Saturday, July 30, 2011

Presence Felt

Serena Williams played her first matches on U.S. soil since 2009 this week. So far, so good.

If you've never seen Serena Williams play tennis live and in person, you really ought to. And if, when you finally do, you don't come away saying "oh, so this is why everybody basically loses their doo-doo talking about her all the time," then I'll be surprised. I'll be beyond surprised. I'll be shocked.

Why? Because this weekend I finally learned what I always kind of knew, first hand: Seeing is believing.

You can watch Serena on TV all night. Sure you can. Do it 'til the cows come home. Watch re-runs of her epic Grand Slam finals. Get yourself an HDTV or, better yet, 3DTV. But no matter how much you watch her -- even if you do it with the sound turned up as loud as it can go and a Wilson racquet in your sweaty palms -- it will never be like it is in person, where you can see her and hear her, feel the pulse of her tennis, and the accompanying pulse of the crowd as it oohs and aahs, hangs on her every serve, and gasps in admiration at every one of her laser-guided groundies that seem to clear the net with improbably little margin, screaming -- no steaming -- into the empty corners of the court.

There are very few guarantees in life, but this is one I'm fairly confident in making: If you watch Serena play tennis in person, you will come away impressed. Inspired even. And if you're like me and you get emotional when you see an art form expressed at the pinnacle of its potential, then it just might bring on those quivers of appreciation that go hand-in-hand with getting your socks rocked off.

You may love loving her or you may hate hating her, but until you've seen the beauty of Serena William's game in person, you haven't seen anything.

I know because I hadn't seen anything until this weekend, when Serena took the court against Maria Sharapova.

Two days later, I'm a believer. I'm devout, and I don't think there's any turning back. All at once, as I watched Serena power returns like a cleanup hitter with a green light on a 3-0 count, names of the greatest athletes to ever play their sports started flooding my brain: Michael Jordan, Willie Mays, Martina Navratilova.

Where does Serena fit into all this? I thought.

I'm not sure, but I was sure that it was not at all ridiculous to think of her in the same context as Martina, as Mays and Jordan, as all the other Hall of Famers across the sports spectrum that could somehow slow their sport down to a crawl while to their competitors it was just one big blur.

She's just rounding back into form after a dreadfully dark period, and yet I found myself mesmerized by how complete her game was at this point in her comeback. All you ever hear about is power this, power that when people talk of Serena, but what truly sets her apart are the subtleties. Power is a common possession on the WTA Tour; what sets Serena's game apart are all the trappings that come with the power.

The poise; the desire; the ability to hit off either foot; the reaction time; the fast twitch muscles; the ability to open up the court with angles and to close the door with precision; the ability to locate the second serve, no matter the pressure level; the charisma; the pride, particularly when she is challenged; the ability to control and simultaneously feed off her emotional spectrum; the ability to work a crowd while simultaneously silently intimidating her opponent; the courage to let her opponent and the crowd know when she really wants a game, set,or match.

I could go on. I could write a list as long as the PA announcer's pre-match list of her career accomplishments. I could tell you all again and again what you've already read over and over.

But it's probably best if you buy a ticket somewhere that Serena is playing this summer and see for yourself.

If you've already seen her play, I don't need to tell you anything. You've already got your tickets, because whether you love to love her or hate to hate her, you surely like the buzz.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Lisicki: Crushing in the Clutch

It's hard to say how high the ceiling is for Sabine Lisicki right now. Maybe it'd be better if we waited until Saturday evening, when the promising German plays the winner of tonight's highly anticipated Serena Williams-Maria Sharapova tilt in the Bank of the West Classic semifinals. Or, maybe, it'd be better if we did like all the players like to do and submit to the tried-and-true cliche: One match at a time, one point at a time and...we'll see.


For those of us who can't get enough of the next big thing, Saturday's your big day. Sabine Lisicki -- ready for the challenge or not -- is going to take a shot at the pinnacle of tennis. Think she's excited? You bet. "I love those kind of matches...I just love competing in front of a big crowd," said Lisicki, with a gleam in her eye and an air of excitment in her voice.

But lets not get ahead of ourselves: first Lisicki will need to get a good night's rest.

After a tough 3-set win over cagey veteran Agnieszka Radwanska under a baking California sun today ("It was long," Lisicki confirmed with a giggle), Lisicki can take comfort in the fact that she's now made the semifinals of three consecutive Tour level events (Birmingham, Wimbledon and Stanford) for the first time in her career. She's parlayed her big serving and go-for-broke style into an eye-opening hot streak that has her perched on the precipice of the top 20 for the first time in two years. (A title would guarantee it.)

Lisicki was the next big thing then, when she put on a serving clinic at Charleston in '09, won her first WTA level title, and reached a career-high of No. 22 in the rankings.

But in the year that ensued, she nearly became the next forgotten thing.

Lisicki's 2010 campaign was a season marred by injury, and even though she worked like a house on fire in the off-season to get into playing shape for 2011, the results didn't start to come until late this spring.

