranked player left in the draw, but what worries me is the fact that she really hasn't been tested at all in Paris. She's won every set she's played, and naturally that's not a bad thing, but she's only defeated one seeded player in the process (# 30 seed, Roberta Vinci). When Azarenka steps out onto Chatrier tomorrow, she'll be facing her first world-class player in five matches.

The 21-year-old Belarusian is gunning for her first Grand Slam semifinal, and she's got the all-court game, footwork, and versatility to get it done -- but will she have the grace under pressure?

Li, meanwhile, will benefit in the confidence department from having won 3 of 4 from Azarenka in her career, especially given that the last win was a huge Australian Open 4th round tilt that Li won in straight sets en route to her first career Grand Slam final .

This should prove to be a very close match with a lot of ebb and flow, and it very well could come down to who can execute their game when the pressure is at its highest. If it does, I like Li. She's won some huge matches in 2011, and her post Australian Open slump looks to be a distant memory.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Paris Streaks and Doubles Love

Novak Djokovic isn't the only player with a streak on the line in Paris. Vania King and Yaroslava Shvedova have won 15 straight at Slams.
When American Vania King and Kazakh Yaroslava Shvedova take court 1 for their quarterfinal French Open doubles match vs. Nadia Petrova and Anastasia Rodionova tomorrow, most of America will be asleep. That's okay, because most of America thinks that American tennis is in a state of pathetic decay, because that's what they've been reading for the past few years.

Well, I'm here to paint a different picture. It's called doubles love people, and with the most successful doubles team in the history of the game on the men's side (the Bryan Brothers) and the rise of King and Shvedova since Wimbledon 2010, the American doubles game is going very strong in Paris, thank you.

Doubles is a frenetic and wildly entertaining spectacle to witness in person or on TV, but those Americans who actually decide (trust me, it's not easy in California) to wake up early and watch live tennis from Paris will get so see very little of it. Sadly, even with the Bryan Brothers being the best story in American tennis since the Williams sisters have gone inactive, doubles isn't getting the love it deserves in the States, or anywhere else for that matter.

With all the discussion about how American tennis is on the decline, you hardly hear a single peep about the fact that we are making some serious magic on the doubles court. Why is that?

I'll leave that as a rhetorical question for the moment, but if you have any insight, feel free to e-mail me.

King and Shvedova are three matches from having the second longest women's doubles winning streak to start a career, and while it might not be as remarkable as what Novak Djokovic is doing in the men's singles, it is certainly an inspiring story for a country that quite frankly could use some positive press.

I'm not saying that we need to make doubles our national pastime, I'm just saying that it would be nice to throw Vania King a bone in between needlessly negative sentences about American tennis.

The California-born King has won 15 straight Grand Slam matches since teaming up with Yaroslava Shvedova at Wimbledon last year. It was there that they -- not the Williams sisters -- emerged as champions and became only the fourth unseeded team in Wimbledon history to claim the first prize.

But it didn't stop there. King and Shvedova also won their second Grand Slam in New York, when they came back from a set down in the final to defeat Liezel Huber and Nadia Petrova in a third set tiebreaker to secure their second piece of Slam hardware.

This year, amidst all the talk about the fact that no American has made it past the third round in singles, King and Shvedova are still thriving in the doubles (so are the Bryans, fyi). They rallied from 6-2, 3-2 down in the second round to keep their streak alive.

They'll be playing the quarterfinals while the rest of us are sleeping off our Memorial day barbecues. But if they keep up their improbable streak, our sleeping patterns might have to be altered by the final.

Or better yet, we can stay up all night.

Who's with me?
Click here for a piece on King and Shvedova's streak on the WTA's site:

Monfils in a Thriller

Gael Monfils kept the French hopes alive when he scored a thrilling five set win over David Ferrer.

Suzanne Lenglen erupts in applause, as Gael Monfils advances with a thrilling 6-4, 2-6. 7-5, 1-6, 8-6 win over David Ferrer.

This was a match of contrast. Ferrer, the indefatigable grinder, who John McEnroe credited with maximizing every ounce of ability he has on a tennis court, and Monfils, the flying spirit who ebbs and flows with the tone of his emotions.

Tennis Channel's Ted Robinson called it the marvelously expressive face of Gael Monfils. But it took some time for the smile to appear. We all know the face (the marvelously expressive one), but we all also saw the look of agony in Monfils' eyes when he had watched three match points quickly disappear against the determined Spaniard just a few minutes earlier.

That's what made this episode in tennis tightrope walking all the more compelling. Oh no, thought the French. Oh yes, thought Ferrer.

As Ferrer leveled the match at 5-5 in the fifth set, we wondered:

Would it be the consummate pro Ferrer, who leaves no stone unturned in his constant quest for victory against opponents who are taller, faster, and more powerful than he? Or would it be the mercurial yet effervescent Monfils, who embodies the bubbly quality of French champagne?

They say that life is not what happens to you but how you react to what happens to you. Ferrer had stared down three match points with the type of courage that is so frequently born of desperation -- now how would Monfils react to that?

Turns out, he'd be fine. It wasn't always pretty, and at times, when Monfils was slumped over his racquet after long rallies, a pained expression on his soon-to-be joyous face, it looked downright fatalistic for Monfils.

The margins were thin, with Monfils winning 165 points and Ferrer winning 164. But the last point -- the decisive won -- would go to Monfils.

In slow motion, watching Monfils face go from riveted concentration as he approached Ferrer's volleyed attempt at a winner, to relaxed jubilation as his forehand sailed past Ferrer to land comfortably inside the line, was to know the hopes of the French here at Roland Garros.

They are not without prayers.

Nobody expects a French singles player to win another match here at Roland Garros, but that does nothing to quell the enthusiasm of the French faithful. They want to believe that the spirit of Yannick Noah lives in Monfils, and even if it doesn't, another look La Monf's scintillating game makes for a great afternoon in the sun.

The faithful will be back tomorrow to see how Monfils reacts to what happens to him next. What happens to him next will be Roger Federer, so it ought to be pretty compelling stuff, win or lose.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

French Open: The Best Quotes of Week 1

What the stars said, who they said it about, and why it may or may not matter.

8 days are in the books at Roland Garros, and a lot has been said about who the eventual French Open champions might be. Some call it prognostication, others call it speculation, and it's frequently done without any sign of trepidation. Unfortunately, many of these words -- my wretched Sam Stosur pick comes to mind -- will turn out to be more hot air than wisdom. But there is a time and a place for hot air, just as there is a time and a place for wisdom, and sometimes it can not only be entertaining, it can also keep you warm.

Okay now, enough hot air -- onto the quotes. Enjoy.

