Thursday, September 22, 2011

Thoughts On Stich, Martina and the Perpetual ATP Schedule Debate

It's post-US Open time, and as is the custom, it's time to debate the merits of the ATP's current schedule. This year, however, there is a new wrinkle, as the big "S" word has been spoken by some of the players (most notably, Andy Murray). The mere mention of a player strike has taken the conversation to another level, and since a good healthy dialogue about a lingering issue that never seems to go away is always a good idea, I'm heavily in favor of opening the can of worms and keeping it open.

This week's Weekly Net Post by the USA Today's Joe Fleming has some really good background on the situation, and there are currently scads of opinions being thrown around, some in favor of the players, and others not so much.

Former world No. 2 and current tournament director at Hamburg Michael Stich had some choice words for Andy Murray in response to his complaints. "I don't think it's a big issue," said Stich. "They are not playing more than we did 10 or 15 years ago and they have shorter seasons than we used to. I think the players forget that all the tournaments out there provide them with jobs."

Stich's argument, while passionate, overlooks the systemic changes that have occurred in tennis over those aforementioned 10 to 15 years. Anyone who knows the sport knows that the physicality of today's tennis is exponentially greater than that of decades past. And let's not forget how truly global the game has become too, which means that players are traveling more in addition to playing more physical tennis when they finally arrive at their destinations.

And correct me if I'm wrong, but is the issue about what happened in tennis 15 years ago or is it about what is happening now? In spite of the ATP's laudable efforts to reduce the schedule by two weeks starting next year, issues still remain.

Murray's biggest beef is about the mountain of mandatory events that players must attend. The rankings are built around these mandatory events, and the biggest rewards don't just go to the players that play the best -- they go to the players that play the best the most often.

Players that want to play less over the course of the year, either to prolong their careers or to recover from injuries or to simply relax, are punished for doing so. "I know because I've spoken to a lot of the players, that they're serious now about trying to get some changes," said Murray. "To get another change implemented, it might take 5 or 6 years at the rate it's going now, and then all of us will be done, so we want it to happen sooner than later."

Players are preparing to meet Shanghai next month, and Murray, while not adamant about a work stoppage, is not ruling out the possibility of a boycott. "We need to have some say in things that go on in our sport. Right now we don't," he said. "I think it's (a strike) a possibility, and I know from speaking to the other players that they're not scared of doing that anymore."

Martina Navratilova came out in support on Thursday, saying in an interview with the BBC, "You cannot maintain that level of intensity and not put your body in hospital eventually. I don't know why Andy Murray should be criticized for taking charge of his life."

Having watched this year's US Open, which featured a record number of player retirements due to injury, it's hard to argue with Murray and his peers. The quality of the game is suffering in it's current state due to the rigors of the calendar, and as much as I hate to mention this, tennis is basically daring it's players to find ways to enhance their performance beyond natural levels in order to maintain the intensity that Navratilova spoke of in her interview.

Think about it: If tennis becomes a sport that rewards players more for their ability to recover quickly, last longer and play more often, is it really putting its best foot forward in terms of growing the game, entertaining its fans, and ensuring that the best possible product is put on the court at all times?

Of course there are different standards for the top players on tour and the lower-ranked players, because the top players play more and have their services in demand more often, which is why lowering the amount of mandatory requirements (and adjusting the way that rankings are kept accordingly) might be a good place to start. This way players who need the money can still play all year long, and tournaments can stay in existence (albeit with a little less starpower).

There's no way to avoid hurting someone, but the fact is clear: Having a system that grinds the top players to a pulp and spits them out of the sport when they have hardly turned 30 is a travesty.

Something needs to change, and I'm all for Murray and his fellow players doing what it takes to ensure that it actually does.

Monday, September 19, 2011

From Out of the Ashes, A Final to Die For

The valiant efforts of the world's top players during Davis Cup play over the weekend reminds us that the event is about more than just tennis.

Pity on me, for I spent most of the Davis Cup weekend wondering why the heck Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic were subjecting themselves to the rigors of the Davis Cup semifinals when they should have been spending the week shuttling between the Hyperbaric chamber and the massage table. After the torturous final week of the US Open, I had convinced myself that the worst thing for the game -- and subsequently, the worst thing for the game's top two players -- would be to see these guys take the court for their countries less than a week after the US Open's Monday final.

In this age of brutally physical tennis, where players are considered over the hill at the age of 30 (well, not all of them, but most), I was worried that Djokovic and Nadal were taking on too much of a burden to play Davis Cup. This is how careers get shortened, I was thinking, already lamenting the day that each will declare themselves through with the game (when none of us are quite through with watching them play the game).

Even as it had to be therapeutic for Nadal to lead his fellow Spaniards to victory on home soil against France, I kept finding myself asking "Why the heck is he playing?" In the end, Rafa probably made the right decision to play. He did it for the fans and for his teammates, and down the road, he'll be remembered for acts like this where his humility and dedication to country take center stage right along with his otherwordly brand of clay court tennis.

But even after Nadal sealed Spain's 4-1 victory with an awe-inspiring thrashing of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, you could tell he wasn't happy that he had to do it with the fatigue of four matches in five days still weighing heavily on his bones. Such is the quandary that Davis Cup presents.

To play or not to play? To care or not to care? To sacrifice the body or preserve it?

Given that the event can be such a momentum-grower, it was hard for me to understand why the Spanish team didn't try to grow some momentum for some of their players who need it the most. Why not give Fernando Verdasco a chance to get the inspiring win he so badly needs at the moment? (Verdasco did beat Gasquet in a meaningless dead rubber to close the festivities.) We're talking about a wonderfully talented Spanish team that is built not just on one man after all.

I know in hindsight Rafa's triumph was what the fans wanted, what the team wanted (it sets up a mouth watering final vs. Argentina in December) and maybe even what Rafa wanted, but it would have been nice if someone else had been given a shot to shine. Especially since Rafa could have used the rest, and his comrades could have used the confidence that might have come if they had beaten the French without him.

In Belgrade, Serbia suffered exactly what Spain avoided. Novak Djokovic was sent to the court running on fumes, and he paid dearly for it when he faced an inspired Juan Martin del Potro. Djokovic's retirement gave Argentina the victory, and it puts the Argentines in position to win their first Davis Cup title in Spain in December.

The decision to send an already injured and energy-depleted Djokovic on court against Del Potro was a head-scratcher for sure. The pressure to put Nole out there on the final day must have been great -- and coming from everywhere. Still, the man had a torn rib muscle -- why run the risk of doing serious damage to it?

Here's a better question: Why ask why?

In the end, Djokovic and Nadal's valiant efforts, regardless of the outcome, shines a light on Davis Cup and points to it's uniqueness and validity as an event. The event has been much maligned due to its inconvenient placement on the tennis calendar, but regardless of its knack for bad timing, or its relatively meager compensation levels, the event is major source of pride for for all who partake.

The fact that Nadal and Djokovic were willing to lay their bodies on the line for their countries this weekend -- as much as it pained us to watch -- has once again opened my eyes to the allure of Davis Cup. It's about tennis, but also it's about something bigger. In the end, I realized that I have no business questioning Serbia's move to play Novak Djokovic on Sunday, even though he was only at 60%. They wanted the win, and they were prepared to risk it all to get it. Who can fault them for that?