Now that she's finally getting results again, Lisicki is a more confident player than she was at the start of the year. "I feel like I can rely on my serve when I need it," Lisicki said after her 14-ace performance in the quarterfinals today. "I showed it today," she added. "I think in the second set it was a little bit off, but when I really needed it in the first set and the third set I had it right there."

Even if the serve falters a bit, Lisicki still feels like she can bide her time until it returns. "I still have a forehand and backhand that I can play, so, my game is improving," she added confidently.

Cue the next big thing talk.

But only time will tell us if Lisicki can be the kind of clutch server who can consistently worm her way out of sticky situations and develop a knack for winning the big points, a la Serena.

Today she passed the test. She hit two aces on game points in her first two service games of the first set, another at deuce in her third, and another when down 0-30 in her fourth.

Moving ahead to the third set, Lisicki finished strong with an ace on a second serve to move ahead 2-0, and tossed in two aces from deuce in the fourth game of the set to move ahead 3-1.

For good measure, she also slammed an ace when facing break point in the sixth game of the set.

All this against a crafty, intuitive returner like Radwanska.

In the context of an otherwise average serving day, Lisicki proved that timing is everything in tennis. She served only 51% first serves, but she make them count on the big points.

Whether she can do that tomorrow against either Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova is another story entirely. It's one we can only speculate on today, as is the future of Sabine Lisicki and her thunderous serve.

Will she or won't she enter the top 20 by the end of the summer?

Will she or won't she become known as a big match player who can ride her serve to victory when the situation calls for it?

Will she or won't she be the next WTA player to win her first Grand Slam?

As fun as it is to ponder these questions, the wiser approach might be to sit back, grab some popcorn, and let it happen.

One point at a time, one match at a time.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Intimacy of Late Night Tennis

Stanford, Ca.

I am one of a few brave souls watching the late match, between Stanford alumnus Hilary Barte and Taiwanese player Kai-Chen Chang. I am here watching world-class tennis in an eerily silent stadium. During each changeover the stadium empties out more, and each time the umpire calls "time" to begin play again, I feel luckier than I was 60 seconds ago, even though I am slightly colder.

I feel almost as if I have hired these players for my own private party, the way that an oil magnate might hire a pop star like Christina Aguilera to play at his daughter's sweet 16 party. Up in the white hospitality tents, there is a couple sitting on a couch, and it looks like they are watching a movie at home. They are two of four people left up there. We aren't breaking any attendance records at the Bank of the West Classic tonight, but I don't mind.

How could I mind? I am in the front row after all, hanging over the railing in the quiet environs of the Taube Tennis Center on the University of Stanford Campus. It is so quiet, in fact, that the hum of the motor inside the service speed display box is louder than anything else in the stadium. Except for the sound of the ball hitting the strings, of course. Neither woman on court is big enough to be considered of average size by WTA standards (Chang is 5'6" and Barte is listed generously at 5'5"), but that doesn't stop either of them from hammering away at balls aggressively.

Now that I've moved down to the front row of this nearly empty stadium, I am a completely contented tennis junkie. I am getting my fix, beneath a blanket of stars with a few hundred like-minded people. What could be better? There is something to be said about a jam-packed stadium, and we will certainly have that tomorrow evening when Serena Williams plays her first match on American soil since her outrageous "I'm gonna stuff this ball down your throat" debacle at the US Open in 2009. But tonight is all about intimacy for me.

Tennis wears many hats, means many things to many people, but for people like me, who generally shy away from big crowds and who relish the sweetness of prolonged silence, tonight's first round match between two virtual unknowns is just perfect for me.

It was perfect for Barte also, until the wheels came off her game after she had sprinted to a 5-2 lead in the first set.

The California native who is of Filipino descent had come out confidently, her well-defined calf muscles rippling (front row seats give you good access to rippling calf muscles) as she moved to balls with inspiring intensity, but then, perched on the precipice of winning the first set, something seemed to go awry. She had three set points on the Chang serve in the 8th game of the set, but didn't make good on any of them.

"I physically didn't feel that tight, but I think mentally I started thinking about the future a little too much," said Barte, of her inability to close out the first set.

Barte wouldn't win another game for the remainder of the set, nor would she play with the confidence that she had possessed in the early snippets of the match. Chang, who was born in Taiwan and whose parents sell seafood to markets there for a living, wouldn't let her. It took the slightly skinny 20-year-old a while to get her game flowing, but when she did, it was plain to see that she has potential to make a career for herself on the WTA Tour.

Whether she will or not, is another question. Having the potential is a common thread among all the players looking to break through on the WTA Tour. Having the consistency, discipline, and composure to turn that potential into victories is not so simple though. Chang doesn't intimidate at all in appearance, but she has a lot of pop in her game, and some zing too. The problem for her is maintaining an appropriate level of control to make her power all the more dangerous.