"I'm almost 25 but it seems like I'm playing for 100 years."-- Rafael Nadal, on the what a grind life on the ATP tour can be. (If only the thousands of players ranked below Nadal could have it so good.)

"There is no mental problem."-- Vera Zvonareva, after receiving the usual grilling from the press after her loss to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the 4th round.

"I would love to be a rock star but I can't sing."-- Victoria Azarenka on her off-court ambitions in an interview with Bill Macatee of Tennis Channel.

"He pushed me around, believe me."-- John Isner when asked about how he managed to hold his own for 5 sets against Rafael Nadal in the first round.

"You have to be friends with wind, sometimes maybe it can help you."-- Na Li, philosophizing on the elements and how they affect a tennis match.

"An occasional broken racquet during a match image-wise isn't good, but it can help you refocus, but after a match it's pointless because it doesn't do anything but make you look like an idiot."-- Ryan Harrison, after he tossed his racquet into a tree after losing in the final round of qualifying.

"None, because I said to myself if I started to do that I would end up crazy."
-- Gilles Simon, when asked whether he had any pre-match superstitions.

"I know you guys are bored in the press, you don't have big stories, so that's why you put 'Myskina is new coach' -- she got scared, poor girl."-- Svetlana Kuznetsova, on the press over reacting to her new arrangement with Anastasia Myskina.

"What he's done is so much harder than what I did. He won a major, there's so much more depth in the game, he's doing it on different surfaces, a lot of the top players play more of the same events so that makes it difficult -- he's beaten Nadal 4 times this year, and we're in May."-- John McEnroe, discussing Novak Djokovic's remarkable winning streak, in an interview with Bill Macatee of Tennis Channel

"I've had pressure for the last seven years. Third in the world still comes with a bit of pressure as well, so don't worry about that."-- Roger Federer, on how it feels to have less pressure this year at Roland Garros.

"When you see someone like Clijsters going out, Wozniacki going out, you should be on your toes all the time, and be aware that all the girls out there are playing great tennis and you have to be at 100 percent to beat them."-- Andrea Petkovic on the wide open feel of this year's women's draw at Roland Garros.

"He is really very mean to me but I like that -- I think I need it."-- Daniela Hantuchova on her coach, during a television interview.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Balls to the Walls

Used as a set piece here, the Babolat balls in question have been a hot topic of conversation at the 2011 French Open. Why?

That's right. Balls, balls, and more balls. And balls balls balls. Seriously. Click on any one of those links and open yourself up to a plethora of ball-related articles. Are the balls fast? Are they soft? Squishy? What do they smell like? Do they talk to you?

So much talk of balls, you'd think that the balls were competing for the titles. I got news for you people. We can stop talking about the balls.

Why? Because anybody still alive in the draw has already won three matches, and they know what they are dealing with. And just for the record, everybody claims the new Babolat balls are different, but they basically designed their balls to the exact specification to last year's balls.

That being said, even if two balls are the exact same weight, they can FEEL like they are different weights based on different characteristics. They can bounce higher or lower, travel faster through the air or slower through the air, get fuzzy when hit or not get fuzzy when hit -- there really are a myriad of complicated multiplicities of thought available once you open a can of...um, balls.

That's some heavy balls to think about, isn't it?

Actually, players don't think they're heavy (well, some do, but most don't), but they all feel that they play differently after a few games. They start out lively, and sort of fade until they are replaced. "The thing is there is a great difference when the balls are new or when they get old," said a guy who knows a thing about tennis balls, Roger Federer. "That will be an issue."

But he also went on to concede, "Honestly I don't think it matters much what kind of balls you give Nadal on clay -- he's gonna be a good player."

Federer went on to add some insight. "Also it depends, how's the weather? Is it rainy? Is it a beautiful day? -- then the balls react differently. I guess the disappointing part here in this whole story...is just that they're not the same from the balls we've been playing with for the last month, and that for us is the most frustrating part."

There has been so much talk about balls, I'm all balled out really. The fact of the matter is that Roland Garros made a deal with a new company to provide balls, and no two balls are alike, so they are playing differently. The best players will figure out how to adjust -- it's what they do -- and we will sit back and be amazed -- it's what we do.

I just wanted to let you know that it can stop now. We're into the round of 16 and the balls can be eliminated from the conversation.

It's time to talk about the players.

Lindsay Davenport on Wozniacki

Caroline Wozniacki went out of the French Open yesterday with a whimper. Is her time at the top of the game nearly over?
It's been a great run for the Great Dane of late. But her early departure from a wide open Roland Garros draw brings the same old questions to roost. Will she ever win a Grand Slam? Or, better yet, what does she need to do to improve her chances of doing so? For three years Wozniacki has had little trouble winning titles, and she's proven that by winning 16 titles since 2008, which is the most in the women's game ahead of Serena (9) and Dementieva (8) in that period.

Still, even as Wozniacki approaches $10 million in prize money, and maintains her stranglehold on the No. 1 ranking, she is becoming known more for what she can't do then what she can do. It's unfortunate in a way, but it is the lay of the land when you are 10th on the all-time list in terms of weeks at No. 1 like Wozniacki is.

I'd love to continue hypothesizing on Wozniacki, but I feel that Lindsay Davenport's comments on Wozniacki during an interview with Tennis Channel's Bill Macatee sum the whole situation up nicely, and even provide Wozniacki with a blueprint for backing up her ranking someday when it really matters -- at a Slam.

Here is Bill's question followed by Lindsay's comments below:

Bill: Obviously she's been No. 1, there have been the questions about being at the top of the game technically without winning a Grand Slam. Does she play too much tennis? I mean is she just tired by the time she gets here?

Lindsay: Well certainly. She played 5 of the 6 weeks leading into the French Open, including the last 4 weeks in a row, and even played a match last Saturday in Brussels, so she overplays but, the real question mark for her is: She's No. 1 in the world and she wins a lot of tournaments but is she going to take the risk? Is she going to add to her game to try and win the elusive Grand Slam?

She's going to have to try and become more offensive. That means moving up in court positioning and trying to flatten that forehand. But those are major changes and she's had a lot of success, but you just don't see the Grand Slam coming until she's willing to take more risk.

My thoughts precisely. Caroline's doing great with what she has, and she deserves major credit for it, but she seems either happy with how it's going (admittedly I'd be okay with $10 million in Prize money too) or unable or unwilling to change her game.

Caroline's come farther than anybody thought she would on a purely defensive game, but the door keeps closing on her at the Slams, so it's time for her and her brain trust to skip a few tournaments and start making improvements to a game that quite frankly has gone stale.

