Saturday, August 11, 2012

Armchair Coach: Raonic Is no Nole


===
I was watching—leisurely, mind you, so I don't have the stats memorized—the Raonic-Isner match and the Djokovic-Haas match late last night from Toronto, so I figured I'd ramble a bit about each.

So, anyway, what is the deal with Raonic and Isner hitting moonballs at each other last night during the tiebreaker? Did anybody else see that? Was it as glaringly obvious to you that both Isner and Raonic need to play riskier tennis (particularly in their return games) as it was to me?

I know: conservative, defensive, scared drivel is not exactly the recipe for potential maximization for a 6'5" to 6'9" player, but for some reason it's what both Isner and Raonic seem to prefer. It's a silly way for gargantuan tennis players to attempt to defeat one another—oxymoronic, don't you think?—but I digress.

I'm not myopic to the point where I can't see that it's admirable of both Isner and Raonic (I'm talking about all 13' 6" of them) to try to become better baseliners, so please don't accuse me of hating. Isner and Raonic should, by all means, aim for consistency and make a legitimate attempt to master the nuances of the game. But when it's crunch time, for god sakes, Isner and Raonic, step on the gas and hit for the hills!

I think that Raonic is far more guilty than Isner of being gun-shy, but they both suffer the consequences of possessing the passive gene.

So many times last night Isner and Raonic stayed in nuetral: reluctant to take on any risk, waiting for the other's mistakes. It's a winning formula more often than not for each, but at its core it fails to dream. When you are one of the top five servers in the game (both Raonic and Isner are) you need to use that serve as a get-out-of-jail free card and TAKE SOME RISKS!

Let's face it, neither of these guys is going to get to No. 1 anytime soon, so each's best bet to make a TRUE SPLASH on the tennis court is to win a Slam. Isner and Raonic should be fine-tuning their high-octane games with the goal of getting hot and staying hot for seven consecutive matches in mind, not trying to keep their heads above water by playing it safe.

Neither should be playing scared like both were last night. Isner won the match, and rightfully so—he is clearly the better big-match player—but he was just as guilty of Raonic of being passive and not embracing the gunslinger mentality.

All I am saying is this: Raonic spent half the match behind the "Toronto" sign which was probably six feet behind the baseline (see above video to locate "Toronto" sign). Djokovic, in his three-set victory over Tommy Haas probably ended up that deep in the court three times during the whole match.

Simply put, Raonic and Isner need to attack and intimidate. If they don't they'll still be fine. They'll earn a good living, but they will never win Slams that way.

As far as Djokovic goes...

He can do whatever he wants. The guy may be more human than super-human in 2012, but he is still elite in every sense of the word when he takes the court. Rumors of personal turbulence may be true, but don't think for a second that Djokovic isn't still ready, willing and able to add to his legend.

Anybody who saw him let out a guttural scream after defeating Tommy Haas in a tense nailbiter has been served the memo. Djokovic is already thinking about winning in New York. The rest of the big four are licking their wounds on different, but real, levels.

With that said, I like Djokovic's chances in New York.

But let's see what he can do tomorrow against Tipsarevic first...

Monday, July 23, 2012

Beautiful Time-Lapse Videos of Wimbledon


The Championships at Wimbledon from The Seventh Movement on Vimeo.

=== I came across this mind-blowingly fantastic montage of time-lapse video from Wimbledon today on Twitter (thanks to @nickmccarvel), and I've been raving about it ever since. Since I spent about 80 hours a day watching Wimbledon during the fortnight (the other 44 hours per day were spent writing), I was familiar of the work of the San Francisco-based crew of cinematographers known as "The Seventh Movement," even though my knowledge of them wasn't of the conscious variety.

They were hired by ESPN to provide time-lapse footage of Wimbledon--not just tennis, but cool-ass footage of people opening and closing umbrellas, the storied Wimbledon grass whisperers pushing mowers, the threatening and ever-changing skies overhead, and countless other nuances that are unique to The Championships--and they performed their job admirably.

And, as it turns out, the crew at The Seventh Movement, who has filmed at LeMans, the X-Games, and Mavericks among other places with grand sporting traditions, really fell in love with the tennis at Wimbledon.

How could they not, right?

"When your first tennis experience is an all-access pass to the most prestigious tournament in the world, who can blame us for ordering rackets to the house at the airport as we were leaving London?" writes the group on it's Vimeo page. "The moment you walk through those gates, its like entering a place that time hasn't touched. To be honest, it was the best way to get someone hooked on a sport."