As for Barte, it's hard to tell if she has enough power to make it at this level. She's a cerebral player to be sure, but that'll only get you so far on the big stage. She was a four time All-American in singles and doubles at Stanford, but she's encountering a whole new level of meanness in her first few weeks on the WTA Tour.

When she sauntered into the press room to speak with a group of local journalists after the match, she was giggly, and not at all upset about the hard loss. This isn't to say that Barte didn't care; she just has a playful demeanor.

"I think coming here (to Stanford for college) was the best decision of my life," said Barte of her decision to go to Stanford over attempting to become a pro at the age of 18. "Maybe tennis-wise it wasn't the best for my development. I think it did a lot for my tennis, but it did unbelievable things for my life, like my mentality, and life lessons that I've learned. I think that will pay big dividends when I start playing on the circuit."

Barte, who plans to become an eye surgeon someday, comes off as a sweet and genuine person. It's not hard to picture her cuddling with a golden retriever or helping a tiny child blow out the candles on her birthday cake. But faced with the firepower that exists in the women's professional game, she knows she'll need to find ways to be aggressive against the world's best players.

"Watching all the women practice, it's the way that you kind of have to go about it," she said. "I don't think I can play passive -- especially because I'm smaller. I don't think that will go to well."

She's probably right, but in tennis, as in life, we each have our aptitudes, our ways of finding success, of deconstructing the game, and of deconstructing opponents. Barte will never be one of the bigger hitters on tour, so she's going to have to find creative ways to impose her game on bigger, harder-hitting opponents.

Meanwhile, lucky me was all wrapped up in the present. This is the life, I thought, as I stopped my tape recorder and put my headphones on. Contemplating the contemplations of others. It was cold out, but inside I was feeling warm. Warm for the game, and warm for the people who play the game, letting it all hang out until there's nothing left to do but ponder.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

In Tennis, Saying Sorry Is Beautiful

Let-cord apologists are not stupid. They know that decorum is an essential part of tennis.

Whoosh! One of tennis's quirkiest traditions always seems to go right over the head of the casual observer. But for the tried-and-true tennis fan, the real intrigue lies in the subtlety. Winning and losing is too black and white for the fans who watch tennis the way a gallery-goer inspects a fine Impressionist-era painting, so when we see a player raise his racquet and nod timidly towards his foe after being aided by a let-cord, we know we're in the right museum -- the one where respect takes precedent over hot-dogging; the one where saying sorry isn't taboo.

It's a beautiful thing, and its beauty lies hidden, cleverly concealed in the context of the match and the refined traditions of the game. Like errant lines of color that cast shadows on an otherwise minimalist piece, the gestures of tennis players can also be inspected for more than form, more than technique, more than smashtastic winner ratios and first-serve percentages and speeds.

The merits of let-cord apologies have long been debated, and the tradition itself is somewhat paradoxical. On the surface it might seem inane, even robotic or cruel, but when you think about what the gesture is intended to mean -- and what it means when it is actuated properly, with full respect -- it is one of the things that makes tennis such a unique sport.

And, yes, it is most certainly an art.

Think about it: Can you ever imagine a baseball player apologizing for a broken-bat double that drives in a run? Or a football player who swipes a pass that had just bounced off his own helmet and takes it into the end-zone? Or a soccer player who has just taken advantage of an own goal to take a lead just before halftime?

Of course not. It's a cutthroat dog-eat-dog world that we play and watch our sports in, and the object of the game is to win, win, win, because it's all about me, me, me at the end of the day.


Wrong. At least if you're a tennis player it is. Because the game of tennis is a game played by well-mannered gentlemen and ladies, and, being well-mannered gentlemen and ladies, they follow a code of ethics that is different from the ones that govern all the other sports. While other professional athletes take what they can get and step on their opponent's jugulars once they've gotten it, the tennis player displays a rare and precious empathy for his or her opponents. When they feel pain their opponent too feels their pain, and when they've won a point with the assistance of a let-chord, they give them that classic gesture that says "sorry, dude, I got lucky there, and I know it."

To some players the gesture is a mere afterthought, a required necessity. The discerning fans always know who these players are, and we find ourselves wishing that these players understood the code like the true "artistes" of the gesture do.

To others, the opportunity to say they are sorry is a time to shine in an emotionally available sort of way. And these are the moments where the discerning fan is rewarded for being such a connoisseur of let-cord apologists. For when the let-cord offender gives that heartfelt look -- the one that says, "ah, dude, we're battling out here, but the heat of the moment will never be bigger than the respect I have for you" -- we are bearing witness to the art form at its finest.

Tennis is a game of respect. It may seem an anachronistic concept to some, given that we live in a self-centered egocentric world that revolves incessantly around the winner; but to the people who find ecstasy in the details, the art of let-cord apologies is the thing that will forever set tennis apart from the rest of the sports.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Agassi Has Just Begun to Pursue His Calling

Andre Agassi is a Hall of Famer now, but his most important work is yet to be done.

