Monday, January 31, 2011

Agony and Ecstasy

Novak Djokovic was tremendous on Sunday night. But Andy Murray was awful, and so was the highly anticipated men's final.

After a masterful performance in Melbourne -- one that featured straight-set wins over Tomas Berdych, Roger Federer, and Andy Murray -- we can now officially say that not only is Novak Djokovic (finally!) back to being the player he was at the end of the 2007 and in the beginning of 2008, when he won his maiden Grand Slam title, we can also so that he is most definitely and assertively better than he was before.

Djokovic has been riding the roller coaster for three full years now, and only now is he again displaying a level of consistency and maturity to match his unyielding athleticism. Over these last three years it has been painful at times to watch Djokovic, knowing full well that he had the game to beat the best, yet also knowing full well that he seemed destined to find a way to fall short, to sabotage his best intentions with a heat-related malady, or an uninspired performance when he needed precisely the opposite.

But a major growth spurt has occurred over the last six months, not just in the game of the wildly talented acrobatic Serbian, but probably more so in the spirit.

Perhaps it was the way he was received in New York, when he vanquished Federer in the semis of the 2010 U.S. Open and once again was the only player in the draw who could truly push Nadal in a way that forced him to bring out an extra gear.

Perhaps it was the camaraderie and the infectious joy of his merry band of Serbian brothers as they captured the Davis Cup from France in Belgrade, manifesting itself in his play.

In reality, it was probably all of the above, and a bit more. The 23-year-old has come a long way since his irreverent late teens and early 20's, when it was him and his family against the world. He had a serious chip on his shoulder in those days, and many of us feared that he'd never reach the same level of all-court dominance without that chip.

But Sunday, against a befuddled Andy Murray, he did all that and more.

Djokovic, who has long possessed one of the most sublime court presences in the sport, was passionate from the first ball Sunday evening until long after he threw his shirt and shoes into the crowd for souvenirs. And when he needed to prove his superiority, he answered the bell by unleashing his heat-seeking forehand or a screaming corner-bound first serve.

It was an uplifting display on all fronts for Djokovic, and with it I do believe he's officially announced himself as a very real threat to claim more Grand Slam crowns and to ascend to No. 1 in the ATP rankings.

For Murray, the prospects appear to be much dimmer. It's not that the Scot has failed in all three of his Grand Slam finals -- it's the way that he has failed. Take nothing away from Djokovic but Murray's performance was shrouded in a black cloud of self doubt, and colored with a morose anxiety-ridden paste.

With the body language of a zombie, Murray moped around between points with the look of a man who'd already been beaten for most of the match. It was so bad that it was hard to focus on just how divine Djokovic was playing, because you could tell that most of his brilliance was completely unnecessary. The Serb had brought all his weapons to a fight in which Murray had brought none.

I'd like to defend Murray here, I really would. Like all true tennis fans, I wanted this Murray-Djokovic final to be a showcase of the talents of both men. The limber and clinical Djokovic, and the cat-and-mouse counter puncher Murray. Sadly, Murray was weighed down by something inexplicably heavy and grey. While Djokovic was at full potential, Murray was somewhere less than half.

There's no way to sugarcoat it, and I do believe that the widely chastised British Press is well within its rights to lambaste Murray.

His was a truly embarrassing performance, given the occasion, given the amount of ability he possesses, and his doleful, borderline psychotic behavior cast a pall over what should have been a joyous match, and a massive coming-out party for Djokovic.

I have long been a Murray supporter, and I thought -- all the way up until the night of the final -- that he was a shoe-in to break the British curse. Moreover, I felt that he deserved to be the guy to do it, because I felt that he was a fighter, and because I liked his unique brand of tennis and the way he seemed to relish the antagonistic elements of tennis warfare.

But having seen his worst last night, I've come to the realization that I'd rather not see this type of performance again in a Grand Slam final.

If this is what we get to replace Federer and Nadal, tennis fans should be concerned.

To his credit, Djokovic was still able to shine. But Murray brought this final way way down. It was hard to watch.

I was thrilled for Djokovic, but I was glad it was over as well.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Their Chance to Shine: Men's Final Quick Pick

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are out. It's the chance of a lifetime for Murray and Djokovic — but only one man can win.
For those of you lamenting the fates of Rafa and Roger, this may not be the Grand Slam final for you. But for those of us who've watched and waited for two of the best players of their current generation to step up to the plate and hit one out of the park, you won't want to miss this one.

Count me among the latter.

Let's not be hasty in our disappointment when it comes to Rafa and Roger — there is no reason to be sad, and each tennis deity will more than likely be back at the podium before long — because now is the time to appreciate the contributions of two players who have paid their dues, bided their time, and marched a long, patient path to be in this final.

One can argue that Djokovic and Murray have been dealt an unfair fate by being placed in the same era that saw Federer and Nadal's career arcs overlap, but I don't buy that line of reasoning. It's been an uphill battle for both Djokovic and Murray, born a week apart in May of 1987, but it has also been a good run for each.

It's not like they're playing for peanuts, and they've each had their shots to shatter through the reinforced glass that has protected Rafa and Roger for the last five years.

Still, Murray will top 16 Million in career earnings and Djokovic 22 million with a win tonight, so save your sympathy for these two.

Instead, embrace the fact that each is a remarkable talent that is either at or just prior to reaching his prime, and observe this final with the knowledge that there very well could be a changing of the guard occurring in Melbourne.

Who knows what the rest of the year will hold for Andy Murray if he wins this match tonight. All we know is that he won't really need to do anything else because he will become a national hero the moment the last ball is struck.

Just like Li Na's quest to put China on the map yesterday, Murray quest to end Great Britain's 75-year Grand Slam drought always makes for some highly compelling drama.

And what kind of confidence boost will occur inside of Novak Djokovic if he wins his second Grand Slam tonight in Melbourne Park? His new found maturity will surely lead him deep into Slams for years to come.

Once he gets his second will more fall like dominoes?

But there's no reason to look beyond today at what might be the implications of a win for either player just yet. It'd be best just to sit tight and see what each can make of this opportunity.

At this point, all we know is that we have the two most deserving players in the final. They both feature diverse, wonderfully eclectic games, and they both sense that tonight's match could be career-defining.

Isn't that enough?

Once tennis fans get past the Rafa-Roger withdrawal, they will quickly realize that the 2011 Australian Open final has the potential to be an instant classic. Both Murray and Djokovic are artists with the racquet, both are multi-dimensional; both have emerged and yet still are evolving.

Relax, sit back, and enjoy.

Why Djokovic will win: After a Davis Cup triumph and two massive wins over Roger Federer in the last two Slams, he's so high on confidence that he won't be denied. His serve is as good as it has been since the 2008 final in Melbourne, and his spirit is soaring.

Why Murray will win: Murray has never met Djokovic in a Grand Slam, but their last meeting in 2009 was one in which Djokovic wilted under the hot sun of Miami. On a hot night in Melbourne, he'll take tremendous belief into the match, and he'll use this belief to quell his nerves.

Why Djokovic will lose: The heat will get to him.

Why Murray will lose: His serve — or lack thereof — will put him behind the 8-ball.

Pick: Djokovic in 4

For Clijsters, Clarity is Key

Mid-match adjustments and a calm demeanor propelled Kim Clijsters to her fourth Grand Slam title. The lesson? Experience counts.
On momentous occasions like Grand Slam finals, subtle nuances are often amplified so that they become glaringly obvious. What was obvious last night, as Kim Clijsters fought her way back from a set down to capture her first Australian Open title, was just how far a little clarity can take a player.

Clijsters, down a set, and serving poorly, should have been the one to let her emotions get the best of her — but she knew better. Instead, the determined Belgian rallied herself. She had the wherewithal to recognize that she was being outhit by Li, and the presence of mind to actuate subtle changes that allowed her to stem the tide of the hard-hitting Li.

"I tried to mix it up a little bit, put some slices in, also hit a few higher shots that kind of just made her make some unforced errors," said Clijsters.

It seems simple when you think about it. But to actually take stock of a situation — Clijsters would later admit that she felt that Li was playing the best she'd ever played against her — and to make adjustments on the fly that change the tone of the match is the sign of a mature and intuitive player.

That's the kind of Champion Clijsters is.

Yesterday it made all the difference. Clijsters proved to the world that she is so much more than the prototypical baseline basher. She's a cerebral strategist who can vary her game to meet a plethora of challenges.