Most of us are already hooked, but it's nice to know that The Seventh Movement is right there with us now. 

Amen to that. And amen to this classic footage, some of the coolest tennis material that I've ever seen. You can almost smell the grass and feel the summer showers while watching it.

Enjoy!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Federer, the Blue-Collar Race Car


===
Roger Federer has always played tennis like a race car. He's built for hugging the road around hairpin turns and accelerating from 0 to 60 in the blink of an eye. He's got that elegant, aerodynamic design, exotic features, and a powerful engine that purrs. But unlike those finicky race cars that often end up spending more time up on the lift at repair shops, Federer's always been "Ram Tough" when it comes to tennis.

At Wimbledon this week, just as it did in 2009, that "Ram-Toughness" is paying major dividends.

And when I say major I mean Grand Slam major.

That's what impressed me most about Federer's upset of world No. 1 Novak Djokovic today in the Wimbledon semifinals. His toughness; his durability; his sticktuitiveness. We've come to associate Federer with only regal trappings—Rolex watches, cardigan sweaters, Credit Suisse, private jets—but as it turns out the real essence of Federer might be a little more blue-collar than we initially suspected.

For one, Federer is the king of longevity. His current streak of 33 consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinal appearances surpasses tennis's blue collar king, Jimmy Connors, by 6, and Federer's still going strong.

That's remarkable on so many levels. Reaching the quarterfinals of a single Grand Slam is certainly not a big deal for a player like Federer, who has spent a combined 285 weeks at No. 1 in the world, but when you take into account the fact that he has been able to stay healthy enough to not miss a single Grand Slam in over eight years of life on the tour it is pretty mind-blowing. (Tennis years are like dog years: one year in a normal person's life equals about seven years for a tennis player when you take into account the toll the sport exacts on a player's body. Don't believe me? Just ask Rafael Nadal). 

Even more mind-blowing is the artful, low-impact style of game that Federer has fashioned. In an age of extremely physical, almost sadistic tennis, Federer has somehow managed to cultivate an exquisitely amped-up power game without suffering all the injuries—think blown-out knees, overwrought wrists and shoulders, shredded elbows—that wreak havoc on other players.  


How has he done it? Well, if anybody knew, they'd all be doing it, right? But if there was ever a tennis player who could step right off the court and into a leading role in a world-class ballet, Federer's your guy. 


It's remarkable when you think about it, that Federer is still here, and on the cusp of leapfrogging both Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic for the No.l ranking at the age of 30.


It's almost as if his whole career was built with this kind of Wimbledon in mind. That a young Federer would train with a crystal-clear vision of what the future might be like in mind. That he'd adjust and modify his techniques in those formative years so that he could be a player that would someday hang around, stay healthy, stay positive, keep embracing the game and his place in it whether he was ranked No. 1 or No. 3—and if he did that, if he stayed true to his vision, he'd have his chances for more big titles.

We all wondered who was going to be the biggest beneficiary of Rafael Nadal's early Wimbledon exit last week. Initially, Andy Murray was the name on the tip of everybody's tongue. But just like in 2009, when a thought-to-be-past-his-prime Federer swept in to win the French Open-Wimbledon double with Rafa on the sidelines, Federer's the player who is ready to pounce on the opportunity.


As mythical as his regal game has always been, Federer's passion for the sport, and his willingness to honor that passion with hard work, is equally mythical.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Wimbledon Men's Semifinals: Whose Piano is the Biggest?


---
In this year's Wimbledon men's singles semifinals, there are the haves and the have nots.

And even as the idea that pressure is a privilege—that it is something to be embraced, and perhaps as nutritious as a protein shake or a couple of bananas before hitting the court—has been circulating ever since six-times Wimbledon singles champion Billie Jean King penned the phrase, there is also the notion that pressure is a piano on the back of a once quick-footed, agile, and confident player.

At the Wimbledon semifinals, the nobody is exempt from the pressure, but certainly there are members of the fab four who will suffer under the weight of their pianos more than the others.

With a group of talented players such as this, which of them deals with the pressure in the most positive way, or which is unaware of the pressure (or can deflect it), might be the player that holds the trophy on Sunday.

The mind games are already starting, and as poker-faced as the players are trying to be in the pressrooms and on the court, even their stoned-faced comments give us insight into their delicate mindsets at the moment.