Additionally, the Davis Cup finally got a dose of the starpower it has been yearning for so badly, with Federer showing up in Australia and Andy Murray getting busy against Hungary.

All things considered, it was a fantastic weekend for Davis Cup, in which the true spirit of the event came through. My initial reaction was to reject it, but in the end, it won me over. With Argentina set to clash with Spain in the final in December, the tennis cognoscenti are already wondering if a bit of Davis Cup glory might do for Juan Martin del Potro what many believe it did for Novak Djokovic after Serbia's victory in 2010.

In a sport that is highly individualistic, we owe it to Davis Cup for providing a platform for fans to see the world's top players in another element. Even when things go horribly wrong, like they did for Novak Djokovic and Serbia in Belgrade, we learn something new about the character of the players in the process.

I can't complain about that at all.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Djokovic, Nadal, Chess and Pugilism

Chess and pugilism were two words that kept coming to mind as I watched Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal trade mammoth blows in yesterday's US Open final. Chess, because each shot in a rally represented  a minuscule step in a sequence that, if played with clairvoyance, would ultimately lead to an opportunity to gain an advantage in the point.

Yesterday the message was clear, as Djokovic and Nadal blanketed the court with alarming ease: This is not your mommy and daddy's tennis anymore.

At the elite level, today's tennis takes more patience, and consequently, more mental and physical prowess than ever before. A,B,C tennis has given way to a more sophisticated endeavor. What starts as chess morphs into boxing -- pure blow-by-blow brawling -- and back again, often several times before any given point can be won.

Yesterday, on Arthur Ashe Stadium, I believe we witnessed the tennis as a hybrid of boxing and chess metaphor more clearly than ever before. It was the writing of David Foster Wallace that first introduced me to the concept that tennis could be viewed as similar to boxing. I'll be honest and admit that I never fully grasped the boxing analogy -- until yesterday.

During Novak Djokovic's 6-2, 6-4. 6-7, 6-1 victory over Rafael Nadal, the tennis was so brutally physical, the points so long and the intensity so high, that it could only be viewed as combat. It was Road Warrior tennis, the tennis of the future, and as I watched these two gladiatorial antagonists look for ways to grind each other to the brink of exhaustion while simultaneously seeking whisker-thin opportunities to gain an upper hand, I couldn't help but be mesmerized.

It wasn't necessarily beautiful. It wasn't necessarily poetic. But man, was it eye-opening; it was limitless and scary, too.

There was a titanic struggle for the 3rd game of the second set that was difficult to watch. Finally, Djokovic won the game on his sixth break point, but not after 6 lung piercing rallies of 14 strokes or more, including back breaking rallies of 27, 21 and 21 strokes.

This was probably the turning point of the match for Djokovic, and not simply because he'd broken to get back on serve in the set. He'd also proved that he was ready, willing and able to beat Nadal at the very game that he has used to beat everybody else on tour for the last few years.

While Djokovic and Nadal are both fantastic at this tennis as a hybrid of boxing and chess thing, it was Djokovic who proved himself to be the true savant, because while Nadal appeared to be playing the same brand of swashbuckling tennis he always plays yesterday (and doing it quite well, mind you), Djokovic was far better at customizing his brand of chess to suit the vulnerabilities of Nadal.

Each shot that Djokovic hit had purpose. Like a true chess champion, Djokovic thinks not just of the next shot; he thinks of the next several, and where those might lead him. But he doesn't only think ahead. In the heat of the moment he executes each step in his multi-pronged movements with precision. He hits to Nadal's backhand not because he wants to get an error from Nadal, but because he knows if he does it enough he will get a slightly shorter ball that he can be more aggressive with. It's amazing to watch, because while a lot of players probably dream of doing what Djokovic does against Nadal (he's won six straight finals, including two Grand Slam finals against the man), they don't possess a) the variety of shots to do it b) the consistency to do it c) the fitness to do it d) the ability to defend Nadal's gonzo ground game to even make it possible or e) the cojones.

I could go on and on, covering the alphabet several times. Djokovic has literally done the impossible in beating Nadal. Unfortunately for Nadal, he hasn't quite grasped the nature of Djokovic's game the way that the Serbian understands his. He tries to hit harder, be more confident, attack more, believe more -- and he does pretty damn well, too -- but in the end, he hasn't found a systemic crack in Djokovic's armor that he can exploit on a regular basis.

Meanwhile, Djokovic seems to know the types of replies his shots will elicit from Nadal. He thinks it through, and exhibits incredible patience all the while. He bides his time, exchanging mighty blows with one of the best of all time, and when he gets a ball that he can open up the court with, he declares himself the dominant one, taking control of the point and calmly rendering Nadal subservient.

I use the word "miracle" too much for things that are in reality quite routine. But anything I say about Djokovic's performance yesterday simply will not do it justice. His effort was miraculously good, and while he may have been lucky against Federer in the semis, in the final he eliminated the need for good fortune by being simply too good.

I know there have been more dominant performances in Grand Slam finals, and there probably have been more perfect matches played too. But given the stature of his opponent (and his desire to end this losing streak vs. Djokovic), and taking into account the incredible stamina that is required to put a plan like Djokovic's into action, I'd say his performance last night was one of the most remarkable I've ever seen.

Djokovic put the gloves on early, and exchanged punches with Nadal, one of the mightiest players that the game has ever seen. Djokovic put his thinking cap even earlier, and managed a sublime level of concentration throughout this bloody battle, even while taking some serious blows to the body all the while.

It was a convincing show of dominance, and it capped a year that could very likely go down as one of the greatest that tennis has ever seen.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Archie's Picks: Djokovic-Nadal US Open Final

It's been a great US Open, as usual, and Archie's had a good time too, even though he's been a little off on his picks this time around. Archie knew that he'd have to cool off at some point. He was basically running the table during the French and Wimbledon, but he knows that even he can't win them all.

He did get a little frustrated with Federer on Saturday, as he felt strongly about that pick, and really liked Federer's form going in. I heard him mutter something to the effect of "see if I ever pick that guy again" after the match.

Anyhow, it's a new day, and a beautiful one at that. It's time for a fourth consecutive Monday men's final, and this one is shaping up to be a doozy. Without any further ado, here is Archie's pick for the big match.

See Archie's Williams-Wozniacki pick here
See Archie's Stosur-Kerber pick here
See Archie's Federer-Djokovic pick here:
See Archie's Federer-Tsonga pick here:
See Archie's Murray-Isner Pick here:
See Archie's Roddick-Nadal pick here.
See Archie's Djokovic-Tipsarevic pick here:
See Archie's William's-Pavlyuchenkova pick here:
See Archie's Stosur-Zvonareva pick here:
See Archie's Pennetta-Kerber pick here:
See Archie's Petkovic-Wozniacki pick here:
See Archie's French Open Picks here:
See Archie's Wimbledon picks here

Archie's Pick: Djokovic
Why: The guy is obviously leading a charmed life this year. If Saturday's match point miracle wasn't proof of that then Archie doesn't know what is.

My Pick: Nadal
Why: I've always been a person who believes that a human is only capable of so much inspired play. In my mind Djokovic is the better player on a hard court right now, and his 9-5 career record vs. Rafa is proof of that, but no matter how good he is, I just can't see him beating Nadal again. He's done it five consecutive times now, all in finals, and each time I've been surprised a little bit more.