Li showed terrific ball striking skill throughout the affair, but in the end, Clijster's comeback was evidence that to win a Slam there has to be nuance as well. Li's ground strokes — from both sides — are perhaps the best in the game at the moment, but up against a player with the ability to take her out of her comfort zone, she found herself without a proper reply.

It didn't help Li's cause that she became distracted as the match grew tense. She complained about crowd noise, flash photography, and would later state that "she felt like she was playing in Belgium."

"Yeah, I saw her get a little bit aggravated, and just tried to hang in there," Clijsters later would say.

For Li, who was three games from the title — with three consecutive breaks of Clijster's serve in her pocket — at 3-2 in the second set, she was tantalizingly close, yet so far.

The heat of the moment, coupled with Clijster's stiffened resolve, proved to be too much.

As Clijster's clarity increased, Li's chaos did too. Slowly, the Belgian took control, not losing another game in the second set.

In the third set, Clijsters won a stunning 15 of 16 first serve points, and Li's 15 unforced errors gave Clijsters free points at a time when nerves might have made longer points very tricky for her to navigate.

When it was time for Clijster's to serve it out at 5-3, Li couldn't mount a challenge. Her fight was still there as she hammered returns toward the baseline, but her focus had disappeared.

For a long time it appeared that Li Na would win this match.

Then the cooler head prevailed. Call it the focus factor.

Clijsters had it and Li didn't.

"After the match, back to the locker room, I make joke," said Li. "Tennis should only play one set."

Clijsters, meanwhile, liked it just the way it was.

Friday, January 28, 2011

New World Order: Dissecting the Semis

Li Na's husband snoring? Murray forgetting the scoring? What a wacky foursome of semifinal matches they were.
We are down to two men and two women, but before we go and get ourselves all invested in their fates in a few hours, let's take a look back at ten things that made the Australian Open semifinals worth the lingering PTTD (post traumatic tennis disorder) issues that it inevitably caused.

1. Li Na and the presence of love -- how cute are Li Na and her husband? I say adorable. And I think it's great how she calls him out on all the annoying things he does and he stands there with a big smile on his face and takes one for the team. I think he's pretty secure in his role, and deep down they appear to be very much in love. It adds a human element to her matches, when you can picture her husband scouting her opponents than falling asleep to snore in the wee hours of the night. And it's hilarious.

2. Heavy Duty Lightweight -- David Ferrer did everything in his power to take out Andy Murray last night, but things just didn't go his way. Still, he was by far the best player pound-for-pound in the draw, and he gave the tennis world a chance to see a his mind-boggling intensity and desire on a massive stage. He was one point away from having Murray in a two set hole, and even after he lost the second and third sets, he was gritty, resilient, and positively brilliant to nearly swipe the fourth in a tiebreaker.

3. Match Point Madness -- Caroline Wozniacki suffered a major setback when she couldn't convert her match point in the second set against Li Na. But things really unraveled when she netted three returns in the ensuing game. She was never the same after that, but given the heart and passion of the 20-year-old, it's pretty obvious that she won't let this keep her down for long.

4. Too Good -- It's weird to say this, but Novak Djokovic was simply too good for Roger Federer in their semifinal match. Federer played a pretty clean match, but Novak was there with him every step of the way, and when he needed a little extra something, he always seemed to find it -- just like Federer always used to do.

5. Poor Vera -- Their is something tragic about Vera Zvonareva. She's truly come into her own in the last year, and yet she still runs into a buzzsaw at the end of each tournament. Is she becoming the new Elena Dementieva? I guess the good news is that this week's lopsided straight-sets loss was better than the lopsided straight-sets loss she suffered to Aussie Kim at last year's U.S. Open finals.

6. Murray's Memory -- Andy Murray claimed in a post-match interview to Jim Courier that he didn't feel the pressure when facing a set point to go down two sets to David Ferrer because -- get this -- he thought the score was 4-3. And I was so ready to praise him for serving big when he absolutely had to. Wow.

7. 40-shot-rallies -- Did anyone see the long rallies that Ferrer and Murray took part in, particularly in the first set yesterday? They were just brutal. Kudos to Murray for being able to take a few punches and still stay on his feet. He was seriously gassed at the end of set 1.

8. The best match of the Four singles semis -- Once again the women take the cake. Li-Wozniacki started like a funeral procession, but ended like a Chinese New Year's parade. From the middle of the second set until the bitter end, the tension was so thick that you could pick it up with chopsticks.

9. Serve it up, Novak -- Did Djokovic get some serving advice from Rafa? He topped out at 129 in his match against Federer, and he's getting it done under pressure as well. It bodes well for him in the final.

10. Quote of the semis -- Novak Djokovic, on his 2008 Australian Open title. "I was a 20-year-old kid hitting as hard as he can with closed eyes and everything was going in back then. It was great."

Quick Picks: Clijsters-Li

Born in the year of the dog, Li Na will need to be more bite than bark in order to get past cagey Kim Clijsters in the final.

There is an electric air of positivity accompanying Li Na's fearless run to the Australian Open final. The buzz is palpable, and it's not so much about Li the player as it is about China the tennis nation. But Li is the player for the moment, and tonight 330 million television sets will be tuned in to see how well the 28-year-old will respond to the pressure of being the chosen one.

There have been milestones for Chinese tennis in the last ten years, but the fact that the relatively unheralded Wuhan native is two sets away from being the first Chinese player to take home a Grand Slam singles title is one that makes your head spin.

Chinese tennis has made a rapid ascent in the new millennium, and Li's run to the title puts them at the apex of phase one -- a ten-year period of introduction, experience, and development that has put the sport on the collective radar of the typical sport-loving Chinese citizen.

So where will Chinese tennis go from here?

And what will the ramifications be if Li gets drubbed by her more experienced foe, Kim Clijsters?

Will they still mention her name in the same breath as Yao Ming?

Either outcome won't suspend the obvious traction that the Chinese tennis program has gained over the last decade. It was just last week that Li upset Clijsters in Sydney to give China its first WTA premier title, but a dream scenario that involves Li playing the match of her life could accelerate the process even further.

In America we had generations of young players who grew up idolizing Grand Slam champions. McEnroe and Connors spawned Sampras and Agassi. Billie Jean King spawned Chris Evert who then spawned Tracy Austin and Pam Shriver.

In China it's not hard to imagine what people must feel to see one of their own be the toast of the tennis world right now. They're immensely proud, and rightfully so. Given the relative vacuum of power that now exists on the WTA Tour -- with the Williams Sisters aging, Henin's retirement, and Clijsters in perhaps her last season -- what's to stop a Chinese family from believing that their daughter can be the next Na Li?

And if they can believe that, what's to stop them from believing that their daughter can be the next Monica Seles or Serena Williams? For a nation that had virtually no tennis history at the turn of the century, why not dream big?

"Li Na's breakthrough performance will propel the popularity of women's tennis forward exponentially in the China market," says Stacey Allaster, the WTA's Tour chief. Naturally that is the hope, but the match -- whether or not we find ourselves captivated by a high quality contest between Li and Clijsters -- might have serious swaying power on those who are viewing the sport for the first time.

Tonight on Rod Laver, history will be made regardless of the outcome. But the emotional imprint that this historical occasion will leave is still yet to be determined.

That is what leaves tennis fans around the world drooling. If this match should match the hype, we could be in for a significant treat.

Li will take the court against a veteran presence who is heavily favored in spite of her recent victory against her in Sydney. The odds will be stacked against Li, just as they were in the semifinal with Caroline Wozniacki, when she brushed off a match point and defeated the No. 1 player in three sets.

But what dream ending doesn't begin with the odds stacked against a particular player?

Li did defeat Clijsters in Sydney on January 14th, and she has also taken two of their last three meetings. But in their last truly important match at last year's U.S. Open, Clijsters won decisively 6-2, 6-4.

Like so many colossal tennis matches, the outcome will likely be determined by which player is better equipped to handle the magnitude of the moment. Francesca Schiavone's carpe diem moment at the French Open enabled her to become Italy's first Grand Slam champion less than a year ago, and she did it by recognizing that she'd have to let it all hang out in order to win.

The same opportunity now awaits Li, who was forced to let it all hang out in desperation against Wozniacki in her semifinal match. Now that she's through, and the hype machine switched on, Li will hope for some more magic against Clijsters.

She will find a far more formidable foe in the final. Clijsters, the darling of the WTA since returning to tennis, became the first mother to win a Grand Slam since 1980 when she won the U.S. Open in 2009. In 2010, for good measure, she won it again.