If she doesn't make those changes, look for an up and coming stable of hungry players that features Petkovic, Azarenka, Goerges, Kvitova and others to take her place at the top of the rankings.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Thoughts on Nole-Delpo

Novak Djokovic's 41-match winning streak is on hold, as play was suspended after two hard fought sets with Juan Martin del Potro today.

What an amazing ending to day 6 at the French Open.

It was already a thrilling day, with the women's No. 1 seed getting knocked off in the third round. There was also a generally boisterous atmosphere, which was spirited by the successes of Frenchmen Richard Gasquet and Gael Monfils. But when Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro took the court, the electricity spiked again. The tennis then ascended to another galaxy. Those poor Babolat balls were wishing they had never been assigned to this match.

I was floored... First of all, I didn't expect delpo to be that good. We all know that delpo has been up against it with the physical ailments of late. It's been a struggle for the big man, as he is still effectively returning from wrist surgery in addition to dealing with a recent hip problem (suffered May 5).

But del Potro, regardless of all his supposed ailments, (and after a slow and snoozy first set) reached a truly formidable level in the second. It was a stunning display, and it served to remind us of just how imposing Juan Martin del Potro can be on a tennis court.

How had I forgotten how ridiculously good delpo can be? The sheer brute force of many of his shots was so astounding that there was simply no defending them. The 6'6"Argentine truly is momentously M-I-G-H-T-Y.

But so is Djokovic, and the match took on a clash of the titan-esque feel as two started to really lock horns in the second set. Not only was the tennis sublime, but the drama was enhanced by the fading daylight, and the obvious implications it would have on the match. As spillover fans crowded in the aisles to get glimpses of the action, Djokovic and del Potro were racing for pole position at the day's conclusion.

As a result, the set was played with an air of immediacy. What we got is two of the game's elite, playing like souped-up sports cars on a clay roadway, exchanging in mind-boggling rallies that were "oh-my-goodness" good.

This was the most to-die-for tennis of the first six days of the French Open, and as it progressed, and the implications of the waning sunlight became an integral part of the drama, the intrigue reached a fever pitch.

While these two titans kept dueling, I kept thinking... "oh-my-god delpo is really going for it" and "oh-my-god how is djokovic even getting a racquet on those balls, let alone smashing them wherever he wants to?"

On and on it went, until the sun pulled the plug on it, deadlocked at a set apiece.

Now we are left to ponder, what will happen tomorrow? Delpo has escaped the fitness factor of this duel, due to the suspension of play, and his chances of ending the streak are significantly higher than they were going into today. I'll call that a win for delpo, but there is still the monumental task of taking two out of three from the Djoker tomorrow. Nobody else has been able to do it this year, but if delpo can manage to take his game up one more notch, he just might be the guy.

For Djokovic, not being able to exploit his fitness advantage has to be a bummer, but given the resolve and resiliency that he's shown all season, my guess is that he's sleeping comfortably right now, eager for a chance to prove himself yet again tomorrow.

Those who are eager to point out the injustice done to Djokovic should realize that these kind of things ( a player's ability to deal with a suspension) are further tests of a players mettle (and of the devotion of his support team). For Djokovic to rebut del Potro's challenge he'll simply have to do what he's been doing all year -- prove again that he is by far the best in the world at the moment.

That's what he's been living for, and that's what he'll probably do.

But you never know, and I always enjoy those you-never-know type matches.

How could you not?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Time For a Test?

Novak Djokovic will face former French Open semifinalist Juan Martin del Potro in the third round. Does delpo have a shot?

Just some quick and perhaps random thoughts on one of the more highly anticipated matches of the 2011 French Open since the draws came out a week ago.

Above you can see the tale of the tape, and it, like so many other things this week, favors Djokovic. Nole hasn't lost to del Potro in their three previous matches, and really, it's a stretch to imagine any player other than Rafa -- even one of Del Potro's stature -- giving the Serb a run for his money at the moment.

Del Potro has had a fantastic year, and he's climbed all the way back into the top 30 from an injury-distorted low ranking of 484 in February. Naturally, we all know del Potro is a top 5 player when he gets completely healthy and gets enough matches under his belt so that he's clicking on all cylinders. He's approached that form of late, but when he went down with a hip injury in Madrid, his chances of going deep in the French took a hit.

When he drew a third round match meeting with Djokovic, his chances took another hit. Del Potro is 9-0 on clay, with wins over Youzhny and Soderling, but there are still doubts about his injury, especially if he finds himself in a war of attrition with Nole.

Can the big Argentine muster the energy to rattle Dkokovic's cage? Even at less than a hundred percent, Del Potro possesses the uncanny ability to find a way to win matches with more than just his tennis. Not every player can do that, but Del Potro is great at gutting out victories even when he's not playing perfect tennis. His ability to perform under pressure, and to rise to the occasion of big matches is legendary; and unlike some of the other massive-hitting behemoths on tour, Del Potro as adept tactically as well. He doesn't only possess supersonic ground strokes. Del Potro also moves uncommonly well for a big man, slides well on the clay, and navigates all the pitfalls of a grueling mental and physical match with aplomb.

All this is good, but it still doesn't make Del Potro anything more than a longshot versus Djokovic. Sure, it gives him a chance, but let's be sensible here. Delpo's got more of a chance than Djokovic's two previous victims at Roland Garros (de Bakker and Hanescu), but to think that Del Potro can come back from a lower body injury and push Djokovic in a best of five match on red clay is simply asking a bit too much.

Djokovic, winner of 41 consecutive matches since last December, has been flat-out invincible this year. Nobody thinks that Djokovic will continue to win matches from here to eternity, but at this point it seems like nothing but a losing proposition to bet against him. Sure, he'll run out of steam eventually, but right now Djokovic is like a marathoner who sprints to the finish in the last half mile. He's so close to the finish line and I think that he's about to break into a full sprint starting tomorrow.

As good -- even great -- as delpo is, I don't think now is the time for him to pull another rabbit out of a hat like he did against Federer in the 2009 U.S. Open final.

Perhaps he'll turn this into a fight -- and who wouldn't like to see that? -- but Djokovic is the wrong guy to pick a fight with in 2011.

Djokovic and Del Potro both have big weapons, but Djokovic has a limitless supply of ammo, and if he's forced to, he'll use whatever he has to ensure the streak continues.

Crashing Out

Maria Sharapova turned things around in time to avoid a shocking 2nd round defeat today, but Kim Clijsters wasn't so lucky.

Maria Sharapova was down a set and two breaks against the seemingly imperturbable 17-year-old Frenchwoman Caroline Garcia this afternoon. In the broadcast booth, Martina Navratilova and Mary Carillo were gushing with praise for the young Garcia, stating that she was going to be around for a long time. Meanwhile, the french faithful were getting rowdy, doing their waves during the changeovers to keep warm.