What's not to love about Andre Agassi? In a span of 20 years the man has run the gamut. He started his career as a reluctant yet effective poster boy for narcissism and corporate megawhoring, and finished it as a born again saint who'd finally made peace with himself and the game he both loved and hated. All the while, Agassi's been so much more than the haircut and a forehand that he was rumored to be in the early stages of his career, and more importantly, so much more than the "image is everything" touter that Madison Ave. ad-execs paid him to be.

For Andre, it was never just about the tennis, or the image, and you have to love him for that. It can be so easy for larger-than-life personalities like himself to get lost in all the attention and the fawning that comes with being a star and become desensitized to the world that surrounds them. After a tumultuous tennis career that saw Agassi run the spectrum from underachiever to brash young star on the rise to beaten down over-the-hill veteran in decline to -- finally -- sentimental favorite and man of the people, Agassi will now begin on what he perceives to be his true mission in life: providing educational opportunities for under privileged and at-risk children.

When the sporting world came to welcome Andre into its Hall of Fame community on July 9th, it was fitting that students from Andre's charter school were on hand to help commemorate Agassi's magnificent achievements.

Because for Andre, it's about the kids now. This is not some smoke he's blowing up your you-know-what to win your votes. The man has found his true calling in life and he's following his muse.

Isn't that refreshing? If you're an athlete and you're contemplating retirement at the age of 35, isn't it good to know that you don't have to stop living, to stop dreaming, or to stop competing? Sure, you're not likely to be standing on a field of dreams with hordes of crazed admirers chanting your name ever again, but it doesn't mean that you (the retired athlete) don't still have your biggest days ahead of you, and your grandest accomplishments too.

But the lesson of Agassi reaches beyond the athlete. It speaks to all of those -- regardless of age, social standing or financial means -- who want to have a calling in life, and who have not found it yet. There is still time! Because if Andre Agassi can reinvent himself at the end of his tennis career, then so can a lot of other athletes, and regular Joe's too.

Kudos to Agassi, for never being happy with just being an athlete, and for always searching for a way to transcend the sport so that he could ensure that his legacy reaches far beyond tennis.

His is a great example for all of us to heed. Life doesn't end with your first career. You can make mistakes and fall behind in your twenties, thirties, whatever, but if you pay attention to who you are, are willing to look inside yourself for answers to the difficult questions, and maintain the desire to make a difference in this world, you too can find a calling in life.

For me that's what Agassi represents: that faction of people who've been lost at some point. We can all lack purpose at times, and it's nothing to be ashamed of.

In Agassi we see a man who needed time to find himself, but when he did, he was more dimensional and more gracious than we ever thought possible. And he's only just begun to make a difference.

Maybe the same goes for some of us.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Is Del Potro All the Way Back?

Sure, Juan Martin del Potro is back in the top 20. But is he ready to win another Grand Slam?

The Tower of Tandil has been through a lot since he surprised the world (not me, I picked him) by winning the 2009 US Open final. Media barrage and resultant emotional roller coaster? Check. Wrist surgery? check. A drop outside of the top 400? Check. More injuries, including a tear in a hip muscle and a Raonic-like tumble on the Wimbledon grass? Check. Horrible draws that pitted him against the two best players in the world before the quarterfinals in the last two slams? Check.

When it comes to trials and tribulations, the 22-year-old Argentine has had his share. Still, it could be worse. He could be Andy Murray, for one, and be forever associated with falling short, of getting painfully close to the holy grail only to fall apart and trip clumsily over the final hurdle.

No offense to Murray whatsoever, but del Potro has already proven that he can be as good as gold when it really matters. Murray may be known as a member of tennis's "big four" but del Potro is one of only of four players to have actually won a Grand Slam since the 2005 Australian Open.

When you think about it, that's the essence of tennis: magnamimity; coming good in crunch time. Tennis is all about the big points, big sets, big matches, and the even bigger tournaments. Win a bunch of less-than-colossal tournaments and implode in the Slams and you'll never hear the end from discerning tennis fans. Lose until the cows come home and over achieve at the Slams, and you've got a loyal fan base for life (and they'll whistle whenever you take your shirt off just to make you feel sexy).

It is what it is -- to coin a horribly overused slogan -- and now, as the hard court season kicks off in the U.S., what we'd like to know is: when will delpo once again be what he is? Is he ready to play larger than life again?

Health is the big question for del Potro to be sure, but lost in all the nail biting over his recent hip problem, which was a major concern heading into the French and lingered through Wimbledon, is the fact that the wrist is passing tests with flying colors these days. That befuddling wrist was a major concern for the first three months of the year, and del Potro was quick to reveal that he was hitting "in fear"at the time. When I saw him in San Jose, just prior to his first title of the year in Delray Beach, del Potro was tentative, and clearly not playing with the same unbridled orneriness that he possessed in '09.