But she's never won in Australia. And she's likely never played second-fiddle to a media maelstrom the size of the one surrounding her Chinese opponent at the moment. But the 27-year-old Belgian is mature enough to stay focused on her tennis as the moment draws near. And she's got her own personal reasons for desperately wanting this title, too.

It could be her last chance.

"I know this is probably going to be my last full season on the tour, and then we'll see," said Clijsters, whose comments lead some to believe that she might not be back in Melbourne to compete in 2012. "It's nice that I'm in this spot, to play for the final," she said, "I think it's something that is a great feeling to have, knowing that I'm not going to be able to come her for five more years."

But Li, who has kept tennis fans in stitches with her quirky off-the-cuff press conferences and interviews, is also contemplating a retirement of her own. "If I win this year, maybe next year I will retire," said Li, smiling.
Coming from a woman who spent most of her on-court interview complaining about her husband's snoring and her motivation to secure more prize money, odds are that she's not serious.

Whether she retires or not, the golden flower may never have another golden opportunity like tonight.

Pick: Clijsters in 2

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Quick Picks: Murray-Ferrer

David Ferrer will take the court as a heavy underdog to Andy Murray tonight, with a spot in Sunday's final at stake.
Andy Murray vs. David Ferrer, 730 Pm, Rod Laver Arena

Andy Murray made short work of David Ferrer the last time they played, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he'll be able to do it again at night on the slower hard courts in Melbourne.

In London last November, Murray breezed past Ferrer in 70 minutes at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in very convincing fashion. He broke Ferrer six times in two sets, and took 32 of 54 points against the Spaniard's serve. If Murray can produce return numbers anywhere near the ones he racked up in November, he'll be well on his way to a straight-set victory.

But Ferrer has a few things working in his favor as well. He's only lost two sets thus far in his first five matches, and his legs will be as fresh as they could possibly be this late in a Slam. While Murray holds a 2-0 edge on hard courts against the Spaniard, Ferrer has managed three clay court wins against the Scot, including two this year (Madrid, Rome).

Look for Ferrer, who is five years Murray's senior and six inches shorter, to try to take advantage of any lapses in the Murray return game to get aggressive on short balls. Ferrer knows that he'll have to dictate to Murray as much as possible if he is to have any chance. He'll also attempt to make the outcome of this match more about fitness and mental toughness than anything else.

Murray will look to punish Ferrer for his relative lack of service pop. In their three matches this season, Murray saw 24 break point opportunities against Ferrer, converting on 13. If he can manage similar return numbers, the match will hinge on Murray's serve.

Murray's serving — particularly his first serve percentage — tends to be his stumbling block. He's never been the type of player that can serve his way out of trouble the way a Federer or a Nadal could, but if he can start now, he has a real opportunity to hold the trophy on Sunday evening.

Murray has the game to make this a one-sided match, but my instincts tell me that Ferrer has the heart and will to keep the outcome in doubt until the bitter end.

Pick: Murray in 5

China Rises

After fighting off match point against Caroline Wozniacki in the semis, Na Li has become China's first Grand Slam finalist.

Yesterday's women's semifinal Between Caroline Wozniacki and Li Na started as a tense boring affair.

It didn't end that way.

Throughout the first set and a good portion of the 2nd set of yesterday's women's semifinal, Wozniacki was in complete control of this match. Li was going for big shots and missing them. Wozniacki was happy to keep letting her opponent deconstruct.

Wozniacki looked strong, almost impenetrable. It was the same maddening Wozniacki that escorted Schiavone to the door in the quarters. A Wozniacki that would not miss; that could anticipate the direction of her opponent's shots like a mindreader; that had the footwork and the stamina to make it all come together.

What we didn't know is that Wozniacki's greatest strength — her relentless defensive capacities — would later become her biggest weakness. Wozniacki's style caused her to leave her fate in the hands of her opponent. That fate was not kind to her last night.

When Li finally heated up yesterday, Wozniacki was left to the mercy of Li's sizzling Babolat.

Make no mistake about it — Wozniacki is the living incarnation of a ball machine. But there are certain times when being a ball machine is not enough. Playing to win by not losing is a good strategy for Wozniacki, but sometimes, in certain circumstances, it hampers her as much as it enables her.

Oh, but she is good. And clearly capable of going all the way in a future Slam, in spite of the loss.

Wozniacki patrols the baseline meticulously, and she's the quintessential retriever. She's adept at stringing her opponents out — frustrating them with her precision and her conditioning, and letting them hang themselves with infuriated attempts at winners.

That was the gameplan that Wozniacki enacted flawlessly yesterday.

Until, at 6-3, 5-4, Wozniacki's fortunes changed.

Here was the Great Dane, the kangaroo-fighting Dane, in Stella McCartney attire, about to serve for the match.

Here was all of China — journalists, dignitaries, and the like — cancelling their flights to Australia for the weekend.

Li, a 28-year-old, and the first ever Chinese top-ten player, about to be boxed out of making history by a young kid who would not miss.

40-30: Match point, Miss Wozniacki.

Wozniacki served a somewhat ugly first serve into a vast ocean of net.

Then Li wallopped a forehand down the line that Wozniacki shanked softly behind the ball boy.


Just like that, a battle had materialized from the ashes of a drubbing.

Finally, here was the drama — the drama that had been absent for nearly two sets.

Now you could see and feel Li Na's desire. The body language she sent to her husband/coach was more constructive.

Suddenly the invincibility, the sheer ruthlessness of Wozniacki's game dissipated. Perhaps she was tired or nervous. She wasn't much worse, but she was never the same.

Was she tired? Yes. Did she choke? That would be harsh to say.

What we can say is that when Wozniacki dropped her level, the door swung wide open for Li.

Chances are few in matches of this magnitude. In Li, China got to see how amazing you have to be to get to Grand Slam final; How you have to have nerves of steel and the mental toughness of a shaman. And a little luck to boot.

After the match, a happy Li spoke about what it's like to compete against a juggernaut like Wozniacki. "I was feeling some shot I can hit winner but every time she was just back on the ball, back on the ball."

As far as her chances in the final, she's not overly concerned. "Of course it's tough match," said Li, "Tennis never have the easy."

So right she is.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Quick Picks: Federer v. Djokovic

After losing a heartbreaker at the U.S. Open to Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer has won three straight against the Serb. Can he get another?
Roger Federer vs. Novak Djokovic, 7:30, Rod Laver Arena

Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have a long history that dates all the way back to their first tour level match on clay in 2006 in Monte Carlo. It would take four straight losses before Novak would notch a victory against the Mighty Federer, but since that first victory over the Swiss in Montreal in 2007, Djokovic has scored his fair share of upsets against Federer.

All in all, Djokovic has managed 6 wins in 19 matches against Federer, but he has tallied some important — even monumental — wins against him.

Novak's five-set cliffhanger that knocked Fed out of the U.S. Open before the finals for the first time in seven years was a high point. There was also the 2008 Australian Open semifinal that springboarded the Serb to his one and only Grand Slam title.

But make no mistake about it — Federer has gotten the best of Djokovic over the years. He dominated the Serb at Flushing Meadows three straight years until his luck ran out last year (even then he had 2 match points), and he's currently holding a three-match winning streak against Djokovic.

At 23, Djokovic is playing some of the finest tennis of his career. He has come through the last two rounds against Nicolas Almagro and Tomas Berdych without losing a set, and his serve was only broken once in the two straight-set victories.

Federer, searching for Grand Slam title No. 17, survived a scare in the second round against Gilles Simon, and lost a set to Tommy Robredo in the fourth round, but he breezed through the quarters against Stan Wawrinka.

But the more we look at the numbers, the harder it is to decipher what they mean. We know that Roger's mystique is not what it used to be, and Novak's confidence and desire are high.

Therefore we should expect a spirited affair, with all the brilliance that we've come to expect from these two shotmaking personalities who can turn a tennis match into an awe inspiring spectacle, complete with athleticism, theatrics, and enough tension to make your knees wobble.

Pick: Federer in 4

Quick Picks: Women's Semis

Li Na can notch another massive milestone for Chinese tennis with a win over Caroline Wozniacki today.
Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Semifinal action is on the docket today, and I'm here to take a stab at making sense of what promise to be two very engaging women's semifinals. Yesterday went pretty much as expected until the shocker in the night session, so I managed to go three of four.