Let me say this though: Djokovic has turned in the best possible results this year, and every time I've come to the conclusion that it simply can't get any better, he's one-upped himself. He's 63-2, 5-0 vs. Rafa in finals, and he's currently holding the Australian Open and Wimbledon titles, along with the No.1 ranking. In other words, he's the better player, on his best surface, at the absolute pinnacle of his career -- why shouldn't he win over Rafa again?

This is truly a tough match to call.

Today, Djokovic will try to become the sixth player to win three Grand Slams in a single season in the Open Era, joining Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors, Mats Wilander, Roger Federer and Rafa, and many believe that his season, whether he wins or loses today, might be the best in the history of tennis.

But if he wins today, I don't think you can even argue. To do what he's done against two of the greatest players to ever pick up a racquet -- it's almost incomprehensible. This is not a guy that is facing a soft era of ATP players -- he's facing the BEST OF ALL TIME, and kicking their butts with startling regularity.

Still, Rafa will try to find a way to beat him today, and if he does, he'll have managed to grab his second Grand Slam title in the year of Nole. Not too bad at all for the Spaniard. At 25, Nadal is still in his prime, and to his credit, he's never wavered in his desire to solve the Djokovic puzzle.

Will he have enough game to get it done today in New York? He failed to defend his Wimbledon title vs. Djokovic, so what promises to be different today?

As far as Djokovic goes, x's and o'saside, the real question is, does he have another brilliant performance in him today? He'll likely need it today, because Rafa promises to be at his most ornery, as his desire to defeat Djokovic and reassert himself has surely grown exponentially with each humbling defeat that he's endured over the year.

I could spend the next few hours talking about what Rafa has to do to keep Nole off balance and vice-versa, but really I don't think the outcome will be about x's and o's, topspin or slice, the ability to get to the net or not -- it'll be about desire. That sense of urgency that makes a player perform at a level that even he didn't know he was capable of performing at, and more importantly -- at a time in the match when it most matters.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Making Sense of a Match Point Miracle

Tennis's version of a "The Shot Heard 'Round the World" came late in the 5th set of the US Open semifinal yesterday, with Roger Federer serving for the match at 5-3, 40-15. Novak Djokovic, about to be bounced from the draw, would later say he gambled, and he would say it with a smile.

But Djokovic's face told a different story in the moments leading up to the madness. A glimpse at the tape reveals a Djokovic who is resigned to his fate. He isn't wearing that lucid glare that we expect future miracle makers to wear. He's not calm, steely or focused; he's just plain miffed, and for good reason. Djokovic had just handed a service break to Federer in the previous game; now here he was, facing tennis's version of walking the plank, about to be aced out of the championship while 23,000 screaming fans cheered for his rival.

Then, POW!, Djokovic unleashed the mighty cross court blast that is destined to be referenced in US Open lore from this point on. The shot was a blur. A meteor. It was not a tennis ball hitting the ocean-blue hardcourt just inside the sideline, it was a ball of gas.

30-40. Still, Djokovic remains on the plank; he's got another match point to wiggle out of. Federer is ready to serve, but what's this? Djokovic is pleading to the crowd for support -- and getting it! He is smiling as Federer prepares to blast another serve in his direction...

When it was all said and done, Djokovic would produce another miraculous return, which would send Federer into a tailspin and breathe enough life into Djokovic to get him off the plank and into the finals by winning the last four games of a 6-7, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 instant classic.

Afterwards, we were left to ponder: How could one shot start such an avalanche of momentum? Did Federer choke, or was Djokovic simply too good? Is Djokovic the luckiest man on the planet or was his strategy of throwing caution to the wind the right one for the moment?

Federer didn't think so highly of Djokovic's gunslinging. "Confidence? Are you kidding me?" he said, when asked if Djokovic's match point meteor was a function of his confidence. "I mean please. Look, some players grow up and play like that...I never played that for me, this is hard to understand how you can play a shot like that on match point."

But Djokovic was still smiling, and still feeling lucky. "Yeah, I tend to do that on match points," he said. "It kinda works."

Not only did it work, it also sucked the confidence from Federer. Seven unforced errors would immediately follow Djokovic's heroics and related crowd-rallying, in the haze that was the final four games of the match.

But Djokovic's defining moment might not have been the impossibly good forehand he hit. His insistence on calling for crowd support before Federer served the second match point might have have been the real shape-shifter. The press questioned Djokovic on whether or not he had crossed a line with the gesture, but Djokovic wasn't taking the bait. "I was trying to get the crowd on my side, and you know, I did," said Djokovic. "At this level you need that in order to win."

"As long as it's sportsmanship, I don't care," said Federer. "I don't know what he did, so it's not an issue."

While Djokovic's first match point may have been pure serendipity, his next shot was a skillful defensive return against a nasty Federer body serve. And it was done with a crowd firmly sensing -- and wanting -- something special from the Serb. Still, Federer had a chance to hit a fairly routine winner and quiet the masses, and failed.

His forehand clipped the tape, landed wide, and the dominoes fell after that, one by one.

"It's awkward to explain this loss because I feel like I should be doing the other press conference," said Federer.

"Well, I would lie if I say, you know, I didn't think I'm gonna lose," said Djokovic.

That is where the psychology becomes so interesting to dissect: if Djokovic hadn't been resigned to losing, could he have hit the shot that enabled him to win? If he hadn't taken the time to win over the fans before the second match point, would Federer have been more decisive on the forehand he missed?

This was the perfect moment where courage and hopelessness overlapped to change the entire complexion of a match. Then nerves and momentum got involved to finish the deal.

And, as is always the case in tennis, timing was everything.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Archie's Picks: Williams-Wozniacki

Well, here we go with the match that everybody is dying to see. Who's the real No. 1? is all I  have to say. And I guess we won't have to wait very much longer to have that question answered.

Without any further ado, here is Archie's pick for the Wozniacki-Williams US Open semifinal match.

See Archie's Stosur-Kerber pick here
See Archie's Federer-Djokovic pick here:
See Archie's Federer-Tsonga pick here:
See Archie's Murray-Isner Pick here:
See Archie's Roddick-Nadal pick here.
See Archie's Djokovic-Tipsarevic pick here:
See Archie's William's-Pavlyuchenkova pick here:
See Archie's Stosur-Zvonareva pick here:
See Archie's Pennetta-Kerber pick here:
See Archie's Petkovic-Wozniacki pick here:
See Archie's French Open Picks here:
See Archie's Wimbledon picks here

Archie's Pick: Wozniacki
Why: Who knows what Archie is thinking this point. He's never had a thing for Golden Retrievers before, but apparently, he does now.

My Pick: Williams
Why: The moment that Marion Bartoli beat Serena at Wimbledon the US Open basically became a lock for her. In other words, hell hath no fury like Serena scorned. She's proved time and time again this summer that not only is she the best in the women's game at the moment: she might be better than ever. What does all that add up to? A very lopsided victory for a women who is dead set on winning her 14th Grand Slam title. Serena has oodles of the things that Wozniacki lacks: Power, the ability to control her service games with ease, and the a Grand Slam pedigree to die for. The only way I can see Wozniacki getting through in this one is if Serena plays a little too reckless and goes for winners too early. That's something that a lot of other players do against Wozniacki, but if I know Serena she's got her course plotted out already. If she needs to be patient, I suspect she will.