Reporter to Andy Murray: "How would you describe the attention on you, the weight on your shoulders as you go for something that the country has waited so many years for?"

"Ummmmmmmm...I don't really know. There's obviously pressure there. If you think too much about it and you read the newspapers and you watch the stuff on TV that's said about you, I think it would become far too much, but if you kind of shield yourself from all and just get into your own little bubble and listen only to the people that are around you, then it's something that you can deal with."

It's nasty, basically asking someone to tell you how they feel about something whose existence they are trying to deny, but Murray handled the mild interrogation well. Still, his detailed response shows just how strange it must be to have to spend your days in a bubble in order to avoid the rambling rivers of public opinion that ceaselessly flow in your direction.

Like it or not, there's a piano in Murray's dressing room, and his challenge is to leave it there when he takes the court on Friday with a shot to reach the Wimbledon final.

But Murray's not the only one with pressure. As strange as it may seem, Roger Federer's got some too. Yes, he's got 16 Grand Slams to his name—he could have stopped in 2009 and he'd be considered one of the best if not the best of all time. But something keeps driving Federer to achieve, and his relentless pursuit of Grand Slam glory has led him here, to the place it all began for him, about to play a semifinal with a rival on his favorite surface in a draw that Rafael Nadal was bounced from a long time ago.

As time slowly but surely starts to catch up with Federer, you better believe he's aware of the fact that this might be his best chance to snag that seventh Wimbledon and seventeeth Grand Slam title he's had on his Xmas list since 2010. If he gets it, he'll join Pete Sampras in Wimbledon infamy, and he'd likely have cemented his legacy as the greatest tennis player who ever lived.

Federer, as is typical, shrugged off any concerns about having lost six of his last seven matches to Djokovic when chatting with the press. In fact, he went one step further to point out he's happy just to have reached the Wimbledon semis for the first time in three years.

"I haven't put too much thought into it yet," Federer said of playing Djokovic on grass for the first time. "I'm just happy, myself again, I'm a round further than I've been in the last couple of years, so it's been a good tournament so far for me."

Federer is playing it cool as a cucumber. He's happy to have done so well; He's happy to be healthy; The rest is gravy. It's not true of course, but if it relaxes him and helps him play as if he's got nothing to lose then his piano, a slightly smaller model than Murray's, might stay in the locker room as well.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, on the other hand, is a man without a piano. Say what you will about Tsonga's airheadedness at times, but the coachless, light-hearted Frenchman really doesn't concern himself too much with pressure. That will make him a very dangerous player for Murray to cope with on Friday, especially if his piano makes it out to Centre Court with him.

"I feel good," said Tsonga. "For me it's a chance to be here. I will go on court and I will try to take my chance and that' s it."

When asked what it would mean for France if he were to make the final of Wimbledon, Tsonga took a long pause, sighed, and laughed. "I really don't know," he said.

Translation: "I'm a kid in a playground. If I win, I win."

It's difficult to say, which player's method of deflecting the growing pressure of playing these high-stakes matches is best. The earnest, introspective Murray seems to have it licked, but when he steps on court he looks like the weight of the world is on his shoulders. The casual, almost dismissive Federer seems to know a thing or two about pressure, but his record in big-pressure situations is far from perfect these days. Tsonga's obliviousness is nice, too, but he plays oblivious tennis to match sometimes, and that can sabotage his best intentions.

As far as Djokovic goes, he's probably got the best aura of all four semifinalists right now. He's the defending champ, he's the world No. 1, and he's still running uphill in comparison to Nadal and Federer in terms of legacy.

There is something to be said for a man who is on a quest. Djokovic may not be the juggernaut he was at this time last year, but I think he's eager to prove that he is. He's so switched-on in terms of tennis, that his brain seems impervious to externalities such as other people's expectations for him. Federer was this way for many years, and Nadal too.

When you're hungry—as Djokovic clearly is—and you focus on chasing history, playing flawlessly, and proving to the world that you do belong in their class, the pressure does start to look like a privilege.

And the piano doesn't even make it to your locker room.

It stays in the press room, where it belongs.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Nadal's Best Decision of the Year...



===
Rafael Nadal's best match of 2012 might have been the one he didn't play. So, in that sense, it wasn't a match at all—it was more of an executive decision. Whatever it was, it was huge.