Today promises to be a lot harder. I've been on the fence with both women's tilts, and I am starting to think that I should just put the names in a hat, close my eyes, and let lady luck decide.

But that would be too easy. Any of you who noticed that I picked Stan Wawrinka over Roger Federer in the quarters know that I don't like doing things the easy way.

So allow me to get down to the business of prognosticating:

Li Na vs. Caroline Wozniacki, Not before 1:30, Rod Laver

The head-to-head between these two class-A baseliners reveals that Li has enjoyed success over Wozniacki. She's taken the last two matches — also four out of the last five sets — over the Dane, and she'll step on court knowing that if she plays to her capabilities she could become the toast of all of China. Knowing you can win is a good thing, and Li will need to be confident. But she'll also need to be blissfully ignorant of the massive implications that winning this match could have for Chinese tennis.

How Li deals with — or ignores — expectations might be the key to her short-term future in Melbourne. She'll be up against a known commodity, and the match will more than likely hinge on Li's ability to do what she does best: execute a high-risk game and dictate points, for better or for worse.

Meanwhile, it's no secret that Wozniacki will look to use her uncanny retrieving abilities and let the match come to her. She'll patrol the baseline and only venture off of it when she's forced to come in. She'll counter punch when opportunities arise, and she'll look play it safe until the moment dictates taking a gamble with her backhand.

The Dane is predisposed to conservatism, and she's also predisposed to a certain level of predictability. The world's No. 1 is easy to scout but oh-so difficult to beat. She may be pragmatic, and some might even say boring, but her focus, footwork and anticipation make her the best in the game at the style she plays.

Pick: Li in 3

Kim Clijsters vs. Vera Zvonareva, 2nd Match, Rod Laver

If it wasn't for one monstrosity of a hiccup in New York, the tennis world would be looking at Zvonareva as the hands-down favorite in this match. Vera took three out of four in 2010 from Clijsters, including a Wimbledon quarterfinal, and two other significant matches on hard court (Montreal and Doha). But in New York she fell in grand fashion to Clijsters in the final, taking only three games in a crushing defeat that altered our perception of the Russian.

In one fell swoop she went from being perceived as the most improved player in the game to just another player who isn't ready to take the next step.

While many see windows closing on her, Zvonareva sees her past experience opening them. "Definitely those experiences helped me a lot," said Zvonareva, "and I think I'm even more mature, more experienced because of that right now."

With two Grand Slam titles since her return, Aussie Kim knows a thing or two about experience too. She's lost four of five Australian Open semifinals, but all of those occurred before her retirement. These days she's more secure, and the pressure seems to bounce off of her instead of getting to her head.

She hasn't been perfect in Melbourne, but she's been perfect in all three of her tiebreakers (1 each in her last three matches) — that might be the most telling stat when it comes to the current state of Clijster's game.

She hasn't been flawless in victory, but in her heart she believes her best tennis will come when she needs it most. "I'm in the semifinals and you know, I don't feel like I've played my best tennis probably," said Clijsters. "So it's a good thing," she added. "I feel that I'm hanging in there, working hard, you know, to win my points. Sometimes that's probably even more of an achievement than winning your matches very easily."

Pick: Zvonareva in 3

Muzz Matters of Fact

Andy Murray is 11-1 in the last two years at the Australian Open, but he'll only be as good as his last match in Melbourne.
Will a year make a big difference?

Andy Murray's last Grand Slam final left us all curious about his long-term ceiling. Is Murray merely pausing at a temporary plateau, or is he doomed to second place purgatory forever?

What else have you got, Mr. Murray? Isn't that what we really want to know? It is the sad truth about how we measure great players. We fixate on the measuring sticks. When you lose six straight sets in your only two Grand Slam finals, we tend to assume that you're never going to measure up.

We're looking for proof of transcendence, not rumors.

We're looking for a declaration, not a sob story.

When Murray was brushed aside in last year's Australian Open final by Roger Federer, the disappointment was palpable. When he said goodbye to the crowd with a sappy speech, the indelible image of a deflated man was etched upon our memory.

It remains to this day.

We place it on a scale, alongside his imperious denial of upstart Alexandr Dolgopolov in the quarters last night, and we try to decipher which feat we should assign more value to.

It is guesswork, at best.

The truth of the matter is that even Murray doesn't know what will happen. But he does know that he's been here before. He can act like he belongs now, because he's proven that he does. "I feel just way more experienced," said Murray. "I know how to deal with playing deep into Grand Slam events now, how to get prepared for them mentally and physically."

There is still plenty of reason for optimism in the Murray camp, and Murray himself attests to that. "You just try to become more consistent, have less weaknesses," he says. "I think this year I'm a little bit more solid."

But will being more solid translate to being more solid under pressure? For Murray, who is frequently dominant in the early rounds of Slams, the question remains, can he come good on judgment day?

One thing is for certain: the more chances he gets, the better his odds will be of breaking the British curse.

Consider the fact that Murray has a 12-12 record against the other three semifinalists, and you realize that his chances are far better than a long shot.

Let the hype machines roll!

Why shouldn't we hype him? He's twice come within a match of breaking the infamous 75-year-old British Grand Slam slump. He's got a huge presence, and he can run like the devil. He embodies the warrior spirit, and he plays the game with an alluring combo of panache and grit.

Murray's the real deal for sure. But he'd be a heck of a lot realer if he could tackle the ultimate hurdle. History tends to forget players who almost break records. Murray, sports historian that he is, surely recognizes this.

Thus he surely recognizes that drawing blanks in another final will only make him more of a magnet for criticism.

Some players don't need the lesson, and others need to learn it the hard way. Murray's had the chance to learn, twice. Maybe now he's hardened.

That he hasn't arrived a the pinnacle of the sport doesn't detract from Murray's efforts. That we've ordained him before he was worthy on several occasions shouldn't matter either.

What should matter is only what's about to happen this weekend. Murray might want to forget about his previous finals disappointments, but he shouldn't forget the fact that he is here for a reason. His six Masters titles in three years are proof that he's got the tools, now he needs to put them to use on the grandest stage.

For Murray, there is a clear line drawn in the sand. His future is a yes or no question. With each passing win, the odds for a resounding yes are improving. If he can get by Ferrer on Friday, he'll take his third shot at rewriting the history of British tennis.

Destiny will take care of the rest for Andy Murray.

In the meantime, run tape, click cameras, and let the hype machine roll.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Quarterfinal Quick Picks, Part 2

Petra Kvitova has been stingy with her serve. Vera Zvonareva has been awesome on the return. Something will have to give today when they meet in the Quarter finals.

Well, here we go again, another day of sizzling quarter final action from Melbourne. Yesterday I managed to pick 2 of 4 matches correctly, and while it's not too shabby, I'm not proud of it either.

All I can say is, I'll try to do better today. Here goes:

1. Petra Kvitova[25] vs. Vera Zvonareva[2], 11Am, Rod Laver

Zvonerava is averaging 5 service breaks per match and Kvitova is only surrendering 1. Kvitova has been masterful at serving out wide and taking short returns and putting them away. But the crafty Zvonareva has the tools in her bag to force Kvitova out of her comfort zone. Whoever has their way in this facet of the game will have a huge advantage.

Pick: Zvonareva in 3

2. Agnieszka Radwanska[12] vs. Kim Clijsters[3], not before 12:30, Rod Laver

Radwanska is in the quarters, but she has yet to play a top-50 player. Clijsters has also had a nice draw, with No. 49 ranked Ekaterina Makarova her highest ranked foe. Kim had shaky patches in her matches against Alize Cornet and Makarova, but she was pretty much in command throughout. Radwanska, meanwhile, survived a near death experience in the round of 16 against Shuai Peng.

Radwanska lacks the firepower of Clijsters, but she does have ability to play great defense and take away her opponents rhythm. But Clijsters will be a tough ask, no matter how well Radwanska plays.

Pick: Clijsters in 2

3. Alexandr Dolgopolov vs. Andy Murray[5], 3rd match, Rod Laver

This is the wildcard match, where nobody — include Murray on this list — knows what to expect from Dolgopolov. He's shown in his last two upsets that he's pretty much impervious to pressure. He's also shown that he's come a long way in a relatively short time. He's quick, powerful, deceptive, and somewhat quirky. He seems to go on protracted periods of out-of-this world shotmaking too.

But if there is anybody who would enjoy the challenge of taking on the phantom of the draw, it would be Murray. The Scot will look to try to deny Dolgopolov his comfort zone by imposing his crafty, fetching combination of dink-and-dunk, angles, spin, and selective power, but he'll have to serve effectively to get the lead.