Archie's Picks: Stosur-Kerber

Okay, Archie was surprised to see that Djokovic outlasted Federer in a five setter today. He took a nap during sets three and four, woke up briefly in set five, then slept through the finish. Sound familiar? 

Here is Archie's Stosur-Kerber pick, without any further ado. 

See Archie's Williams-Wozniacki pick here
See Archie's Federer-Djokovic pick here:
See Archie's Federer-Tsonga pick here:
See Archie's Murray-Isner Pick here:
See Archie's Roddick-Nadal pick here.
See Archie's Djokovic-Tipsarevic pick here:
See Archie's William's-Pavlyuchenkova pick here:
See Archie's Stosur-Zvonareva pick here:
See Archie's Pennetta-Kerber pick here:
See Archie's Petkovic-Wozniacki pick here:
See Archie's French Open Picks here:
See Archie's Wimbledon picks here

Archie's Pick: Kerber
Why: Archie smells yet another upset for the unheralded, unseeded, soft-balling German. 

My Pick: Stosur
Why: Stosur has played her most authoritative tennis of 2011 here in New York, and even though she'll be the one facing the pressure against the German who has been playing with house money since the 2nd round, she should come good. 

Archie's Picks: Nadal-Murray

Archie is riding Rafa right now, and with good results. So he poked his head up from his bowl this morning and said 'you know what? I'm going with Rafa again.' Then he chowed down the rest of his raw meat and licked his chops. He's thinking that's what Rafa, who is 12-4 vs. Murray in 16 career matches, is going to do today.

See Archie's Federer-Djokovic pick here
See Archie's Federer-Tsonga pick here:
See Archie's Murray-Isner Pick here:
See Archie's Roddick-Nadal pick here
See Archie's Djokovic-Tipsarevic pick here:
See Archie's William's-Pavlyuchenkova pick here:
See Archie's Stosur-Zvonareva pick here:
See Archie's Pennetta-Kerber pick here:
See Archie's Petkovic-Wozniacki pick here:
See Archie's French Open Picks here:
See Archie's Wimbledon picks here:

Archie's Pick: Rafa
Why: Because archie believes Rafa is part pit bull.

My Pick: Rafa
Why: I'd like to pick the upset here, but after watching Rafa's bloodletting vs. Andy Roddick yesterday, I'm thinking that Nadal is primed to make a run this weekend (and Monday) in New York. I think ideally Rafa, being the warrior that he is, would like a chance to get revenge against Djokovic in the final. If that doesn't happen, I'm sure he'd be more than happy to expand his dominion over Federer to the slower-playing hardcourts in New York.

Either way, the scheduling gods gave Rafa a nice break when they moved the final to Monday. Rafa then gave himself a break when he made short work of Roddick in the quarters yesterday. Murray has had a good tournament, and he's a formidable foe for anybody on the hardcourts. But I think he will get broken more than he breaks, and in tennis, that usually means you lose. Until Murray has a more reliable first serve that he can call upon in big points, games, and tiebreaks, I think he's destined to lose to a player like Nadal. I don't think there is much that separates these two great players, especially on a hardcourt, but the serve is one of those things, and it can't be overlooked. That's why I'm picking Rafa, just like Archie, in a tough 4-setter today.

Archie's Picks: Federer-Djokovic

Well, Archie's not too proud of the fact that he only picked 4 of 8 quarterfinal matches correctly, but he's not really worried about it either. He wants to wish you all the best on this most super of Super Saturdays, and he recommends that you don't let your rooting -- or gambling -- interests get in the way of enjoying what is sure to be some spectacular tennis today.

Without further ado, here is Archie's Federer-Djokovic pick for today.

See Archie's Nadal-Murray pick here:
See Archie's Federer-Tsonga pick here:
See Archie's Murray-Isner Pick here:
See Archie's Roddick-Nadal pick here
See Archie's Djokovic-Tipsarevic pick here:
See Archie's William's-Pavlyuchenkova pick here:
See Archie's Stosur-Zvonareva pick here:
See Archie's Pennetta-Kerber pick here:
See Archie's Petkovic-Wozniacki pick here:
See Archie's French Open Picks here:
See Archie's Wimbledon picks here:

Archie's Pick: Federer
Why: Call it a hunch.

My Pick: Djokovic

Why: I must admit that Federer has been amazing thus far in New York. Federer also leads the all-time head-to-head between these two (he's 14-9 vs. Nole), and that includes one of the biggest statements of 2011 -- the captivating, scintillating 4-set upset that Federer scored in this year's French Open semis.

But Nole, who is 38-1 on hard courts this year, and an amazing 62-2 overall, needs this match in a lot of ways. What's been interesting about Djokovic's year, is that the pressure never really has been lifted off of his shoulders. First there was the pressure of the streak, which finally ended at Roland Garros. Then there was the pressure of needing to win Wimbledon or face the fact that even in the best year of his life he could only come away with the Australian Open title. Since he got that, I think there is more pressure for Nole to become the sixth player in Open Era history to win three Grand Slam titles in a year.

The good news for Nole? He's done nothing but respond to the pressure.

The bad news? He's pitted against one of his fiercest rivals today, a man who'd like nothing more than to keep him from getting that third Slam. Federer enjoyed spoiling Djokovic's party at the French, but Nole responded valiantly by taking Wimbledon and the No. 1 ranking.

Winning two more matches in New York will put him in position to achieve the best single season in men's tennis history, and I think that Djokovic will rise to the occasion today, no matter what Federer throws at him.

Archie disagrees. How about you?

Friday, September 9, 2011

Archie's Picks: Murray-Isner

Archie smells another upset in the quarters today.
When I fed Archie his breakfast today, he paused, and gave me that funny look. Then he snuck his snout in the air and sniffed rapidly for a few minutes before he plunged it into his bowl. I know that look. In fact, I saw it yesterday when he made his Pavlyuchenkova-Williams pick. Archie smells upset, and there's nothing I could do to tell him otherwise.

See Archie's Roddick-Nadal pick here
See Archie's Djokovic-Tipsarevic pick here:
See Archie's William's-Pavlyuchenkova pick here:
See Archie's Stosur-Zvonareva pick here:
See Archie's Pennetta-Kerber pick here:
See Archie's Petkovic-Wozniacki pick here:
See Archie's French Open Picks here:
See Archie's Wimbledon picks here:

Archie's Pick: Isner
Why: Archie thinks it's the big dog's time to shine today. He's picking it in 5-sets and 4 tiebreaks.

My Pick: Murray
Why: I remember the way Murray outclassed Isner in their only previous meeting at the 2010 Australian Open. It was a matchup that Murray seemed to relish -- it seemed as if he could toy with the big man by bringing him into the net then smashing a passing shot or plopping a lob over his head in his sleep. Isner's on his home soil now, and that should help, but Murray is just so crafty: even if Isner stays in this match with his serve, I feel that Murray will find a way to pick his spots and get his breaks, leaving the big man's movement exposed.