Garcia's effort at the time was so convincing that it inspired Andy Murray to tweet that she would be number one in the world someday.

In the end, all the praise faded into the distance and all we could hear was the frightening shriek of a woman possessed. Sharapova won going away, and established herself as the favourite in a quarter of the draw that saw Kim Clijsters unceremoniously eliminated by Arantxa Rus of Holland earlier in the day.

Such is life on a blustery day in Paris. One minute your the cat's meow, the next your sleeping in a litter box.

Clijsters became the first woman seeded 1 or 2 to lose before the third round of the French Open since Justine Henin in 2004, but she wasn't the only big name to go crashing out of the French in the first two rounds.

Here's a list of some other seeds who crashed out early:

Marin Cilic (19) -- The No. 19 seed lost to Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo of spain in four sets in round 1. It's been nothing but mixed results since the promising Croat made the Australian Open semis in 2010. He and his team aren't focused on results, but it's about more than results for Cilic -- he just isn't playing consistent ball, and he lacks emotion too.

Tomas Berdych (6) -- A semifinalist at Roland Garros last year, Berdych has now managed to crash out in the first round of two of the last three Grand Slams. Credit his French opponent Stephane Robert for playing lights out tennis, but Berdych blew a two set lead, and that is just inexcusable.

Ana Ivanovic (20)-- It's not surprising any more when Ana loses early in a Slam. Ana, seeded 20, was taken out by Swede Johanna Larrson in the first round. Injuries have kept Ana from finding her best form of late, to be sure, but it feels like she's also regressed a bit after parting ways with Heinz Gunthardt last year.

Flavia Pennetta (18) -- That's two losses in the first round to two unheralded Americans in the last three years for the No. 18 seed. The good news for Pennetta fans is that she's already through to the third round of the doubles draw.

Shahar Peer (19) -- The Israeli was teetering on the cusp of being the first top tenner from her homeland a few months ago. But the 19 seed couldn't get by Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez in the first round, and will likely drop out of the top 20 after Roland Garros.

Michael Llodra (22) -- A horrible French Open for the No. 22 seed, who threw a ball at a security guard and was bounced by a qualifier in the first round. Llodra was looking to compete in the mixed doubles with Amelie Mauresmo but that fell through when she was not allowed to compete. He's still alive in dubs, though.

Nicolas Almagro (11) -- The No. 11 seed crashed out against Lukasz Kubot of Poland in the first round. Kubot's a fine clay-courter, but Almagro had a two set lead then lost two tiebreakers before finally bowing out in five. Almagro entered the French with the ATP's third best clay-court record and three title on the dirt. Go figure.

Milos Raonic (26) -- Maybe someday the hard-serving Canadian will be good on clay. But the No. 26 still has some work to do, as his first round loss to German Michael Berrer indicates.

Nikolay Davydenko, Sam Querrey, Marcos Baghdatis -- No surprises here, but they were seeded 28, 24, and 27 respectively.

Other seeds to fall before round 3:

Men: Florian Mayer (20), Kevin Anderson (32)
Women: Tsvetana Pironkova (32), Alexandra Dulgheru (27), Klara Zakovpalova (31)

Hot off the presses! Jurgen Melzer(8) loses to Lukas Rosol in five

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Hawk-Eye Anyone?

"I think there's been a bit of gamesmanship by Wozniacki here in this tiebreak." -- Pam Shriver.
I'm not sure if there has ever been a stronger argument for why the French Open needs to open its arms to technology and start incorporating the challenge system into the tournament.

The video above shows a 90-second rant by Caroline Wozniacki that would never have happened if the French Open was using Hawk-Eye. What would have happened is a challenge, a clear and concise result, and Caroline Wozniacki taking the balls to serve. End of story.

Instead what happened was a very well-timed and prolonged argument from Wozniacki that had even her father confused, er, miffed.

It was wrong on so many levels. Wozniak had the momentum, had three set points in the second set of what was proving to be one of the most entertaining matches of the day, and just wanted to get on with the tennis. Instead, because of the lack of a challenge system in clay-court tennis, Wozniak was forced to endure a 90-second momentum-snuffing rant by her opponent.

Full credit to Wozniacki -- whether she intended to do it or not -- for doing what it takes to get inside her opponent's head (or to thoroughly discuss the call, which may have been her only purpose -- only she knows). And shame on Wozniak for letting this set slip away, regardless of what Wozniacki did or didn't do. But let's not forget that Wozniak was denied a set point in the last game of the same set when the umpire incorrectly ruled (yes, by checking the ball mark in the clay) that her stab volley at 30-all had not hit the line. Spot Shot later showed showed that it did.

In the span of 10 points, there were two very compelling arguments for the French Open to introduce the challenge system. And a match that could have had a classic finish ended anticlimactically.

I'm all for tradition, but more importantly I'm for fairness and clarity, and giving players the right to challenge calls reduces chaos and gamesmanship and puts the focus back on playing the game rather than arguing about it -- how can that be a bad thing?

Emotions in Motion: Zvonareva Outlasts Lisicki

Sabine Lisicki was one point from pulling the upset of the tournament against No. 3 seed Vera Zvonareva. But it wasn't meant to be.
It started with the above video. And if Sabine Lisicki had crushed a winner on this point I'd be writing an entirely different story. I'd be saying how she'd overcome so much over the last year (a left ankle injury kept her off the tour for 5 months as her ranking plummeted), how Lisicki had once again started to realize her potential (though I think she proved that to be true regardless of today's outcome) and how she had done it by pulling the biggest upset of the first four days of the 2011 French Open.

But her forehand sailed long. Match point saved for Zvonareva, and things only got stranger from there. Lisicki, who had scored her sixth top ten win (first since '09) in April in Stuttgart against Na Li, started to feel the effects of all the stress on her body. Quickly she lost the next two games, then called for the trainer at the changeover.

While Lisicki's blood pressure was checked, Zvonareva --- the consummate professional throughout all of this -- first waited with a towel over her head, then as the medical staff around Lisicki grew, the cool-headed (believe it, it's true) Russian headed to the back of the court to do some footwork drills and keep her blood flowing.

After what seemed like an eternity, Lisicki took the court again. When she did, she had very little petrol in her tank. She did manage to fight off Zvonerava's first match point, but that would only serve to prolong Lisicki's suffering. In the end Lisicki was reduced to tears, as Zvonareva pulled away with a 4-6, 7-5, 7-5 victory. The 21-year-old Lisicki was emotionally and physically distraught, drained to the nth degree, and eventually had to be lifted off the court on a stretcher.