But his trepidations about the wrist appear to have disappeared in the last few months. He's hitting the ball ferociously once again, and he's showing his teeth again too. Probably more important than the score of his 4th round loss to Nadal at Wimbledon was the fact that the Argentine was quick to challenge Nadal when he took an injury time-out just prior to their 1st set tiebreaker. He was angry, and he let it show. The match didn't break his way, but del Potro's attitude said a lot about where he feels his game his headed.

He's ready to let it all hang out again, and that's a good sign for fans of the big man. He's ready for battle. He's ready to stir it up and play his brand of angry, edgy tennis again. And more importantly, he's not afraid.

If del Potro can stay fit below the waist this summer, he should be a terror come late August. It's been a long, hard, disconcerting road, but the Tower of Tandil might soon be all the way back to form.

And if that's the case, there's no reason to believe that he can't win in New York again.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Kleybanova Being Treated For Hodgkin's Lymphoma

Via the WTA's website, Alisa Kleybanova revealed details of her ongoing battle with Hodgkin's Lymphoma today.

The news came as a shock. And on her birthday, no less. Alisa Kleybanova has revealed that she's been diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, a form of cancer, and has been undergoing treatment at her training base in Perugia, Italy.

On her 22nd birthday, the Russian wrote "I am a strong person. I've shown it before. Obviously this is different than anything I've ever experienced, but after this is over, my life will be even better than before."

"I'm really happy I have the best and most important people with me here today," wrote Kleybanova. "My family and best friends are here. They're here all of these days and weeks helping me get through this."

Read the whole article on the WTA website here.

Consider me floored. Alisa Kleybanova is one of the nicest most down-to-earth women on the Tour. She's easy-going, humble, loves the sport of tennis, loves her life on the Tour, and even made time to let a small-time sucker like me interview her last year in Stanford.

We all know that injuries are a part of the game in tennis, but when someone so young and so sweet gets dealt an unlucky hand like this it just really tears you up.

There's not much I can say here, except that if there was ever a time to send fan mail to a WTA player, this would be that time.

Get in touch with @kfish_wta on twitter, or anybody else on the WTA staff, and see what you can do about lifting Alisa's spirits.

In the meantime, thoughts and prayers to Alisa!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Fresh Tipsarevic Video from Oakley

Janko Tipsarevic shares his philosophy on being brave, showing respect and crushing mediocrity.

New video featuring Janko Tipsarevic, with two-plus minutes of great footage and, of course, some heady philosophical talk.

What else did you expect?

"People think that history -- you know being poor and everything -- has something to do with the fighting spirit of the guy on court," says Tipsarevic. "I don't think so. It's completely an individual and psychological thing, whether you have it in you or you don't. You can improve of course, but you are either a fighter or you are not a fighter, that's it."

Does it make you want to buy some Oakley shades? I'll admit, it's working on me. Too bad I'm broke.

Christina McHale Meets Her Match

Christina McHale accepted a wildcard into the New Haven Open yesterday, and met some pretty stiff competition at a schoolyard, too.

In the words of promising tennis star Vaughn Weston, "I bet not even the professional tennis people can beat me." (see video, :50)

Sure, kid, whatever.

"He was talking some trash there," said McHale.

On a more serious note, great to see the 3rd-ranked American Christina McHale sharing some quality time with kids on a beautiful summer day. Grassroots events like this one, sponsored by First Niagara, are a fantastic way for tennis to reach out to youths. By handing out 300 free tennis racquets and letting each kid take a whack or two with a promising young professional, the sport might get some exposure that it otherwise wouldn't have. And if just one of those kids takes a liking to his or her free racquet and says "mom, take me down to the public court so I can whoop on that cocky dude Vaughn Weston," than Christina and the promoters of the event have done their job.

The New Haven Open will begin on August 20, and will feature Caroline Wozniacki, Svetlana Kuznetsova, and Francesca Schiavone in its field. McHale, a 19-year-old Teaneck, New Jersey native, has wins over Svetlana Kuznetsova, Alisa Kleybanova, Peng Shuai and Daniela Hantuchova this year, and is currently ranked No. 68.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Court 17 (The Pit!) Will Be Ready For This Year's Open

A new 3,000 seat stadium court, simply called "Court 17," will be ready to go when this year's US Open begins.

(USTA Sketch)
I had a conversation with Chris Widmaier, who is the Managing Director of Communications for the USTA, about the new show court on the grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

The word is that the court will be ready for action when the Open begins on August 29.

This is huge for many reasons. The addition of a new state-of-the-art show court means that the Open will now have four showcourts to put juicy matches during week one, a time where many enticing tilts end up sequestered on the less spacious sidecourts.

Here are some of the details of the new court, according to Widmaier:

"When we say a show court what we mean by that is a couple of things. It will have full broadcast operations, it will also have electronic line calling," said Widmaier. "By putting it in the area that we're putting it in (see USTA sketch above for location), we're hoping that we can change some of the traffic flow on the site to better utilize the overall space, and sort of reduce some of the crowding that happens through the East gate and in the South Plaza."

I asked Widmaier about the characteristics of the court, particularly about the fact that the court is actually sunken into the ground by several feet.