Archie's Picks: Nadal-Roddick

Okay, so Archie's been out on a limb several times at this year's US Open and we're not even out of the quarters yet. The dog's got a good nose, so if he tells me he's smelling upsets, who am I to argue? He was right about Kerber over Pennetta, so I'll give him his props for that. But picking Pavs over Serena? Crazy. He regretted that one, and I can attest to that, as he was having difficulty sleeping last night and even had a few nightmares about it.

Anyway, today's another day. Archie was up early, and he's made his picks for the final two men's quarters. Here goes:

See Archie's Isner-Murray Pick here:
See Archie's Djokovic-Tipsarevic pick here:
See Archie's William's-Pavlyuchenkova pick here:
See Archie's Stosur-Zvonareva pick here:
See Archie's Pennetta-Kerber pick here:
See Archie's Petkovic-Wozniacki pick here:
See Archie's French Open Picks here:
See Archie's Wimbledon picks here:

Archie's Pick: Nadal
Why: Archie has believed in Nadal from day 1, and even though , like Nadal, Archie prefers to play on the sand, he thinks that the defending US Open champion is just to good to be defeated by Andy Roddick in a Slam at this point in his career.

My Pick: Nadal
Why: Roddick's stunning upset of Ferrer was an eye opener, and now that he's got Nadal in the quarters many are quick to remember just how effective Roddick was against Rafa in Miami last year, when he defeated Rafa 6-3 in the third set to reach the final there. Roddick also pushed Rafa to a third set at the ATP World Tour Finals last year, so he'll have a lot of confidence -- plus a lot of crowd support -- going in. But let's not forget that Rafa is a different player in the Slams. He'll be ready to battle from the onset, and he'll probably need to be, as this one could likely go five sets.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Archie's Picks: Federer-Tsonga

See Archie's Djokovic-Tipsarevic pick here:
See Archie's William's-Pavlyuchenkova pick here:
See Archie's Stosur-Zvonareva pick here:
See Archie's Pennetta-Kerber pick here:
See Archie's Petkovic-Wozniacki pick here:
See Archie's French Open Picks here:
See Archie's Wimbledon picks here:

Archie's Pick: Tsonga
Why: Tsonga is playful, and so is Archie

My Pick: Federer
Why: While both players have been amazing thus far in New York, my gut tells me that Federer is more capable of maintaining that level after all the chaos that has occurred with the weather in the last several days. It is true that Tsonga has scored two consecutive decisive victories over Federer, including one in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon, and it is true that Roger turned 30 last month, so he's not exactly the whippersnapper that he used to be. That being said, he's clearly not out of the picture yet, and if he finds a way to get by Tsonga, a 6th US Open title will only be two matches away.

This is by no means an easy pick to make, because it appears that Tsonga is elevating his game to another level these days. His serve matches well against the sometimes feeble Federer return game, so if he can serve like he's capable, Federer will find himself with a very stiff challenge.

Still, Federer may not have quite the firepower he once had, but the intangibles are still there, and because of this, I see Fed winning a tight four-setter.

Archie's Picks: Djokovic-Tipsarevic

See Archie's William's-Pavlyuchenkova pick here:
See Archie's Stosur-Zvonareva pick here:
See Archie's Pennetta-Kerber pick here:
See Archie's Petkovic-Wozniacki pick here:
See Archie's French Open Picks here:
See Archie's Wimbledon picks here:

Archie's Pick: Djokovic
Why: Archie's shown a real propensity to push the envelope with his women's quarters picks, so I was glad to see that he's going with Nole over Tipsarevic in the all-Serbian quarterfinal. Archie says that Djokovic is a man of the people, and even though he hasn't found a fuzzy little squirrel friend at his rented home in New Jersey, Archie still thinks he's the real deal in New York.

My pick: Djokovic
Why: First off, let me just say that I'm thrilled for Tipsarevic and I'm thrilled for Serbia too. Having an all-Serbian quarterfinal is a tremendous accomplishment, and it speaks volumes about the fact that Serbian tennis is more than just Djokovic. We all knew that already, but Tipsarevic's latest push reinforces it even further, and that's a good thing. That being said, Nole has been incredible all year (duh) and all tournament too. He's the can't miss kid right now, and he remains my pick to win it all (especially since he'll get Friday off if he wins).

Archie's Picks: Petkovic-Wozniacki

See Archie's William's-Pavlyuchenkova pick here:
See Archie's Stosur-Zvonareva pick here:
See Archie's Pennetta-Kerber pick here:
See Archie's French Open Picks here:
See Archie's Wimbledon picks here:

Archie's Pick: Petko
Why: He likes the dance, he likes the powerful backhand and most of all, he likes the fact that Andrea is gutting out a fairly serious knee injury as she moves through the draw. Archie said that after her last match he wanted to lick Petko's knee, for whatever that is worth.

My pick: Petko
Why: I'm pretty torn about this pick, because Caroline has been playing her brand of tennis perfectly in New York thus far. She's fit, she's mentally unflappable, and she seems to believe that she can beat anyone right now -- something that might not have been true a few weeks ago when she was struggling. Still, I feel that after these two scramble for a while, somehow Petkovic will find a way to have her bright lights big city moment. I could see this one going either way, but something tells me that Petkovic will have luck on her side.

Archie's Picks Pennetta-Kerber

See Archie's William's-Pavlyuchenkova pick here:
See Archie's Stosur-Zvonareva pick here:
See Archie's Petkovic-Wozniacki pick here:
See Archie's French Open Picks here:
See Archie's Wimbledon picks here:

Archie's Pick: Kerber
Why: Archie is just plain crazy, is all I can say about this pick. Kerber? Really? He says he just has a feeling that Kerber truly has nothing to lose and that's going to help her. We shall see.

My pick: Pennetta
Why: Flavia is destined to have her New York moment this year, and that was made abundantly clear when she ousted Sharapova in the third round. Her three Us Open quarterfinal appearances in New York don't lie: Flavia clearly plays her best tennis in New York, and I see no reason why that shouldn't continue against a very beatable opponent today.

Archie's Picks: Stosur-Zvonareva

See Archie's William's-Pavlyuchenkova pick here:
See Archie's Pennetta-Kerber pick here:
See Archie's Petkovic-Wozniacki pick here:
See Archie's French Open Picks here:
See Archie's Wimbledon picks here:

Archie's Pick: Stosur
Why: Archie feels that Stosur is his kindred spirit. He likes her down-to-earth sweetness and her strong but silent assertiveness.

My Pick: Zvonareva
Why: Well, this match just ended, and I was dead wrong. I thought Vera was going to overcome her past against Stosur, but I was dead wrong.

Archie's Picks: Williams-Pavlyuchankova

Welcome to this year's US Open edition of Archie's picks. We've got a lot of picks to make, so Archie and I will try to be brief and keep it entertaining for y'all. So, without any further ado, here is our Williams-Pavlyuchenkova pick. 

See Archie's Stosur-Zvonareva pick here:
See Archie's Pennetta-Kerber pick here:
See Archie's Petkovic-Wozniacki pick here:
See Archie's French Open Picks here:
See Archie's Wimbledon picks here:

Archie's Pick: Pavs
Why: Who knows, Archie always seems to like the Russians. Could be their affinity for slicing off a little meat for a well behaved pit bull and slipping it under the table to him. 