That's my question regarding Andy Murray. I think he's ready to win the whole thing in Melbourne save for one small concept. The concept of lights-out serving. When Andy can dial his serve in and keep it dialed in for the last three rounds of a Slam, that is when he'll get over the top.

Opportunity knocks again for him today. But it is knocking just as loudly for Dolgopolov.

Pick: Murray in 4

4. Rafael Nadal[1] vs. David Ferrer[7], 7Pm, Rod Laver

Oh boy. Oh joy. I have this gut feeling that Ferrer is going to enjoy the conditions at night, and I think he might push Nadal to the brink. But he's lost 7 in a row to Rafa, and he probably has nightmares about him the way that Wawrinka has nightmares about Roger.

Of course there is the possibility that Rafa does have some lingering flu-like symptoms, and if that is the case, Ferrer is the guy that can really expose that sort of thing. Let's not forget he upended Rafa on Arthur Ashe in the fourth round of the U.S. Open in 2007. If things start to go Ferrer's way for whatever reason, he'll begin to draw upon this memory and push even harder.

Of course, the Rafa of 2007 was a lot different from the Rafa of today.

Pick: Nadal in 5

Monday, January 24, 2011

For Wawrinka, A Lot to Ponder

A great first week ended with a dreadfully dismal effort for Stanislas Wawrinka against Roger Federer. Where does the Swiss go from here?
After scorching opponents for four consecutive matches at the Australian Open, Stan Wawrinka found himself across from the net from a very familiar face on Tuesday in Melbourne.

It was the quarterfinals, for a chance to reach a career-best Slam result, and there he was, warming up with his mentor, his sometimes doubles partner, his good friend — Roger Federer.

There was a certain swagger about Wawrinka this week. The normally subdued and succinct Swiss was a little more boisterous, a little more aggressive, and a lot more confident. He had rolled through a difficult draw, making Gael Monfils and Andy Roddick look feckless as he kept them dangling on a string at the baseline, hitting scorching backhands from corner to corner and releasing guttural warcries at critical junctures of matches.

But that all changed today, and with it our perception of Wawrinka — his chances to return to the top-10 for the first time since September of 2008 notwithstanding — changed as well.

What kind of a man is Wawrinka?

Sure, we know what kind of a talent he is. He's skilled in pretty much every facet of the game, he's smooth, he's powerful, and he's gaining in experience and belief, but is he up for the task of standing toe-to-toe with the best of the game at this point in his career?

Many are now asking these same questions after watching Stan self destruct against Federer today. It wasn't that Wawrinka was defeated. It wasn't even that he played poorly. Those things are fine, they're acceptable. What was concerning about Wawrinka's dud of a performance today is that he seemed to lose interest early and never get it back.

Gone was the bad-ass Wawrinka who was scalping the field and in his place was a timid self-conscious kid who has played his career in the shadow of one of the greatest players in the history of the game.

Some thought that today might have been the day for Wawrinka to step out of that shadow and make a name for himself. Maybe Wawrinka himself thought it too. He certainly had reason to believe that his polished form would be good enough to push Federer and maybe even good enough to score the shocking upset.

It's all the more reason to be confounded by how he gave up on himself so quickly. He was disinterested. Downtrodden. Defeated. And as the match wore on his look of hopelessness only grew. He was the poster boy for how not to respond to a challenge.

Wawrinka was quick to point out that there was nothing that he could do in his post match presser. "For sure you look [at] the match from outside you don't see how good he was playing. But he was always giving me some answer and he was just being too good for me," said Wawrinka.

Stan went on to answer a plethora questions about Federer, while the press basically ignored the fact that his efforts were so uninspired that ESPN's commentators spent the last half of the match homing in on the fact. When he finally smashed a racquet it was clear that it was more of a symbolic gesture than a sign of life.

Today, there was nothing there.

The shadow of Federer is too big for Wawrinka. It's clear from his comments and it was painfully clear from his effort today. His seventh loss in eight matches vs. Federer was a snoozefest of epic proportions.

Stan is too good of a player to sit back and be Roger Federer's punching bag. He's coming into is own as a player, and he's growing in confidence. Or at least he was, until he took the court today.
Now, it's not so clear anymore. After a setback like this who knows what kind of year Stan Wawrinka will have. He's got the game to make a run at the top, but so do a lot of players. He'll have to cultivate the belief before he can go higher. A valiant effort — win or lose — would have helped that belief.

Now doubt is creeping in. His perfect start to the year detoriated today. It vanished into thin air, into a vacuum.

There's still time to erase the doubt, but it will take a bigger eraser now.

Quick Picks: Quarterfinal Round

Roger Federer has thumped Stan Wawrinka in 6 of 7 previous meetings, but they've never met in the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam -- until today.

Okay folks, it's been nice putting out all these blog posts on the Australian Open and pretending I know what I'm talking about when it comes to tennis. Now comes the time where The Fan Child will put his money where his mouth his. As the quarterfinals are set to begin, allow me to wax poetic on who is surely to advance to the semis.

Without any further ado, here are my quarterfinal quick picks:

1. Andrea Petkovic vs. Na Li, 11 Am, Rod Laver Arena:

In my humble opinion, this is the easiest of today's four matches to handicap. The German — and her sassy dancing alter ego — have come a long way in the last six months. Petkovic has had some big breaks at the Slams, benefiting from a 3rd-round walkover in the 2010 U.S. Open and a 3rd-round retirement (Venus) here in Melbourne as well, but the real reason she's playing her first Grand Slam quarterfinal is that she's earned it.

She denied that her 4th-round win was the best match of her career, but given the importance of the match, and the Grand stage is was played on, I'll politely disagree with her. The defeat of Maria Sharapova was a HUGE WIN for Petkovic, and it will do wonders for her going forward.

Unfortunately, a very formidable opponent awaits her in the quarterfinals. Na Li's shock-and-awe baseline game will force Petkovic to move, and move in a hurry. Does she have the footwork and the firepower to hang with Li? Hard to say, because they've never met before, but something tells me it will present a challenge for Petkovic that she isn't quite mature enough to handle.

Pick: Li in 2

2. Stanislas Wawrinks vs. Roger Federer, 2nd match, Rod Laver Arena:

Two days ago I announced to the world on Twitter (and maybe three people saw it) that not only was Stan Wawrinka going to beat Andy Roddick, he was also going to follow through on that win and take out Roger Federer in the quarters.

Damned if I don't want to go back on that pick so bad, but it's not my style, so let me present my compelling argument on why Stan the Man is going to get it done:
  • 1. He's knocking the snot out of the ball.
  • 2. He's emotionally and physically at the top of his game, and he and Peter Lundgren are in the honeymoon phase of their player-coach relationship.
  • 3. Roger has looked vulnerable.
  • 4. Stan's 2010 U.S. Open made him match tough.
No matter what happens, watching the Swiss exchange cross court backhands will be like watching Matisse and Monet painting scenescapes under the influence of absinthe in a Paris park. It'll be great, is what I'm trying to say.

Pick: Wawrinka in 4

3. Caroline Wozniacki vs. Francesca Schiavone, 3rd match, Rod Laver Arena:

My heart says yes but my brain says no. Oh, Francesca, you goddess, how will you even tie your shoes after what you went through on Sunday? And yet, we know your shoes will be tied, and there you will be against that fresh-faced kangaroo-fighting Dane. True, you have more gumption in that big vein in your right arm than Wozniacki has in her whole body, but will that gumption be enough to get your old bones moving again? (More compliment for Francesca than insult to Caroline, please note.)

As far as Wozniacki goes, she's done everything that's been expected of her here in Melbourne, and more. She's been hilarious with the press, she's been her usual steady self in four straight set wins, and she's a big match player who will look to outsteady the passionate Italian.

Will the fact that Schiavone had more winners in her fourth-round match than Wozniacki has hit the whole tournament bother the Dane? Doubt it.

Will the fact that Wozniacki will get more magazine covers than Schiavone no matter who wins the match bother the Italian? Doubt it.

After Schiavone's straight set win at the 2010 French Open, she has endured two straight losses to Wozniacki, but you can throw history out the window here, as this match will more than likely take on a life of its own.