I'll let the video tell the story:

Let's hope that when Lisicki reflects on this match in the days to come, she'll realize that she put herself in position to upset one of the top players in the world on the Grand Slam stage, and there's a lot to be said for that.

After hearing Pam Shriver's report that treatment was closed and that Lisicki was okay, Daren Cahill said on ESPN: "When the dust settles hopefully Sabine will look back and say 'You know what? I need to get fitter and stronger so that this never happens again.'"

Overshadowed by the theatrics, was the fact that Vera Zvonareva dodged a serious bullet in this match, and she did so by dealing with adversity like the seasoned veteran that she is. When faced with a long delay after the 9th game of the third set (and still a game away from a 2nd round loss), Zvonareva never lost sight of her mission, and when Lisicki returned to the court, she was there ready to apply more pressure and get the win.

Zvonareva will next meet Anastasia Rodionova in the third round.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Schiavone: The Soul of Tennis

Defending champion Francesca Schiavone returned to Court Philippe Chatrier on Monday and picked up where she left off last year.

It's been 50 weeks since Francesca Schiavone won the French Open last year. I should be over it. It should feel like it's old news. But somehow, the magic of Schiavone -- of what she accomplished and how she accomplished it (so much freaking GUSTO) -- remains with me.

And the more I think about it, reflect on it, and mull it over, I realize that to me it was perhaps the greatest tennis moment I've ever witnessed. I can't really explain why it is I feel that way. We each have our own ideas of what is truly inspiring, what is truly captivating, and what will last in our hearts forever. For me, it was Schiavone's run last year. Yes, it was about the tennis, but it was also about something soulful, something human, something that not even Federer, Nadal, or anyone else that I can remember has ever given to me.

I do believe that for me, Schiavone is the soul of tennis. And the reason they talk about women's tennis being in a dead period is because "they" refuse to open up and see what is absolutely gorgeous about it right now. That a woman like Schiavone, a virtual journeywoman for her whole career, can grow and grow and work and work, and eventually reach the pinnacle of the sport, is perhaps the best endorsement for the game that it could ever want.

Hope is a part of the equation, and if you can dream it, you can do it.

So, while everybody else wants to lament the missing Williams sisters, Henin's retirement and the legitimacy of the current No. 1, I invite you to join me in celebrating the spirit of Schiavone and others like her on the women's tour.

Francesca's bubbly spirit was intact today on Chatrier, and the result was a breezy 6-2, 6-0 win for the Italian.

To see her impose her all court game on young American Melanie Oudin was a sight to behold, and it triggered a flood of memories that served to remind me just how unique a talent Schiavone is. With her, it's not only about the tennis; it's about the tactics, the intensity, the courage, and something else — something joyous.

Martina Navratilova was also impressed. "I might have to revise my favorites for the tournament," she said during the first set of her match against Oudin. "She is striking the ball really well."

Martina went on to comment about how Francesca is going to really want to defend this title in spite of the fact that she hasn't been in the greatest form in 2011, saying "She is a proud woman."

Talk about hitting the nail on the head. She's a proud woman indeed. And what makes her pride even more compelling is just how real she is.

If you didn't see her post match press conference today, allow me to quote my favorite part of it for you here:

Schiavone was asked what it meant to play in Chatrier again after all that happened last year, and in her typical animated style, she didn't hold back on the subject. "I'm still shaking a little bit," she said with a smile. "A lot of adrenaline. I felt really happy to be there." Then she started gesturing with her hands and her face like only an Italian could do. "That court is fantastic, because it's compact," she said. "The court is perfect. Everything is going around you and it's like you know when you go home and your mom do everything for you, and you feel comfortable? I felt like this but really a lot of adrenaline. I was excited to be there at 11 o'clock on center court...great...for me, it's great."

Whether Schiavone defends her title successfully or loses in the next round does not matter. What matters most is that Schiavone is in love with the sport of tennis and it shows when she plays. There's something tangible in her game – something lustful — that we can all latch on to. It is something that is far too often missing from today's top athletes: the pure and unbridled love for the sport.

Schiavone may not be the smoothest, the most powerful, or even the smartest player, but she's the most passionate by far.

There's something to be said for that, and the words speak volumes.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

French Open Women's Preview

Is it Petra Kvitova's time to shine on a Grand Slam stage? Or is it Maria Sharapova's turn to take the power back?

I haven't taken out my crystal ball in a while, but seeing how it is the eve of the first day of play of the 2011 French Open, I figured there is no time like the present.

Just How Wide Open Is It? As far as I see it, the field isn't really as wide open as everybody seems to think it is. Yes, Serena and Venus are amiss, and yes, Justine Henin has retired. Elena Dementieva, who would probably have a good shot to win this thing if she got on a plane and showed up in her pajamas, has also retired. But that doesn't mean that a qualifier or wildcard is going to take the title. There are a handful of players who either are in good form, have proven pedigrees, or both. I think that the title will rest in the hands of one of these players in two weeks and a day.

In Good Form: It's always easy to look at the last Premier tournament before the French and declare the winner of that tournament a favourite. But is that really a smart move? Francesca Schiavone lost in the third round at Madrid last year, but that didn't stop her from going all the way in Paris. Ana Ivanovic lost her first match at Rome to Tsvetana Pironkova in 2008 just two weeks before she would run to her one and only French Open title.

With that said, Maria Sharapova, who defeated Sam Stosur in the Rome final, is definitely a favourite. Why? Because Maria has really taken to the clay in her post-shoulder surgery career. She was ousted by Justine Henin in the third round last year, but not before putting up a titanic effort. And she seems to enjoy the fact that the clay gives her extra time to react to her opponents shots. Not only does she have the power — unlike many of her contemporaries — to hit through her adversaries on the clay, she also can relax on serve and focus on placement rather than power.

So, whether winning a tournament on clay prior to the French is important or not, the more important fact here is that Sharapova is playing very well at the moment, is actually well-suited for the surface, and has all the intangibles (the will to fight, the experience, and the support of the crowds).

Also in good form is Petra Kvitova, who has a power game that is practically unbeatable when it is clicking. Kvitova has proven in the past that she's a big match player (she's got a Grand Slam semi and a Grand Slam quarterfinal in her last three), and, while inconsistent, if she can get by the first few rounds -- WATCH OUT.

Make no mistake about it, Sam Stosur is lethal on clay. Like Sharapova, who benefits from the extra time she gets on the surface, Stosur just seems more confident and more athletic on the surface. Her big kick serve gives her lots of short balls that she can come in and obliterate and the slower surface lets her hit more of her favorite shot, the inside-out forehand.