My pick: Serena
Why: Duh. What you need a better explanation? Okay, how about we forget about the serve for a while and talk about Serena's backhand. Such control, such variety. I could go on and on. And on and on. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Tuesday's Rainout Will Make Repeating Tougher For Nadal

I've chosen the obligatory Jimmy Connors washout video to accompany the bad news that is coming from the US Open on Tuesday. With the rain nixing Rafael Nadal's 4th-round match with Gilles Muller (along with three other men's 4th-round tilts), I immediately wondered the following: Can we really expect Nadal to defend his title by winning four best-of-five set matches in five days? The same goes for Andy Murray, and the other six players who were scheduled to battle for spots in the quarterfinals today.

I just don't know how they are going to get through this. There's rain in the forecast for six of the next seven days and there's no roof.

Then I started thinking: Is there any way that we can get Larry Ellison in so that he could fly all players and ticket holders from New York to Indian Wells?

Excuse me if I sound like an anti-USTA ranter at the moment, but really, it's kind of hard to be anything but at this point. There is no roof at the National Tennis Center, nor is one likely for at least 10 years, and to make matters more complicated, the US Open remains as the only Grand Slam that plays the semifinals and finals on back-to-back days.

That double-whammy has made for more headaches than great tennis in recent years. Super Saturday at the US Open supposedly began for the sake of the fans (let's be honest: it's really more about the advertisers), but does anybody really benefit from having a Grand Slam final played less than 24 hours after the semifinals? It makes no sense, especially when you consider the way tennis is played these days. The points are longer, the matches are longer and the physical rigor of the game is exponentially greater.

With Tuesday's play cancelled, it appears as if the players won't even be fresh when Super Saturday begins, and the advantage has swung decidedly in favor of the four players who are already through to the quarters: Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Janko Tipsarevic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. If rain causes no further cancellations, each will still have to play three matches in five days, but that seems a lot more manageable than the herculean task that the other eight players slated to play fourth-rounders tomorrow face.

Of course, I'm operating under the assumption that matches will be played on Wednesday through Saturday, but we all know mother nature might have other designs. So, here we are, at the mercy of factors beyond anybody's control, in a tournament that has already proved that they care more about TV ratings than ensuring that their finalists are rested and ready to go for the final (I'm all for commercialization, but prefer to draw the line a little closer to the player's wishes).

You do the math, if you can stomach the conclusion: advantage, mother nature.

All we can do now is cross our fingers and hope and pray that an equable solution drops out of the sky with all those raindrops.

Monday, September 5, 2011

US Open: The Top 8 Quotes of The First 8 Days

If you were expecting anything other than a fantastic first week at the US Open, then you were pleasantly surprised. As for those of us who live for Grand Slam tennis, we got what we wanted—a week so full of buzz and momentous occasions, you'd need several arms to have enough fingers to count them all.

Enjoy the video above to relive some of the glory of the week that was, then drop below to read the top 8 quotes of the first 8 days of the US Open.

1.  "Definitely not." -- Donald Young, with a wry smile, on whether it was possible that his twitter war with the USTA was a good thing.

2.  "I mean, I'm sure a lot of people were surprised because it was him that was cramping. But Rafa's human. I think some people forget that sometimes." -- Andy Murray, nonplussed, on Rafael Nadal's cramping in a press conference.

3.  "You always want to know what it is precisely? I don't even know what it means, so I don't know." -- Tomas Berdych, perturbed, when being grilled by the press after retiring from his 3rd round match against Janko Tipsarevic due to a shoulder injury.

4.  "I have no idea...that's a silly question. I'm sorry." -- Victoria Azarenka, perplexed, when asked how great the distance is between Serena and the rest of the field.

5.  "I just got out of High School. Yeah, obviously when you play on Arthur Ashe at the US Open it feels a lot different than playing at Blue Valley North High School in May at the state championship." -- Jack Sock, appreciative, on the thrill of playing bright lights, big city tennis.

6.  "That hurts watching, at least for me. I'd be out for a" -- John McEnroe, amazed, on Serena Williams doing the splits in her 3rd round match against Victoria Azarenka.

7.  "I'll call you in a few days and let you know." -- Maria Sharapova, smugly, when asked what she was going to do in order to regain her "A" game.

8.  "Even though I lost the match, it was a good feeling." -- Gael Monfils, touchingly naive, on how wonderful it was to receive a standing ovation after his 5-set loss to Juan Carlos Ferrero.

The Longest Women's Tiebreaker in Grand Slam History

For those who were lucky enough to watch Samantha Stosur and Maria Kirelenko's epic 2nd set tiebreaker in it's entirety, you know what kind of gut-wrenching drama it involved. For those who didn't, here's the last few points, thanks to YouTube user, Slovakia 2010.

At 32 points, Stosur and Kirilenko's work of dramatic genius stands as the longest women's tiebreaker in Grand Slam history, just a tad short of the all-time record for longest women's tiebreaker, which was a 40-point affair that was contested in Madrid by Tara Snyder and Emmanuelle Gagliardi in 1999.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Grading The Open: Week 1

There were a lot of high marks, and two epic fails at the US Open this week. Join us as we take out the red marker and grade the pros for their week one performances. 