"Some people are calling it the pit," said Widmaier. "One of the reasons to do that was to alleviate the sight lines of the structure from outside of our footprint. We are a public park and we are in Flushing Meadows Corona Park," he added. "The thinking there was trying to create a more aesthetic sight line for park users."

While the court will be ready for the 2011 US Open, the USTA is leaving room to make further improvements to the court in the years to follow. "It will be operational in 2011," said Widmaier. "There might be some further enhancements that are added on after the 2011 Open -- they are in the process right this moment of constructing it."

Other things to note:

  • Court 17 will be first-come first-serve for all grounds pass ticket holders.
  • No official word on when Grandstand and Armstrong will be taken out of commission and/or renovated.
So, great news for the Open, as a 3,000 seat show court will be added to the grounds and nothing will be taken away. As I do the math I can't help but think that this will create more space all over the grounds, giving fans more chances to get close to the action and soak up some Grand Slam ambiance.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Djokovic: A Work Of Spirit

An inspired Novak Dkojovic defeated Rafael Nadal 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 to claim his first Wimbledon title today.

It would be impossible to briefly sum up the monumental strides that Novak Djokovic has made, both as a tennis player and as a person, in the last 8 months. Still, we ought to try. And perhaps when we do try, each of us might find a way to glean a bit of magic from the man who has stormed the tennis world in dramatic fashion in 2011.

"What is it that's made you virtually unbeatable this year?" asked a genuinely curious John McEnroe, in a post-match interview with the newly-crowned Wimbledon champion today.

Djokovic smiled. He must have been thinking: 'Ah, where to start, and how to not sound too corny?' Then he spoke: "There's a small percentage of improvement in a couple of shots in my game," Djokovic began, "like serve for example, maybe a little bit better forehand coming to the net, good return."

Fair enough. There's no denying that everything Djokovic has done in 2011 has been better than ever, but deep down we all know that the man's torrid 2011 is about so much more than a small improvement in a few strokes. Yes, he's been striking the ball with gusto, opening up the court with ridiculous angles and moving like a gazelle. But still, there's something more, something intangible that Djokovic now possesses, and it's been playing a large role in all his recent success.

"There was no major changes," continued Djokovic, in response to McEnroe's question, and finally getting to the crux of the matter. "It's just I think that I matured mentally and I believe on the court that I can win against Nadal, Federer, Murray -- the big guys in the big tournaments -- and now it's really coming true."

And that is the essence of this magical spell for Djokovic: belief.

For Djokovic, it's not simply about hitting the ball -- he's always known how to do that -- or constructing points, or even his increased stamina. His resurgence has been fueled by something bigger, something all-encompassing. His journey to the top of tennis has been less about x's and o's (or gluten or the lack of gluten) than it has has been about resolve, stick-to-itiveness, conquering demons and overcoming hurdles.

Yes, Djokovic's rise to the top of men's tennis provides a perfect tactical guide for how to be a champion -- the technique is there, the flexibility too -- but none of the mind-blowing tennis that Djokovic produced today would have been possible without a certain spiritual alacrity.

Djokovic's greatest improvement, more than the flexibility that has led to his Cirque Du Soleil poses at the baseline or any of his newfound pop on the serve, has come from within. That big bloody beating device inside his chest, the one he pounds mercilessly while communing with his player's box during matches: the heart.

And from the heart comes belief. Djokovic had it throughout today's tense affair, even as he struggled with a determined Nadal, who started to find his groove in the third and fourth sets.

Surprisingly, if anyone lacked confidence in today's final, it was Nadal. "I was a little bit too nervous, probably at 5-4 in the first set," said the 10-time Grand Slam champion, "and probably 4-3 of the last set. At that moment the match was there -- I had chances to be there and to be playing the fifth right now."

Those moments of nervousness for Nadal were moments of inspiration for Djokovic.

Long rallies, normally the domain of Nadal, went to Djokovic on crucial points time and time again. Djokovic won 16 of 25 points that went 10 or more strokes, but more importantly, he won three consecutive long rallies to go from 0-30 down in the 10th game of the first set to holding set point.

He converted the set point, and from that point on it was his match to win or lose.

As Nadal mounted a serious charge in the third and fourth sets, Djokovic once again called upon his belief to get him over the finish line. He secured the decisive break in the fourth set after a 14-stroke rally, then used his first serve-and-volley play of the match at 30-all in the final game to secure a look at a match point.

He would only need one look. Nadal's backhand sailed long and the Serb fell to his back on the grass, celebrating the most coveted title in all of tennis.

The look on his face was priceless, but it was not a look of surprise. Djokovic is a man who knows he belongs at the top of tennis now.

Now that he's beaten Rafael Nadal five consecutive times on three different surfaces, and become the only man besides Federer to defeat the Spaniard in a Grand Slam final, that fact is pretty hard to deny.

Djokovic can look at the stats to get his confidence for the hardcourt season, or he can keep doing what he's been doing all year -- looking within for inspiration.