Caroline Wozniacki is fresh off another title, but it's hard to tell if she's in form or out of form at the moment. She's been hammered by Julia Goerges of Germany twice, and she also gave up some ground to Maria Sharapova when she lost to her in Rome. Still, Wozniacki is the world's No. 1, she's maddeningly consistent, and she's hungry as heck to have a break through at a Slam.

Finally, though she may not be in dancing form, Kim Clijsters seems to have the magic touch in her second career. Clijsters hasn't played since Miami, and she really wasn't playing well back then, but it's hard to ignore the fact that she has won three Grand Slams since her return and she seems to have a full store of confidence no matter how much time she's had to practice. So what if she's playing with a taped ankle because of a barefoot-at-a-wedding dancing injury? The fact that Clijsters is back on court and feeling up to playing means that she's got a very good chance to win this thing.

The draws:

Wozniacki's Quarter:

Wozniacki (17-3 on clay) should put forth her usual wall of defense and advance to the fourth round, where a possible match up with 2009 Champion Svetlana Kuznetsova looms. This would appear, at first glance, to be a very stern test for Wozniacki, but is there any guarantee that the mercurial Kuznetsova will even win a match? Kuznetsova is an incredible talent, and she has the two Grand Slams to prove it, but good luck trying to figure out when she's going to play well and when she's going to miss like hell.

The real challenge for Wozniacki awaits in the quarterfinals. There she may find herself across from last year's runner-up, Samantha Stosur. If so, it would be a classic encounter of the hunter and the hunted with Stosur doing the hunting with her forehand and serve, and Wozniacki hoping to wait Stosur out, attack with the backhand, and entice her into going for too much.

Marion Bartoli and Julia Goerges (16-5 on clay with 2 wins over Wozniacki!) are also in this quarter of the draw, and could cause some damage.

Pick: Stosur

Zvonareva's Quarter:

Is this Vera Zvonareva's quarter or Francesca Schiavone's quarter? Well, the good news is, they can share it for a while and perhaps decide on ownership with a quarterfinal tilt. But let's not overlook the up-and-coming Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Jelena Jankovic, or red-hot Shuai Peng.

Schiavone has not been in the best form since Australia (only 17-12 on the year), and she will need another shot of that Paris adrenaline that she rode to her first Grand Slam title last year. The same can be said of Zvonareva (25-9), who parted ways with her coach a month ago and didn't have the greatest clay court season.

Pick: Schiavone

Azarenka's quarter:

Azarenka has been very strong in 2011 (12-3 clay), but she still finds it very difficult to stay healthy on a consistent basis. She's a tremendous baseline player who can get in a zone and tear the fuzz off the ball, but she has yet to really prove herself on the Grand Slam stage. At this point, it's hard not to wonder if the goddesses of tennis have put some kind of hex on her. She's had some major setbacks in the majors, but she did reach a quarterfinal at Roland Garros in '09, so maybe the Terre Battue is the place where she'll finally have the breakthrough that everybody has been expecting for years.

Her path to the fourth round looks placid (former champ Ana Ivanovic is there, but her Grand Slam resume has been less than stellar of late), but in the top half of her quarter, Na Li and Petra Kvitova await.

Kvitova has the game to steamroll the field if she can stay away from her nemesis: the inexplicably flat match. Li, too, has the game to go deep in the draw. She may not be the best mover on clay, but her saucy groundstrokes can often make up for any deficiency there.

Pick: Kvitova

Clijster's Quarter:

No offense to Andrea Petkovic, Agnieszka Radwanska, or Maria Kirilenko, but the two behemoths at opposite sides of this quarter are what really make it sizzle: Maria Sharapova and Kim Clijsters. As mentioned before, Clijsters hasn't played in a while and may or may not be hindered by ankle and shoulder problems. But this might work in Clijster's favor when you think about it. Very few players have seen what she can do on clay since her return. Clijsters is not easy to play against when you've had tons of practice, but playing her with none could be even more difficult.

If she advances to the quarters (Kirilenko and the rising Petkovic --13-3 on clay -- will certainly try to stop her) and meets Sharapova (Wickmayer and Radwanska will look to upset) it could be a very interesting match up. Their last meeting in Cincinnati was a real hummdinger. If it's anywhere near as dramatic as that Clijster's three-set victory, we're in for a good one.

Pick: Sharapova

Semis: Stosur over Schiavone, Kvitova over Sharapova

Finals: Stosur over Kvitova

Friday, May 20, 2011

French Open Fun Facts

Yannick Noah was the last frenchman to win Roland Garros in 1983. Suzanne Lenglen is the only player to win all three events more than one time. Welcome to French Open fun facts.

I thought I'd take a few hours to compile a bunch of interesting facts about the French Open tonight, since there's nothing good on TV, so here goes:

  • Did you know that Svetlana Kuznetsova blew match points against the eventual champion in the fourth round in two consecutive years? For anybody else it would be surprising, but for Svetlana, not so much. In '04 Anastasia Myskina saved MP at 5-6 in the third, and in '05 Justine Henin saved two match points at 3-5 in the third set.
  • Anastasia Myskina ('05) is the last female defending champion to lose in the first round the following year.
  • 1989 is the only year in the history of the French Open that both singles winners had not yet turned 18.
  • Elena Dementieva holds the French Open record for most double faults in a match (for a female player), and most double faults for a tournament. In 2004, she double faulted 16 times in the first round and 64 times for the tournament.
  • American Vince Spadea double faulted 22 times in a third round loss to Sebastien Grosjean in the 3rd round, 2002.
  • Steffi Graf (94) has played more singles matches than anybody else in the history of the tournament. Guillermo Vilas (73) has played more than any other man.
  • Bjorn Borg (6) has the most titles and finals appearances of any man.
  • The French Open didn't allow foreigners to compete for the title until 1925. Aussie Jack Crawford became the first non-French player to win in Paris in 1933 when he beat Henri Cochet in the final.
  • The French Open moved to the Roland Garros site in 1928, and Henri Cochet beat Rene Lacoste in the final that year.
  • In 2004, Arnaud Clement and Fabrice Santoro played what used to be the longest match in the history of tennis in the 1st round. The 6-hour 33-minute match is still the longest in French Open history, even though John Isner and Nicolas Mahut now hold the record for tennis's longest match at 11-hours 5-minutes.
  • Althea Gibson was the first black player to win the French Open in 1956, when she defeated Angela Mortimer 6-0, 12-10 in the final.
  • Bjorn Borg won 41 sets consecutively from 1979-1981. Rafa's best is 30, but he's currently on a 21-set streak heading into this year's event.
  • Chris Evert is the last singles player to win the French while over the age of 30. She was 31 years and 5 months old when she won her seventh title in 1986.