Flavia Pennetta: A + 
The gutsy Italian braved Maria Sharapova and a bout of heat-related nausea to fight her way to her third US Open quarterfinal of her career. She's still alive as the No. 2 seed with partner Gisela Dulko in the doubles draw as well.
Donald Young: A+
Finally, Young becomes the center of attention for all the right reasons. His signature moment was when he rallied from a set down in round 2 on Court 17 to defeat Stan Wawrinka, but he's been grinding hard all week. He's also endeared himself to fans this week by showing that he's really a super nice kid with a lot of respect for the game and the pros ranked ahead of him. Also, he's grateful for the support that he's been getting from the USTA (and grateful that the widely publicized rift is in the past). Don't believe me? Watch a few of his pressers and see for yourself.
Rafa Nadal: A
His tennis hasn't been as supersonic as 2010—yet—but his cramping episode today was an instant classic.
Tommy Haas: A
Saw an interview with Haas on the Tennis Channel, and came away invigorated by Haas' passion for the sport. A guy like him, who has been through numerous surgeries over the years, could easily say "No Mas" and cozy up to a nice post-tennis career, but he's still got the fire to compete, and it's admirable.
Jack Sock and Melanie Oudin: A 
Perma-slump would be a kind way to describe Melanie Oudin's year, which is why I'm rooting for her in mixed dubs. Melanie has been forgotten as a fresh stable of American gals have forged their way to major headlines this week, but she did get busy on the mixed doubles court with Jack Sock. They rallied from a set down to beat the No. 1 seeded team of Liezel Huber and Bob Bryan in a match tiebreak.
Sam Stosur and Maria Kirilenko: A 
Stosur won this awesome match, but both players get an A for playing the longest women's tiebreaker in Grand Slam history.
Andy Murray: A
He was facing another demoralizing early round loss on Armstrong (remember last year when he went down against Stan Wawrinka in the 3rd round?) but he got his act together and wobbled to the finish against Robin Haase in one of the craziest matches of the tournament thus far. It wasn't pretty, and some might say it wasn't even good, but for Murray it was a character win. It was also his sixth comeback from 2 sets down in a Slam, and that, my friends, deserves an A.
Serena Williams: A
I would have given her an A + but then she almost lost a set. How dare she?
Andrea Petkovic: A-
I'm not sold on the popping and breaking just yet, but I loved her kissing her recently-injured knee after a hard fought win over Zheng Jie in the 2nd round.
David Ferrer: A-
The consummate pro had another solid week and will head into his round-of-16 match-up with Andy Roddick as the heavy favorite.
Victoria Azarenka: B
We may very well look back a week from now and say "Wow, Vika was the only one who even came close to giving Serena a match." She didn't play well enough to win, but she sure as heck played well enough to impress.
Francesca Schiavone: B
She's playing D+ tennis but she's getting A+ results. She's still alive and there is definitely something to be said for that.
Sabine Lisicki: B
She had an A average coming into the fourth round (had lost only 7 games), but Vera Zvonareva brought her swiftly back to earth.
Juan Martiin del Potro: B-
Props to Gilles Simon for playing him perfectly, but Delpo was neither tactically nor technically anywhere near his best today. I think we all expected his return to New York for the first time since his title in '09 to be a little more magical.
Ryan Harrison: C
This is the year of the American resurgence, and our prize prospect gets shellacked by a lost-at-sea Marin Cilic? Look, Cilic is a great player, but the fact that Harrison's worst performance of the summer came in the US Open is very disappointing.
Bernard Tomic: D
You think Harrison was bad? Tomic was a Wimbledon quarterfinalist two months ago, but he only managed 3 games against Cilic in the second round.
Ivo Karlovic and Frank Moser: D
These guys have the nerve to take out the Bryan Bros. in round 1 and then lose the next match to Bolleli and Fognini? Huh?
Gael Monfils: D
Gael got bounced in 5 sets by Juan Carlos Ferrero in the 2nd round in style. Unfortunately, La Monf prefers style over making the plays that would give him the best chance to win matches. It's beautiful to watch at times, but it's also infuriating to see a player of his talent level crash out in round 2. A lot of us just wish he'd save the Cirque du Soleil moves for the practice courts, because his propensity to dazzle is obviously fouling up his chances to win.
Petra Kvitova and Na Li: F
There's no other grade to give them, unfortunately.

Rafa Cramps and the World Swoons

 The tweets started coming at around 4 P.M. Eastern Standard time. It was the "Cramp heard round the world," and the only thing missing was the voice of a commentator saying—no screaming—"Rafa has a cramp, Rafa has a cramp!"

Still, it had to be the most coverage a cramp in a press conference has ever gotten.

Question: Is that a good thing, or are we all mixing a little too much paparazzi with our sports these days?

Answer: Of course it was a good thing. Look at the damn video, it's the best thing ever. Nobody got hurt, and we all got to spend a little time contemplating what it might be like to spend time with Rafa in the sack. What can be bad about that?

There he was, holder of 10 Grand Slam titles, the defending US Open champ, and the owner of tennis's most famous left bicep of all time, slumping in his chair, then slowly crumbling and laying on his back with a look on his face that can only be described as an erotic cross between pain and pleasure.

Who knew that pain could look so pleasurable?

And who knew that CBS would actually air footage of the defending champ suffering from cramps in the presser?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Oh, So That's How It's Done

Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka treated the fans at Arthur Ashe Stadium to a transcendent 2nd set on Saturday.

For a brief stunning moment on Arthur Ashe Stadium, tennis fans were treated to all that women's tennis aspires to be, when Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka locked horns in a second set that had jaws dropping and twitter feeds lighting up all over the place.

There will be many who will lament the fact that William's 6-1, 7-6(5) victory took place in the 3rd round rather than the final, but whenever it took place, it was damn pleasing to watch.

We all expected Serena to hold court, but when Azarenka rose up to challenge the 13-time Grand Slam champion and put the match into doubt, at least for a while, we were reminded of the incredible potential of the 22-year-old who is currently ranked No. 5 in the world.

The draw was unfortunate for Azarenka, and that might have been on her mind when she found herself on the short end of a 28-minute first set that featured 13 winners and 7 aces from Williams and 2 winners and 0 aces for Azarenka.

But to her credit Azarenka didn't hang her head. She picked up her play considerably in a scintillating 82-minute second set, fighting off 4 match points, scorching 16 winners and making Serena pull out all the stops to ensure she got the victory.

Of course, Serena did.

But  the feisty Azarenka deserves credit for playing a major role in what was the most entertaining set of the tournament thus far. She could have easily mailed in the second set and blamed her fate on the cruel gods of tennis who pitted her against Williams so early in the draw, but instead she gathered herself and elevated her game to a level so high that it was unclear as to just who was the better player on the court for much of the second set.

In the end it was Serena, but in the process Azarenka proved that she just may be the 2nd best player in the world right now; if she isn't, she certainly has the potential to be. "I mean, I"m not going to sit here and cry about I  had a tough draw," said Azarenka afterwards.

As far as Serena goes, there should be plenty of opportunities to sing her praise over the next week, so please forgive me for not doing so here. But I will say this: there were no doubts about Serena's form coming into this tournament, and now that she's taken out the No. 4 seed and displayed a level of fitness and movement that we haven't seen from her in years in doing so, it's clear that it is going to take a transcendent effort to compete with her at the 2011 US Open — let alone beat her.

Is anybody left in the women's draw capable of such an effort?

When You Visit the US Open, Don't Do This

Hey I'm all about having a responsible good time over Labor Day Weekend in the good 'Ole U S of A. But I'm also about originality. That's why I don't recommend that you try to copy any of this guy's dance moves when you visit the Open this weekend.

By all means, act like a psycho and dance like a fool on meth, but if you are planning to take off your US Open shirt to reveal that you have an "I Heart NY" shirt underneath—don't do it, because that move is taken.

Sharapova: "I didn't feel comfortable"

A tough loss for Maria Sharapova yesterday against Flavia Pennetta, but it's been a great year for Maria. She's returned to the top 5, reached the Wimbledon final (French Open semis, too), and reinforced her reputation as one of the hardest working, most intense players on the tour.

Still, this one has to sting. And it also makes us wonder: What's next for Maria? Now that she's established her top 5 ranking again, will she go back and shore up her serving issues so that she can put herself in a position to win more Slams?

It would be the logical step for Sharapova, but it's one she's needed to make for a few years, and hasn't. What is keeping her from improving her serve, and is there a coach who can help her get things sorted out? Thomas Hogstedt is getting the big bucks as her coach, but he doesn't appear to be helping Maria get the serve firing on all cylinders.

2 years after her return from shoulder surgery, it's still the pink elephant in the room, the fifty million dollar question, and a big reason why this press conference is so subdued. Tossing 12 double faults and getting broken 7 times is simply too much to overcome, even for a fierce competitor and world class ball striker like Maria

Can Anyone Stop Serena?

Victoria Azarenka drew the short straw and will have to face Serena Williams in the third round tomorrow on Ashe. Does she have a chance?

13 Grand Slams and 14 straight wins add up to a really difficult assignment for No. 4 seed Victoria Azarenka tomorrow. Azarenka is at a career-high ranking, and fresh off her first Grand Slam semifinal at Wimbledon, but those are pretty small potatoes when you consider what she'll be up against tomorrow. 

