Monday, January 31, 2011
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
Friday, January 28, 2011
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
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
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 vs. Vera Zvonareva, 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 vs. Kim Clijsters, 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, 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 vs. David Ferrer, 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
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.
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.
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