Sloane Stephens Qualifies

18-year-old American Sloane Stephens stormed through the qualies to earn her first French Open main draw appearance. How cool is that?

It's really damn cool if you ask me. Stephens, an 18-year-old who has embraced the clay game ever since she rolled to the French Open junior semifinals as a qualifier in 2009 (see vid above), is fresh off a challenger title in Italy in which she upset the tournaments top two seeds in the last two rounds.

She's currently ranked 138 in the world, but a few wins in Roland Garros would more than likely enable her to move to the cusp of the top 100.

But she's only 18, so we can leave off on crunching the numbers for a while and just say that Stephens has done a fantastic job of winning three matches in straight-sets this week. Sure, qualifying for a Slam does not make a career, but it's a nice step for Stephens, and it proves that she doesn't only talk the talk about liking the clay, she also walks the walk.

Stephens, surprisingly philosophical and soulful for her age, has cultivated a cult following on twitter by sharing her deep thoughts on a regular basis. In a space that is crowded with the inane, nonsensical and attention-grabbing thoughts of the world, "Sloaney" comes off as a precocious yet down-to-earth sage. She is witty, deep, spiritual and humorous all at once, and she spits out quotes and self-help aphorisms on a very regular basis.

On May 18th she tweeted "Believe in God, because there are some questions even Google can't answer."

Does that sound like your typical 18-year-old? I think not.

Or this from April 23rd: "You pull out a pack of gum and suddenly everyone is your friend."

Stephens might be surprised by how many friends she'll have if she can manage a few wins in Paris this week, but somehow I think she'd have a piece of gum for everybody who congratulated her.

She'll play Elena Baltacha of Great Britain in the first round.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What's Up With Woz?

Caroline's still Caroline, but the rest of the tour appears unimpressed. Does she have a shot at Roland Garros?
As many of you know, I've been in Caroline Wozniacki's corner for much of the year. I felt that she earned her No. 1 ranking by winning matches — in spite of the effusive flow of vitriol regarding the legitimacy of her game — and because of that she became a rebellious figure to me. People kept saying Wozniacki wasn't any good, and she kept proving them wrong, and I liked that about her.

That being said, Woz looks to be in big trouble heading into Roland Garros. You'd think it'd be the opposite for a player like Wozniacki on the European clay, because she has crafted a game that depends on patience, consistency and counterpunching — all qualities that have enabled clay-court gurus to thrive in the past. But something is very amiss in Wozniacki's game at the moment, and given her recent results it's hard to deny. She's been brushed aside by Julia Goerges (twice) and Maria Sharapova (finally) in her last three events this spring in Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome.

We all know that Wozniacki has always lacked the big power game so there's nothing new to speak of there, but she looks more overmatched on the clay, because her opponents have more time to set up, hit big, and get Caroline on the run. Her opponents also appear to be a little wiser to Wozniacki's game. They've been much better about getting to the net and finishing points there. Time and time again Wozniacki has been forced to throw up weak lobs that can be taken out of the air and ripped into the open court. Now instead of letting Caroline reset the point, her more aggressive opponents are taking matters into their own hands and moving in for the kill shot.

Footwork has never been an issue for Wozniacki, but on clay she seems to lose her speed advantage a bit. She isn't able to use her quick changes of direction in her favor on the clay; instead she seems more prone than ever to power combos that move her far into one corner and force her way out of position for the next shot.

Wozniacki was one of the most frustrating players to play against earlier in the year, but all that frustration seems to have motivated her opponents to put in their time hitting overheads, drive volleys and basically preparing to attack whenever she's out of position and about to throw up some of her patented junk.

Perhaps I'm wrong about all this. Stranger things have certainly happened. Perhaps it's just a temporary thing. Perhaps Goerges and Sharapova played out of their minds. Wozniacki is a fighter and I wouldn't count her as a non-factor for the French Open, but based on her clay-court results this spring, I think it's going to be a stretch for her to reach the semis of the world's only clay-court Grand Slam for the first time in her career.

Furthermore, the more that WTA players get used to playing against Wozniacki, the more imperative it will be for her to develop some new wrinkles in her game to keep them off balance. At the moment, it seems like she's resting on her laurels a bit; thinking that what has gotten her to No. 1 is good enough.

But you must evolve to thrive on the Tour. By allowing herself to constantly get pushed around by bigger hitters, Wozniacki is basically giving control of the match to her opponents. It's their match to win or lose. All Woz can do is get the ball back and hope that it's good enough.

I think Caroline Wozniacki is in danger at the moment. Just months ago I thought she had one of the brightest futures of anybody on the Tour.

Check with me in three weeks and I'll likely have another take.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Cosmic Thing

Words can no longer describe him. 30-stroke rallies no longer fatigue him. Meet tennis's
new superhuman force.

39 wins and counting, and the legend of Novak Djokovic in 2011 is still very much alive. As the tennis season makes the final turn and heads for the fabled red clay of Roland Garros, What we're all wondering now is: how far can this remarkable stretch continue?

Die-hard Djokovic fans, of course, are wondering if they will soon wake up from this prolonged state of dreaming.

Djokovic himself, meanwhile, is on the cusp of taking his legend into another stratosphere. He's seven matches from blasting off into eternity, and if Djokovic can somehow summon his reality-bending form for two weeks in Paris, he'll forever be known as the hottest man to ever play the game.

Since 2011 began, Djokovic has defeated world No. 1 Rafael Nadal four consecutive times (2 on clay) and the then world No. 2 Roger Federer three times consecutively. All told, he's collected a stunning THIRTEEN STRAIGHT wins against top 10 opponents, and he's also collected eighteen straight against top 20 opponents.

The guy is beyond freakish right now. He's a bona fide spirit walker, performing Jedi mind tricks with his racquet to ensure the perfect placement of his shots in the deepest corners of the court.
Lately, Djokovic's on court movement has been reminiscent of those characters in "The Matrix" who avoid bullets by bending their bodies in all kinds of crazy ways.

Djokovic is so hot it's a wonder he doesn't melt into the court as he's playing. He's the mythical version of what the human tennis player aspires to be: unflinching, gunslinging, indefatigable. He's beastly and regal all at once, with the grace of a classical music conductor and the guttural blaze of rock-n-roll drummer.

With 5 more wins Djokovic will equal John McEnroe's record of 42 consecutive wins to start a season, but in reality he's far outclassed McEnroe's streak already. Johnny Mac posted some huge wins against the likes of Lendl (4) and Connors (2) in 1984, but he didn't win a Slam or beat a player as formidable as Nadal on clay that year. Mac also made the mistake of losing that 43rd match in particularly tragic fashion, and that served to take some of the lustre off his streak.