Pick: Schiavone in 3

4. Novak Djokovic vs. Tomas Berdych, 7Pm, Rod Laver Arena:

Oh, god. After a long day of dream matches, we get the dream to end all dreams in the night session. Two red-hot players itching to make a run at the top of the game. We know what type of tennis Djokovic has been playing of late, and even though he was defeated by Rafa in New York, he gained a lot of confidence by pushing him, and by finally overcoming Federer in the Semis.

Could this be the year that Djokovic steps back into the limelight and stakes his claim as a legitimate consideration in the Grand Slam title game? Or is he destined to endure another year of settling for second bests, gripping defeats, and playing out his days in the shadow of Rafa and Roger?

Meanwhile Berdych, left for dead by so many critics after his autumn snooze, has rediscovered his game. The imposing Czech is once again steamrolling opponents in the same Blitzkrieg fashion that he layed much of his would-be competition to waste in the 2010 French Open and Wimbledon. And let us not forget, it was the Wimbledon semis where Berdych got his first career win against Djokovic.

Now, after decisive losses in Davis Cup play and at the World Tour Finals, Berdych will take aim at his rival again, with a trip to the Semis at stake.

Pick: Djokovic in 5

5 Fourth Round Musings

Giant killer Alexandr Dolgopolov is the Ukraine's first Australian Open quarter finalist since 1995. Andy Murray is next up for him.
If you like drama and surprise mixed in with your usual dose of tennis's regal stars — Nadal, Federer, and Clijsters — then the fourth round of the Australian Open was right up your alley. Here's a look back at the last two days.

1. Watch out for Dolgo -- Alexandr Dolgopolov has been on a lot of people's radar for the last year or so. Now, he's on everybody's radar.

When slashed his way through Robin Soderling yesterday in very convincing fashion, it seemed a carbon copy of his stunner against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga two days earlier: Start slow and then come with a lethal sneak attack just when the opponent takes his foot of the gas.

Soderling, undefeated for the year, and having only been broken one time in his first three matches, was flummoxed by the 22-year-old's ability to read and react to his booming serve. Dolgopolov broke him 9 times in the final four sets of the match, and used his unorthodox style of play to take Soderling off of his game.

I think a lot of players are going to have trouble with Dolgopolov's unorthodox playing style. The tempo and look of his service motion are very unique, he runs like a rabbit after three cups of coffee, and he displays a natural ability to play shots that keep his opponents off balance. He may have a weakness, but his next opponent, Andy Murray, might want to avoid asking Tsonga or Soderling what that weakness might be. Neither of them seemed to have a clue.

2. Schiavone-Kuznetsova: I've written extensively about this brilliant match already, but since I can't stop thinking about it I won't stop writing about it either. I've come to the conclusion that Schiavone is the best defensive player in the women's game, bar none. Her desire to compete is monumental. She is the Rafa of the WTA (same strings, too), breaking the hearts of the hard hitters time and time and again with her ability to anticipate, retrieve, and regain traction in points that have seemingly been lost. Svetlana, to her credit, nearly put her down for the count.

It's going to be very interesting to see what kind of bounce Francesca will have today against Wozniacki. My guess is she'll be on her game. Even if she's hurting, she'll hardly show it. She's a competitor on another level, and if I was a young WTA player I would be looking to her for inspiration.

3. Petra the Pterodactyl: I was commenting that Petra Kvitova was channeling her inner crow when she screeched after big points in her three-set win over Flavia Pennetta yesterday on Hisense. But another tennis-obsessed tweeter came up with a better analogy. Kvitova sounds like a pterodactyl. Or she looks like one. Or she plays like one. Or she swoops in to clean up sitters after that nasty lefty serve out wide like one. So, pterodactyl it is.

Watch her play — and hear her squawk against — Vera Zvonareva in the quarters and let me know what you think.

She struggled from the service line a bit yesterday, but the 20-year-old Czech managed to keep with her tradition of only surrendering one service break per match. That's mighty damn inmpressive, and if it continues, is there any reason to believe that she can't be the last woman standing in Melbourne?

In other related news, Kvitova announced to the press that she only plans to wear braces for two more months. It's not a kangaroo story, but it is slightly juicy nonetheless, don't you think?

4. Rafa Sweats Less, Plays Better: Count me among the ones concerned a little bit about Rafa's status after his 3rd-round match with Aussie Bernard Tomic. I just felt that Rafa looked a little subdued out there, and perhaps a little irritable.

It was no surprise that Rafa mentioned the fact that he has been sleeping more than usual of late, and feeling more tired in practice. He also mentioned the sweating, but he didn't need to. Anybody who viewed his match with Tomic could see that Rafa was uncharacteristically drenched. It seemed as if changing shirts at changeovers was insufficient — Rafa looked as if he needed to change it after every point.

Nadal was still a little more irritable than usual last night in his fourth-rounder against a recently rejuvenated Marin Cilic, but as he worked his way into the match, you could see that his level of play was getting closer and closer to where it'll need to be for him to become the first male player to hold all four Grand Slams at the same time since the venerable Rod Laver.

There has been a lot going on in Melbourne over the first 8 days of the tournament, I can honestly say that Rafa has become a little bit of a back story for the moment. I think it's mainly because we've come to expect him to breeze through the early rounds, and we know we'll be able to concentrate on the exploits of the surly Spaniard in the final week.

Well, here we are, and if there are any lingering concerns in terms of Rafa's health, all questions will undoubtedly be answered when he faces the challenge of grinding out a match with his in-form compatriot, David Ferrer, in the quarters.

5. The Battle of Switzerland - Roger's been good thus far in Melbourne, but he's also gone into shankapottamous mode at times, leaving us all wondering if he's up for the challenge of elevating his game in the final three rounds, where the fins of hungry sharks abound.

Meanwhile, Stan the Man has been playing the best tennis of his career. Wawrinka, in spite of his well-documented romantic failings, seems to be in a good place on the tennis court. He appears to be in complete harmony with his coach, former Safin steerer, Peter Lundgren, and his stone cold drubbings of Gael Monfils and Andy Roddick are proof that he's hitting the ball as cleanly as he ever has.

Is Stan ready to make the next step? He was a tick or two from the semis at the U.S. Open, where he defeated Andy Murray and Sam Querrey but ran into an eventual roadblock by the name of Mikhail Youzhny.

In Melbourne, a more noteworthy roadblock awaits. His larger-than-life compatriot, the man who has lived in the rarefied air of the top-2 for the better part of the decade while Stan has stayed low in the jungle, looking for less accomplished scalps to earn his living.

I'm sure — even though he'd never say it — Wawrinka would like nothing more to exact one small iota of revenge against his good friend and father figure. Whether their relationship is amicable, passive-aggressive, or downright warm and cuddly, why shouldn't Wawrinka be burning to step out of the man's shadow for one week?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

So Classic it Hurts

Francesca Schiavone and Svetlana Kuznetsova took 4-hours and 44-minutes to complete their epic battle on Hisense. Next comes years of waiting for a better match to occur.
Roll over, John Isner and Nicolas Mahut.

Yesterday's inimitable stroke-a-thon on Hisense is all the rage at the moment, and rightfully so, because there hasn't been a better match — men's or women's — in a long, long, time.

But these things do tend to happen every so often.

It is, after all, the nature of tennis. Tennis's diabolical scoring system encourages this rare, compelling form of mental torture that players must endure on a regular basis. Spontaneous combustion is typical. Matches can go from relatively nondescript to genuine cliffhangers in rapid fashion, and we've already seen that on many occasions during the first week of this Australian Open.

But then, there are those contests that are the nexus of all the elements of an unbelievable match, magically poured into one potion and served, all steaming and frothy like a perfect latte to a thirsting audience.

This is what we witnessed yesterday. Two animals (thank Svetlana for that term) locked in a bitter war of wills, poised at a precipice where suddenly the background noise filters away and all that matters is ONE THING. If Schiavone and Kuznetsova were wolves, their teeth would be showing, their hair would be standing in a ridge along their spines, and THERE WOULD BE BLOOD.

I mention Isner-Mahut rolling over because I think it is necessary, in testament to the exalted efforts of Kuznetsova and Schiavone, to do so. I've come to the conclusion that Schiavone-Kuznetsova was a better match than Isner-Mahut, and that if you matched them up side-by-side, you'd see that the calibre of play, and the closeness of the competition on a point-by-point basis made this match so much more delectable to watch.

Where Isner and Mahut smashed aces at one another for three days, Kuznetsova and Schiavone played long effusive points, in which improbably athletic shots became relatively commonplace. Where Isner and Mahut played love game after love game, Kuznetsova and Schiavone scrambled, hit, giggled, stretched, and launched themselves through long deuce-laden games that were colored with a competitive fury the likes of which I don't ever remember seeing.