And yet, if there is anybody in the draw capable of putting a scare into Serena, the 22-year-old Belarusian might be the woman for the job. Azarenka has defeated Serena before (it's a start), and she did it in Miami, a place where Serena had won five of the previous six titles. There's more to the story (isn't there always with Serena?): Williams played the match with her left thigh heavily strapped and later said "It was definitely tough...I'm just glad I made it this far."

Maybe Azarenka was fortunate, but she scored the win nonetheless.

And that wasn't the only time she rattled Serena's cage.

Azarenka has put a scare into Serena twice in Australia too. In 2009 she took an early lead against Williams only to be forced to retire due to dizziness in the second set. Then, there was the memorable and infamous "calm storm" episode, in which Serena was getting absolutely blitzed by Azarenka in the '10 Australian Open, then engineered a Houdini impersonation to win in three sets. 

That might have been the turning point in the rivalry that never was. Azarenka had been making headway against Williams until that point, but following that match one is left with the feeling that it's going to be a long time —maybe an eternity—until Azarenka can stand across the net from Serena and expect to win. 

Sure, Azarenka's got the game to put Serena on the run, and even enough punch to hit through her, but in the end, Serena's true advantage has always been about her Invincible aura more than her vast array of shots or awe inspiring power. When she willed herself to victory against Azarenka in Australia (what was remarkable about the match is that Azarenka didn't choke it away, she was just ambushed by a woman possessed) it was an undeniable symbol of a return to order between the two. 

If Azarenka's window against Serena was open once, it appears to have been closed in January of 2010. It's painted shut now, and Azarenka is going to need to play some seriously courageous tennis to even crack it open again tomorrow, let alone win. 

If their last meeting is any indication, tomorrow's tilt could be a one-sided affair. Williams won 93% of her first serve points in a breezy straight-sets win over the Belarusian en route to the Toronto title in August. 

This week, Serena seems even stronger than she was she won titles in Stanford and Toronto back-to-back in August. She's looked utterly explosive in the first two rounds, covering the court with a quickness not seen for several years, while surrendering a mere three games in her first two matches. 

Azarenka is still a player on the rise, and she's overcome a lot of fitness-related issues to emerge a stronger more mentally composed player. But does she have enough to push Serena, a player who is clearly hungry for Grand Slam glory and all the trappings that come with it? 

I sincerely doubt it. 

Friday, September 2, 2011

Upset Special: Pennetta Outlasts Sharapova

Flavia Pennetta ended Maria Sharapova's 12-match winning streak in matches that have gone the distance, and just like that another crater-sized hole has opened up in the women's singles draw at the 2011 US Open.

Three of the top six seeds are already gone, and with No. 4 seed Victoria Azarenka playing Serena Williams tomorrow, we could have a 4th round that features only two of the top six seeds, and only three of the top eight.

Pennetta, who has now defeated Sharapova 2 consecutive times, will attempt to reach her third US Open quarterfinal when she plays Shuai Peng of China in the 4th round.

After a hard fought third set in front of a lively crowd on Arthur Ashe, Pennetta admitted that she was shaking due to nerves. If she had known about Sharapova's impressive third set winning streak, it could have been worse. "I didn't know that," said Pennetta, when Darren Cahill told her after that match that Maria had not lost a three-set match this year. "It's a good thing," she added.

Pennetta is 4-0 vs. Peng, including two three-setters at the US Open, but she's not taking anything for granted. "Tennis, it's something crazy. You have to be on the court until the last point."

In 2009, Pennetta reached a career-high ranking and became the first Italian woman to crack the WTA's top ten after a 15-match winning streak in the summer. She then rode the momentum to her memorable 4th round victory over Vera Zvonareva at the 2009 US Open. The New York crowds seemed to remember Pennetta well, and showed unwavering support for her throughout today's match.

A dejected Sharapova came into New York as one of the players with the best chance to win the title, after reaching the Wimbledon final and returning to the top 5 for the first time since shoulder surgery temporarily derailed her career in 2009.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Rally 'Round the Flag

There is cause for optimism (Recommendation: remain cautiously optimistic to avoid future fallout.) for American women's tennis fans. Now I know some of you are predisposed to finding what's bad in American tennis, but with this burgeoning crop of young tennis players, there is something for everyone to get happy about.

The two youngest players left in the US Open women's singles draw, Christina McHale and Sloane Stephens are from the U.S. Additionally, the youngest player to participate in the women's draw, 16-year-old Madison Keys raised a lot of eyebrows with her near upset of No. 27 seed Lucie Safarova in the 2nd round.

All told, five Americans have reached the third round of the US Open for the first time since 2004, and four of the five are younger than 22.

Do any of them have the potential to win Grand Slams? Hard to say. Will there be life in American women's tennis after Serena and Venus? Apparently so.

Here's a bit of info on this burgeoning crop of young Americans:

1. Madison Keys— Keys was the youngest player in the draw, and she grabbed her first Grand Slam win when she defeated the oldest player in the draw, American Jill Craybas. Lindsay Davenport called Keys the most likely to win a Slam of all the young Americans, citing her size, athleticism, and impressive raw power. Lucie Safarova, who barely got by Keys in the second round, also had high praise for her. "She's 16 years old and is already for sure playing at a top 50 level," she said.

2. Christina McHale— McHale has been making noise all season, but her 2nd round performance against No. 8 seed Marion Bartoli was a real coming out party for the Teaneck, N.J. native. For her to win a well-played match at a Grand Slam against a tenacious player like Bartoli speaks volumes about her potential. She may not pack the wallop of a Keys, but McHale is an enterprising young player who is fit, mobile and intense. While other young players impress with their power or athleticism, McHale impresses with her desire and her mental toughness. She may not be world-beater material, but she could be a very solid pro who spends a lot of time in the top 30 someday.

3. Sloane Stephens— Sloane Stephens has been through a lot in her 18 years on the planet. She grew up never knowing her father, only to become close with him after she turned 13, then lose him again when he died in a car accident in 2009. Because of all this, Stephens is wise beyond her years, and her poise is finally showing through on the Grand Slam stage. She's effortless and smooth behind the baseline, with nice mechanics and deceptive power, but she'll have to learn how to take time away from her opponents by stepping inside the baseline and playing more aggressive tennis to become a consistent threat on the WTA tour.

4. Vania King—The doubles phenom is through to the 3rd round in a Grand Slam for the third time in her career. She'll always be challenged due to her diminutive stature (doesn't the WTA's listing for her at 5'5" 128 seem generous?), but Vania is a solid player with a long career still in front of her.

5. Irina Falconi—Who was that wild woman with an American flag draped around her yesterday on Arthur Ashe? Was it the ghost of Melanie Oudin? No, it was Irina Falconi. "I strongly believe in all that is U.S.A," said the Ecuadorian-born 21-year-old, "and I wanted to represent it and show the world that it's coming. It's coming. No need to wait any longer."

Stay tuned to the third round to see if Falconi can back up her words.

Here are the 3rd round match ups for the Americans:

McHale vs. Kirilenko
Falconi vs. Lisicki
King vs. Wozniacki
Williams vs. Azarenka
Stephens vs. Ivanovic.