How Djokovic's streak will be perceived in the annals of history will certainly have a lot to do with how he performs in Paris. McEnroe ran into his wall with 42 consecutive wins and a two set lead on Ivan Lendl in the 1984 Roland Garros final under his belt, and when he did his streak became more known for the harshness of that very disappointing loss than for the heaping pile of wins that McEnroe amassed leading up to it.

Djokovic now stands at the same precipice. If Djokovic loses to Nadal in the French Open final, or even worse, loses unexpectedly before the final, how will this streak be remembered?

I'm not so sure -- only time will tell. But I do wonder: is the streak really about a number or is the number simply an inorganic representation of the organic beauty of Djokovic's game at the moment? The near perfect placement of his shots, the sublime footwork, the eerily sound return game and the insatiable desire to win -- can any words or numbers explain them, or is it better to just sit back and observe?

As far as catching lightning in a bottle goes, I'm not sure that there's ever been anybody to play the game with more authority than Djokovic is playing it with right now. Vilas won 46 consecutive matches on clay in 1977, but he didn't steal the fire from two of the all-time greats of the game the way that Djokovic has. Lendl went on a 44-match tear after the 1981 U.S. Open, but he didn't play a single Slam during the streak.

There are still 5 streaks of 41 or more wins (Borg, Federer, McEnroe, Lendl, Vilas) that are serving to motivate Djokovic to even greater heights.

For Djokovic, each win is an affirmation of how far he's come, of how deep he's now willing to dig. Who knows when it will end? Who knows if anybody's ever been better?

All we know is it's still alive.

And that we're dying to see him play again in Paris, for better or for worse.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Mary Carillo Back in the Fold

Mary Carillo's ranting and raving will be a part of Tennis Channel's coverage when their French Open coverage begins in just over a week.

I'm not sure how the heck I stumbled across this crazy vid of Mary Carillo losing her mind re: badminton, but I am sure that I'm excited about the fact that Mary has been added to Tennis Channel's French Open and US Open telecast teams.

Tennis Channel has done a fantastic job with the Slams, and Bill Macatee is an absolute keeper at the interview desk (to me he is an absolute god), but I think that Carillo's addition will help TTC's broadcast team be a little more diverse and a little less "tennis geeky."

I've always appreciated Carillo's candor, and her ability to call a spade a spade while broadcasting. I definitely haven't agreed with a lot of points she's made, and I've even found myself miffed at some of the others, but there is no denying that Carillo's forthright character and willingness to mix it up and say exactly what she feels will make for more compelling viewing for tennis geeks and casual tennis viewers alike.

Most of the insiders on TTC's coverage aren't really interested in ruffling any feathers or saying anything critical about the sport, but Carillo has always found a way to avoid being kept in a network's pocket while doing her work.

She can be overly bombastic at times, overly critical at others, but in the end, Carillo will ultimately add an unbiased energy to TTC's broadcasts, and I think this will give it more crossover appeal. She'll incite, she'll color, she'll ruffle a few feathers, and at the very least -- whether we agree or disagree -- we'll have some interesting talking points to discuss come French Open time.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Coaching Carousel

Tennis coaching might be a great job, but long hours and very little job stability can be tough. Just ask Jiang Shan.

Coaching in tennis is like dating on the internet. Kick the tires here, have some coffee or sushi there, maybe go for a three month trial run (with no strings attached), but never, ever, give your heart away! NEVER!

Currently two of the top six women on tour are in the midst of drastic coaching changes, and two of the top five men on tour are in limbo as well.

In the cases of Na Li and Vera Zvonareva, who have both exceeded expectations of late and reached Grand Slam finals under their recently dispatched coaches, it makes you wonder why.

Take Zvonareva for instance. Sergei Demekhin guided her to her first two Grand Slam finals, but when Zvonareva introduced a third coach into the equation (Karen Krotov) this spring, the 27-year-old Muscovite declined the arrangement. It's hard to assess the situation without knowing the dynamics of Zvonareva's and Demekhin's relationship, but taken at face value, it seems strange that Zvonareva would want to part (or even risk parting) ways with the coach who had helped her reach an unprecedented period of success in her career.

World No. 6 Na Li has also left her coach in the dust, but this story promises to be more funny than sad. It was Li, just 5 months ago, who promised she'd always love her husband in Australia no matter how fat and ugly he was. Well, don't quote me on that, but it was something to that effect. Now, Li, who seemed to have such a healthy relationship with Jiang Shan, has elected to ditch him for Denmark's Fed Cup Captain Michael Mortenson. Oh well, I'm sure she still loves him.

Li hadn't won a match since losing in the Australian Open final to Kim Clijsters until April, but I'm not so sure it was her coach who was to blame for that. In any case, he's out, and Li will look to rediscover her game with a new man at the helm.

The fact that neither move comes as a shock says a lot about the difficulties of coaching in professional tennis. Two players at the top of the game, reaching new highs, and firing their coaches? Of course. Been there done that.

The travel is insane, the pressure to win is beyond insane, and the job security is nowhere to be found. Add to that the intimacy and the intensity that characterizes each player-coach relationship and it's easy to see why these volatile pairings often explode.

Li and Zvonareva are well within their rights to seek new opinions, hire new help, and basically do whatever it takes to help them reach their goals. It's the nature of the business.

It's just a bummer that coaches haven't been able to find more lucrative or secure work, especially given that they are immensely important to their players, and to the quality of tennis offered by the tours.

The fact that Swede Magnus Norman left Robin Soderling at the end of last season says a lot about the rigors of the profession. Magnus and Sod appeared to be the perfect pair, but the reality of the situation is that often times there simply isn't enough in the deal for the coach. So Magnus went off to start a tennis academy, where he could make similar money and sleep in his own bed at night. He won't be the first and he wont be the last to leave a coaching post on tour for similar reasons.

Daren Cahill, who coached Lleyton Hewitt and Andre Agassi knows the story. The only reason he even agreed to coaching Agassi was because Andre was happy to have him travel with his whole family in tow much of the time. But most players (see Lleyton Hewitt) aren't up for that, either due to financial or philosophical reasons.

So where does that leave the best players on tour who are without a coach? Andy Murray is working with Daren Cahill and his other Adidas development mates in Europe this spring, and he seems happy with the arrangement. Soderling has already parted ways with his trial coach, Claudio Pistolesi of Italy.

And the cycle continues.

Doesn't it reflect poorly on professional tennis that not even the top flight players are in a position to get full time attention from the sharpest minds in the sport? Wouldn't tennis be a better game -- for the players and the fans -- if world-class coaching wasn't such a hard-to-find commodity on tour?

I think it would.