But enough about Isner-Mahut, and enough with comparisons. I've only used these examples to ensure that this match — this hairy, spine-tingling, delirium-enhancing dogfight to end all dogfights — gets written into the tennis scriptures alongside those other instant classics that will forever be cherished by the tennis faithful.

Now onto the imagery: Of their faces, blank at times, and weary from a taxing battle that seemed interminable, tortuous, and macabre. Of their faces, teeth-baring, superlative-muttering, angry, overjoyed, mournful, elated — riding the cusps of waves that came and went as rapidly of those of the Gold Coast.

Of their level of play, so sublime for this type of a match, when it would be so easy to drop level by level as fatigue set in. Of their athleticism, again unmarred by fatigue, and their ability to play profound shot after profound shot under extreme pressure that would have made so many players wilt.

Of the changeovers: Francesca's banana's and Svetlana's blank stares; Francesca's chest massage and Svetlana's raw feet.

Of Svetlana's Nadal-like sprint to the baseline with Schiavone readying to serve at 12-13.

Of Schiavone's kamikaze forays to the net, when we couldn't believe she could still stand.

Of the new record for match duration for women's singles in Grand Slam play being a mere afterthought in comparison to the emotional gravitas of the event.

Of Schiavone's remarkable defense. Of Kuznetsova's heavy artillery.

Of the sheer paradox of the level of physicality that both player's miraculously maintained until the bitter end.

And finally of the bitter end and the subdued elation, because eventually, we all knew it would end — we just weren't sure what it would take to end it.

Now we know. Nine match points, and an exquisite form of torture.

Nothing more, nothing less.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

9 Thoughts on the 3rd Round

Fresh off a five-set battle of wills with John Isner, 22-year-old Marin Cilic is exhibiting the form that landed him in the top-10 a year ago.
-- Ah, the familiar refrain, as the fuzz gets swept off the court after a highly compelling day of third round action: It was the best of times... It was the worst of times. With every splash of jubilation that we witnessed we didn't have to look very far for the sour note that inevitably accompanied it.

It is the yin and the yang of Grand Slam tennis. The sweet melody and the doleful dirge of life on the tour.

It goes without saying that Pennetta's pleasure was Peer's pain today; that Kvitova's coming of age led to Stosur feeling her age; that Cilic's fortuity marked the end of Isner's fortuity.

It is the nature of the business. They meet at the net, they battle from the baselines, and in the end they shake hands -- one hand trembling with joy, the other limp with agony.

In other words, it was one heck of a humdinger yesterday at Melbourne Park. The round of 16 begins today, but before we get the popcorn ready, let's look back at the third round that was.

1. Sam Wowed - And I don't think Sam Stosur, Australia's great hope on the women's side, was the only one that was wowed by the steely maturity of 20-year-old Czech Petra Kvitova. Once again Stosur ran into a buzzsaw, and if you're a Stosur fan (some would argue it's hard not to be) you're beginning to tire of this scenario a bit. Just like that fateful day last June when Francesca Schiavone played the most brilliant tennis of her life in the final vs. Stosur, the young lefty also brought her "A" game to Rod Laver Arena. And once again, sadly, Stosur couldn't find a way to overcome.

Is it Stosur's fault? Are there improvements she needs to make? One must consider that Stosur had leads of 3-0, 4-2, and 5-3 in the first set tiebreaker. She also had three break points at 2-2 in the second set, before Kvitova went on a tear that included 11 straight points.

This match was more about Kvitova's stellar play than Stosur's weaknesses, but one has to wonder -- when will the time come for Sam to truly wow?

2. Tsonga? Hello? - Alexandr Dolgopolov stormed to a five set victory against the enigma wrapped in a mystery, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. In the 44 minutes (the length of the final two sets) that it took for the youngster from the Ukraine to turn this match on its ear, Tsonga played as if he had a plane to catch. Or perhaps he was running from the F.B.I? Whatever the case, Tsonga managed to win only 17 out of 40 points on his serve while surrendering 5 breaks in those two sets.

Hopefully, Tsonga caught his plane.

3. Cilic is Back - Marin Cilic ripped the heart out of John Isner and saved us all a Wimbledon marathon sequel, when he broke Isner to win, 9-7 in the fifth. Could it be that the young lad has finally found himself after a turbulent back half of 2010 that saw him upset in the first round of Wimbledon and the 2nd round of the U.S. Open? And furthermore, might he have a shot against Rafa in the round of 16?

4. The Dead Zone - Play had to be stopped or delayed on two occasions for repairs to the court on Hisense Arena. For those of you who believe the ghosts of Jack Crawford and Daphne Akhurst are conspiring to wreak havoc on the modern game, you might not want to know that the reason for the dead spots was that water had worked its way below the Plexicushion, causing air pockets. Court attendants drilled holes into the surface, and presto, play was continued.

5. Chill, Roddick -- Andy Roddick moved in and blasted a short ball right at the brain of Robin Haase early in the 2nd set of their 3rd round tussle. Haase avoided the intimidating blast, which traveled to the back fence on a fly, but he didn't avoid the intimidation. After an awkward moment that saw Haase gesturing to the crowd to get behind him and Roddick acting as if he just happened to miss an easy forehand by 40 feet by accident, Haase went out with hardly a whimper in 4 sets.

6. Backhand Bliss -- It happens a few times a year, and this year it's happened early. I've fallen in love with Stan Wawrinka's backhand. He used it to perfection against Gael Monfils on Friday night in the first set, mixing flat drives down the line with topspin angles crosscourt with a certain demonic wickedness. Monfils seemed to enjoy the running, until he found himself pretty much gassed by the end of the first-set tiebreaker. I like a lot of one-handers -- Haas, Kohlschreiber, Henin, Federer, Youzhny, Gasquet -- but to me Wawrinka's is the best because he can go anywhere with it, and he can drive it for clean winners like nobody else in the game.

7. Belgian Bump in the Road -- Justine and Svetlana had a very entertaining battle that ended -- after much nerve wracking and teeth gnashing -- in a straight-set win for the Russian. Huge win for Kuznetsova, and now that she's beaten Stosur and Henin (she was 2-16 vs. Henin coming in), it's hard not to wonder if Svetlana has the necessary wind in her sails to take her all the way to Grand Slam title number three. It's certainly not out of the realm of possibilities, and the odds will significantly increase if she can get past Francesca Schiavone in round 4.

8. Azarenka-Li, must-see TV? - Vika hasn't made it past the third round in 4 of her last 5 Grand Slams, but she was a quarterfinalist in Melbourne last year. Li, by the way, was a semifinalist. Both ladies have been travelling under the radar this week -- but this tilt has the potential to be an entertaining affair. Azarenka took their last head-to-head match in Montreal, but Li won the first two.

9. Raon Man - Talk about exploding onto the scene. Milos Raonic was hardly known to anyone save for a few tennis-loving canucks and savvy tennis fans before his big, bold, game graced the courts of Melbourne Park in qualifying just over a week ago. Now he's a sensation, a revelation, and a bonafide contender for a quarterfinal spot next week. That being said, he's never played David Ferrer, and that can be another type of revelation for even the biggest and baddest of ATP servers.

Still, the 6'5" Montenegrin-born player is the youngest left in the draw, and the lowest ranked. He'll likely shoot up the ATP rankings into the top-100 even if he drops out of the next round in Australia.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Taking a Cue From Woz

Caroline Wozniacki's presser has made me imagine all the wonderful things I would ask tennis pros in an ideal world.


That's all I could think when I watched this. How clever of world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki to embark on a little renegade P.R. work to further her own cause, which, as far as I can tell, is to become the most sought after flaxen-haired tennis player in all the land.

With this genuine and funny and now viral video, Wozniacki has created a buzz, and hopefully she'll inspire a few journalists in Melbourne to take her advice, and loosen up a bit in the pressers.

Sure, we all want to hear Kei Nishikori answer a question about Brad Gilbert, but do we need to hear the same question after every match? Why not ask him to bust out his Ipod and crank up some of that J-pop music from Japan that he claims to like?

And sure, we're all very eager to find out if Justine Henin was tight in the 2nd set tiebreaker against Svetlana Kuznetsova yesterday, but once we get that out of the way, why not ask her what was the most glasses of Bordeaux she's ever consumed on the night before a match? Now there's something I'd really love to see her answer.