Either way he should be fine.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Kvitova Swoops In For First Wimbledon Title

Petra Kvitova savours the moment after acing Maria Sharapova on match point in the 2011 Wimbledon final.

Perhaps Petra Kvitova is the player that we've all been searching women's tennis for: that rare species of player that can dominate an era, let alone matches.

With Kvitova, you can see it, feel it, and now -- believe it.

Haven't you noticed?

These days, it's hard not to notice. There's so much potential in the 21-year-old Bilovec, Czechoslovakia native. So much game. So much unabashed leftiness.

"That lefty serve..." said fellow Czech native Martina Navratilova, after Kvitova's semi-final win over Victoria Azarenka, "...It was beautiful."

Call it 'leftiness' or call it 'fearlessness:' what we are really referring to is the pony-tailed phenom's ability to dominate her service games with alarming regularity. If Kvitova is going to continue at this pace in Slams (surrendering 6 breaks of serve in 7 matches) then we can pretty much write her in for a few more Venus Rosewater dishes, right?

If you want to know "What are the advantages of a lefty serve?" Martina Navratilova is the definitely the person to ask. And since you did, here is her take on the matter: "We just get on the outside (of the ball) more because we know we can get to the backhand," said the nine-times Wimbledon singles champ. "You practice it, use it more, therefore it becomes better."

In Kvitova's case it has gotten much, much better, but what is scary is that there still seems to be a ton of untapped potential in the 21-year old's lanky frame. Considering what she did to Maria Sharapova in today's Wimbledon singles final, that's a scary proposition.

"Well right now she's riding a big wave," said Martina. "She's in the top ten, still improving."

The numbers suggest Kvitova couldn't be better -- after all she's just won Wimbledon -- yet to witness Kvitova's game is to understand that she could. In spite of her glittering fortnight, Kvitova is still prone to stretches of discombobulation. It's natural, especially when considering her almost albatross-like build. "I think for Petra the key has always been to minimize the bad streaks of play," said Martina. "She's very streaky, which is good on the good side..."

Bad streaks aside, Kvitova is clearly figuring out how to win -- and win big -- by playing a courageous, swashbuckling brand of tennis. While her opponents might have the jazz, Petra's got the rock-n-roll. She does not allow her opponent any chances to find their rhythm, and they very rarely have the game or the quickness to defend her best shots.

In other words, it's giving them the blues.

Kvitova became the first Czech women to win a Grand Slam since 1998 on Saturday, with a breathtaking display of power that wowed even her opponent Maria Sharapova, a three-times Grand Slam champion herself. "She has a very powerful game," said Sharapova. "That's her strength. That's how she wins matches...sometimes it's just too good."

Kvitova, while thrilled to win, didn't seem totally blown away with her victory. Her dad may have been crying liberally after the match, but the first-time Wimbledon champ still had her wits about her.

"Sometimes my serve wasn't so good, and I have to keep mentally good," said Kvitova, after the match, while surrounded by journalists.

Already being hard on herself, just moments after her first Wimbledon victory? Sounds like a winner to me.

"I knew that I'd have to be first who is playing hard and who is making the points," said Kvitova. "So I tried it, and I did it."

As for her thoughts on what she was feeling when she won: "I don't know... It's strange," she said.

Maybe strange, but not surprising at all.

Archie's Picks: Nadal-Djokovic

Archie believes that 2011 is the year of Nole, so he's picking Djokovic to get his fifth consecutive win over Nadal in the Wimbledon final tomorrow.

Well, here we go, the match to end all matches -- at least for a few days! No, seriously, as I mentioned in this post, this is the Grand Slam final that I've been waiting for since May, and Archie has too. Speaking of Archie, if you see that doggie biscuit perched on his nose in the picture above, you can get a feel for the kind of anticipation that has been built up for this match. He says he'd rather see Nadal play Djokovic in a Grand Slam final than eat that treat. And the dog don't lie.

If you've followed along with Archie through the men's quarters, you also know that he's a smart dog. He's gone 8 for 9 thus far, and if Nole continues doing what he's done for the last seven months, he'll be 9 for 10. Archie wants you all to know that win or lose, right or wrong, he's had a lot of fun sharing Wimbledon 2011 with you all. He say he'll talk to you all later in the summer when the US Open rolls around. Until then, he says you're on your own, because he doesn't do these piddly little Masters or Premier events (Take it easy, he said it with a smile.).

Without any further ado, here is Archie's Djokovic-Nadal pick.

See Archie's French Open picks here.
See Archie's Djokovic-Tomic pick here.
See Archie's Federer-Tsonga pick here.
See Archie's Nadal-Fish pick here.
See Archie's Murray-Lopez pick here.
See Archie's Kvitova-Azarenka pick here.
See Archie's Sharapova-Lisicki pick here.
See Archie's Djokovic-Tsonga pick here.
See Archie's Nadal-Murray Pick here.
See Archie's Sharapova-Kvitova pick here.

Archie's pick: Djokovic
Why: Because Nole is the type of guy that would befriend a dog like me, while Nadal would probably be told by his uncle that pit bulls are scary, and that I could injure him (so not true, imo).

My Pick: Nadal
Why: Does it get any bigger than this? Two absolute titans of the sport, in fine form, slugging it out for the most prestigious title in all of tennis. In one corner, Rafa, in search of his third Wimbledon-French double and 11th Grand Slam, and in the other the man who has single-handedly broken up the Federer-Nadal duopoly by the sheer force of his own desire (and brilliant play).

Djokovic has been the consummate professional throughout 2011, managing his schedule to a tee, playing world-class tennis every time he steps on the court, and conquering his health-related issues and inconsistencies with aplomb. Nadal, meanwhile, started the year with some lowlights, but eventually responded by running the table at the French Open for his sixth title.

So, then, how do we pick this?

I must admit, it's tough, but I've chosen Nadal based on the fact that his game has looked a tad more fine-tuned on the Wimbledon grass. Add to that the fact that I don't know how in the heck anybody can beat this man -- at this stage of his career -- five times in a row, and there you have my pick.

That being said, if Djokovic can do it four times in a row, than can't we assume that the man can pretty much do anything? You'd be right in saying that as well, and that is what makes this final so difficult to pick.

Enjoy the match, my friends, and don't let your rooting interests get in the way of your appreciation of the tennis, which will be played at the highest level, I'm sure.

Archie's Picks: Sharapova-Kvitova

Archie went with his heart and it cost him his perfect record as Petra Kvitova won Wimbledon today.

This pick didn't make it to press before the match but I swear to you it's official. So the big boy is 8 for 9 heading into the final. No shame in that whatsoever.

Without any further ado, here is Archie's Sharapova-Kvitova pick.

See Archie's French Open picks here.
See Archie's Djokovic-Tomic pick here.
See Archie's Federer-Tsonga pick here.
See Archie's Nadal-Fish pick here.
See Archie's Murray-Lopez pick here.
See Archie's Kvitova-Azarenka pick here.
See Archie's Sharapova-Lisicki pick here.
See Archie's Djokovic-Tsonga pick here.
See Archie's Nadal-Murray Pick here.

Archie's Pick: Sharapova
Why: Because, like many dogs, he loves her.

My Pick: Kvitova
Why: She's a grass burner, and she was my pre-tourney pick to win (though I still didn't crack the top 1,000 on Tennis Channel's Racquet Bracket).

Proving Time for Djokovic and Nadal

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal will meet in a heavily anticipated Wimbledon final on Sunday. Get your popcorn ready.

The 2011 French Open, just four weeks ago, offered us many inspiring moments, but there was one thing it lacked: Rafael Nadal didn't get a chance to face his new arch nemesis, Novak Djokovic, in a battle to the death in the final. While I was thrilled for Federer when he engineered his magical run in Paris, part of me was devastated not to see what I had built up in my mind as the final to end all finals.

I couldn't stop drooling over it: The transcendent Djokovic, suddenly Nadal's kryptonite for four consecutive matches, playing with a chance to tie Guillermo Vilas for the longest men's winning streak of all-time; the hell-bent Nadal looking to claim his sixth French Open title, committed also to ending Djokovic's temporary reign over him.

It was sure to be an epic battle on many levels. You could feel the axis of tennis shifting, but you also knew in your heart that Nadal wasn't going to go down without an epic fight. Maybe he wouldn't go down at all. But it didn't seem out of the question anymore, thanks to Djokovic's stellar form.

Who would prevail? Nadal, the eminent clay court player, now subdued, doubting his game, or Djokovic, surfing the clouds, confident, committed, and possessing renewed faith and vigor?

Then Fabio Fognini withdrew from his French Open quarter-final, making it impossible for Djokovic to get his 46th win in the final. Next, Federer gave the Serb a whooping and the planet shifted back on its axis.

Is it ready to shift again?

Here we are at Wimbledon, and these two tennis titans are about to lock horns in their first Grand Slam final since all this Kryptonite talk began.

A lot has changed in the four weeks since the French -- Djokovic's streak went up in smoke and Nadal's fire is burning brightly again. The Spaniard didn't beat Djokovic in the final in Paris, but in Djokovic's loss to Federer he saw that he was human - he could lose. Since then Nadal's Wimbledon winning streak has grown to 20 matches, and he's been unrelenting throughout the fortnight.

Djokovic, while not as graceful on grass as he is on clay, appears ready for the challenge of Nadal nonetheless.

There is much to prove in this final for each, and the high stakes will certainly add to the intrigue. Nadal can win his third French-Wimbledon double (tying Borg) and his 11th Grand Slam (tying Laver and Borg). Djokovic can bag his most coveted title at Wimbledon and put a fat stamp of approval on his fresh No. 1 ranking.

However it turns out, tennis fans should be pleased. In 2011, Djokovic and Nadal is the meal and all other matches are the appetizer.