I agree that there is a time and a place for everything, and it wouldn't always be proper to ask Venus whether she thought her dog is cuter than Maria Sharapova's dog -- but at a certain point the people in the press room need to heed Wozniacki's advice.

Here are seven things that I would ask if I was in Melbourne today, and it was an ideal world (not happening, unfortunately):

1. To Andy Roddick: I heard you mention to Jim Courier that your wife made out with Adam Sandler in a scene from her latest movie. I'm just curious if you know how many takes they did to get the scene finished, and I'm wondering if you're having issues with it the way that Andre had issues when the guy from Friends licked Brooke Shields' hand?

2. To Svetlana Kuznetsova: Do you realize what kind of a punk you come off as when you don't shake someone's hand after a match, regardless of the circumstances?

3. To Gael Monfils: Have you ever considered a career in something where they aren't so picky about the score?

4. To Andy Murray: Do you ever get embarrassed when Judy is getting all rowdy in the box, or are you impervious to that sort of thing? I ask, because my mom used to embarrass the heck out of me when I was a high-school grappler. It was terrible. All the kids used to rag me for it.

5. To Richard Gasquet: How the heck is Pamela these days?

6. To Justine Henin: How come Kim is so superior to you these days? Do you think it's karma, talent, a combination of both, or is it the elbow?

7. To Feliciano Lopez: Would you ever consider coming out of the tunnel shirtless on a white horse before a match, or would that affect your pre-match routine?

Baby Steps

In a weird way, a second round loss might have been the best possible scenario for Juan Martin del Potro at the 2011 Australian Open.
Now that it's over, we can all breathe a sigh of relief.

As much as we all wanted to see delpo burst onto the scene and pick up where he left off, slashing and burning his way through the competition like a man possessed, wielding his racquet like a mighty swordsmen, and generally wreaking havoc in that way that only delpo can, we all knew that what was far more important this week was what we didn't want to see.

We didn't want to see that wrist take him off the court again.

Please, no. Not again. NEVER AGAIN.

Because if there is one thing that we've all learned about tennis during the time that Juan Martin del Potro has been on the sidelines rehabbing from wrist surgery, it is this: it's far more exhilarating to follow a tournament when the big man is in the draw.

Watching del Potro in action in Melbourne this week was like having a message in a bottle wash up on the beach as you're sitting on a blanket, watching the sun set with a margarita in your hand.

"What's that?" you think, as you head over to inspect the bottle. You pull the cork and shake the contents out, slowly unfold the ancient paper, and begin to try to decipher the message.

"Hmm, maybe it's a note from what's her name, the one I met on," you think, when out jumps delpo, racquet high above his head, shoulders square to the ball. He swings, and launches a blistering cross court forehand accompanied by a grunt that is part caveman and part wild boar, and you fall back on your blanket in glee.

"Oh, delpo, where've you been all my life," you say, sipping your margarita.

But we know where he's been. He's been to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for wrist surgery, and he's been to rehab, rehab, and more rehab, and the sad truth of the matter remains: even though he did the surgery eight months ago, he's still got some issues with the thing.

He told Pam Shriver that it was hurting him a little bit after his win over Dudi Sela, and he had the trainer out last night in his four-set loss to Marcos Baghdatis. All of this should come as no surprise -- all you have to do is look at the barbaric cuts that delpo takes at the ball to realize that his surgically repaired wrist is going to be under significant strain when he ramps up to full speed again.

So, in a strange way, it was kind of good news that del Potro lost last night. Of course, you never want to lose, especially in a Slam, but given the fact that the wrist was bugging him, it's probably better that he doesn't have to show up tomorrow night to see if he can hit Jurgen Melzer onto the next continent (Asia, right?).

It was also good to see del Potro's concern, because I think at this point he's better off taking precautions with it then coming out all gangbusters, trying to rip the cover off the ball like he did in New York in '09.

Delpo needs time on the court to get back to the top-10, but right now he also needs the wisdom to know he's got a lot of time to get back. So what if he's ranked in the 400's all year long?

There's only one battle that the Argentine needs to win this year, and that is the battle of learning to maintain a level of health that affords him the opportunity to be great for a long period of time. Everything else should be secondary right now.

So, here we are, perilously perched on a branch that hangs out over the sea.

We're waiting for a message in a bottle, but we don't know when it's coming.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

16 Thoughts on the First Two Rounds

It was good to see Juan Martin del Potro in action again, but doubts about his long-term health are still a concern.

1. Juan Martin del Potro - The gentle giant from Tandil reminded us all how dynamic his game is, of how moving it can be to watch him, and of how humble he can be in victory. But right now it's hard not to wonder if his body will ever be up to the task of sustaining the sheer force of his game. Every time he unleashes one of those gloriously massive forehands I cross my fingers.

2. Vera Zvonareva - If you thought Vera was going to revert to saved, and become a headcase as soon as things got tough, all you needed to do was witness the calm, cool, and collected way she dispatched the youngster Bojana Jovanovski after losing the first set to know you were wrong.

3. Jelena Jankovic - Jelena, the sooner you realize that we don't care if you don't care, the sooner you will pick your game up and start playing like a top-ten player again. Lindsay Davenport was accurate in her assessment of Jelena's uninspired 2nd round performance today when she stated that Jelena doesn't have the type of game that can overcome laziness. Davenport feels Jankovic needs to work the points, hustle around the court, and stay patient. Pouting and going for winners from behind the baseline won't work. Of course, Shuai Peng didn't mind.

4. Bernard Tomic - Dude, cool shades. Some very crafty and creative tennis as well. I can see why the Aussies are all jacked up about this kid. Let's see if he can make a dent in Rafa's game now.

5. Lovable losers - Michael Russell lost the first ten games of the match against David Ferrer. He didn't hang his head (at least not too much) and he found a way -- in spite of chest pains -- to make the third set a very compelling set. It was a very good effort for the 32-year-old journeyman.

6. When will Rafa be tested? - Well, I don't expect Tomic to do it, but his fourth-rounder with the winner of Isner-Cilic could be a tricky one.

7. Top-5 matches of the tournament so far (very subjective) - 1. Venus Williams-Zahlavova 2. Nalbandian-Hewitt 3. Schiavone-Marino 4. Federer-Simon 5. Tsonga-Petzschner

8. Venus Williams, I love you - Venus won me over with her gritty three-set come-from-behind victory over Sandra Zahlavova in round 2. I don't know what she'll have left for Petko, but I have a feeling that she'll once again have more than we expect.

9. Oh, Canada - Two of the biggest boomers in the tournament are from Canada. Milos Raonic and Rebecca Marino are still works in progress, but if they continue to develop we could be hearing more from these two tall maple trees from north of the U.S. border.

10. Oh no, America - I am a firm believer that American tennis is on the right track with Patrick McEnroe at the helm, Jose Higueras as Director of Coaching, and Jim Courier as Davis Cup captain. That being said, apparently things will get worse before they get better. It has been a very dismal showing by the stars and stripes but Venus, A-Rod, and Iz could come through and save the day.

11. Solid Returning - Through two rounds, Gael Monfils, Roger Federer, and Viktor Troicki each have converted 15 break points. Wow. That is not a typo. Klara Zakopalova had 17 on the women's side, but sadly, her road ended at the hands of Lucie Safarova yesterday.

12. Ace Leaders - Men's: Ivo Karlovic's 48 aces in the first round got him nowhere. Milos Raonic's 48 aces over two rounds got him his first ever third-round appearance in a Slam. Raonic also has the tournaments fastest serve at 142 M.P.H. Venus leads the ladies with 16 in two matches.

13. Aggie's Opportunity - Who did Agnieszka Radwanska have to pay to get Simona Halep, Shuai Peng, and Ayumi Morita standing between her and the quarters? Not one of those three is in the top-50, and Halep and Morita aren't in the top-70.

14. 5 Women's 3rd-Rounders to die for - Henin-Kuznetsova, Wozniacki-Cibulkova, Stosur-Kvitova, Pennetta-Peer, Williams-Petkovic

15. 5 Men's 3rd-rounders to die for - Berankis-Ferrer, Dolgopolov-Tsonga, Isner-Cilic, Troicki-Djokovic, Roddick-Haase

16. Biggest disappointments - Davydenko (I thought he was coming in hot), Tipsarevic (didn't like the way he bailed in the 5th set), Date-Krumm (was up 4-1 in the third when Radwanska took her injury time).