Allow me to take you back two months in time, back when Rafael Nadal was spending most of his time in Novak Djokovic's back pocket. After seven straight losses to the Serb, including three in Grand Slam finals, it wasn't a stretch to assume that Nadal might be suffering permanent damage from all the thrashings he'd taken at the hands of Djokovic. We'd seen this before with Federer, and as great as Federer still is, there has always been the stigma that he's carried around with him since Rafa picked him up and put him in his pocket: in a big match with Nadal, Federer will lose.

It's different for Nadal and Djokovic, because they are the same age, but the scenarios were starting to look eerily similar. Djokovic had clearly taken up residence in Nadal's kitchen and he was eating all of Nadal's favorite home-cooked meals. Pasta y Gambas. Late-night sweets. Swigging from a milk container with the fridge door open and no shirt on...

But just when it looked like Djokovic was going to rain on Rafa's parade in perpetuity, Nadal and his camp pulled the ultimate switcheroo. 

Faced with the prospect of playing Andy Murray in the grueling heat on a hard court in Miami just to have a chance to end his seven-match losing streak against Djokovic in the final, Nadal and his team weighed the consequences and elected to forgo what to them seemed like small potatoes.

Next thing you know, Nadal was apologizing to the fans and the event for not being able to make it. He gathered up what was left of his confidence and flew back to Majorca to get the stench of all that hard court tennis out of his clothes. He went to his kitchen to eat some Pasta y Gambas. It didn't seem like a big deal at the time. Novak won Miami and Nadal still hadn't beaten him, but something had changed.

Taking a cue from wise military strategists of yesteryear, Nadal and his Uncle Toni had decided that fighting an all-out war on two fronts was not the way to go. Maybe another time, when Nadal had greater confidence, when Nadal had greater fitness, or when Djokovic himself was not so cocksure. But not now. Clay was going to be the remedy, just as it had been in 2010, when Nadal snapped a long title drought and went on a title-gobbling tear that left him three matches from a Rafa Slam.

So, in the middle of spring, while his arch rival was gunning for the Miami title, Nadal was already thinking about the clay. He needed to fight this war on his terms.

To some, it reeked of cowardice. How could Nadal not want another shot at Djokovic? He was so close in Australia. Had he gone soft? Was his mind so bruised by his new status as Djokovic's whipping boy that he had lost his fight? Was this the beginning of the end for the mighty Majorcan?

No, no, no.

As it turns out, Nadal's health wasn't bad—at least not as bad as the media was speculating—he just wanted it to be perfect, so he could take Djokovic down on the clay.

In similar fashion to the methodical tactical approach that Nadal has always taken to his on-court battles, Nadal needed to match his strength with Djokovic's weakness off-court as well. Since Djokovic didn't have any weaknesses, Nadal needed more than ever to know his strength. Facing Djokovic in Miami on another hard court was not the way to go about things. Nadal and his team did the smart thing. They decided that the best way to end Djokovic's reign of terror was to bring the battle back to the clay.

Nadal, who had kicked and punched his way to near exhaustion against Djokovic in Australia, was so close to Djokovic at that point. Most players would have taken that shot in Miami, laid it all on the line in the sweltering heat, but not Nadal. It is this type of big-picture thinking that has allowed Nadal to construct his giant cache of Grand Slam trophies. In the past, he has spent a great deal of time and energy proving to the world that he was more than a clay-court player. Now, at 26, Nadal has recognized that there is value in proving to the world that he's a great clay-court player all over again.

Not only has it allowed him to win a few battles with Djokovic in the last month, it might allow him to win the war. More importantly, it's enabled Nadal to find and embrace that spiritual element that has always colored his game when he is at his best.

Clay is a homecoming for Nadal, and it always will be. As he moves into his late twenties over the next few years, expect this to be a recurring theme.

Nadal can win on any surface—he's proven that—but you get the feeling that for him there is nothing sweeter than winning on clay. Of course, losing would be that much harder to stomach, but now that Rafa is back on track, this year's French Open is a war that Nadal is very likely to win.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Pondering Immortality and Popcorn...


===
It can seem like a broken record sometimes. That constant, unyielding, almost monotonous greatness that the "big three" possesses. Then again, when you get to thinking about it and put it all into proper historical perspective, it can blow your mind. It can leave you lying in the fetal position on your couch, scrolling back over a particular point over and over again on your DVR. It's true what they say: that we're lucky, that we may never, in our lifetime, witness a trio of players so sublime, all questing for glory at the same time.

Whether you love the regal elegance of Federer, the relentless physical cadence of Nadal or the bendable sorcery of Djokovic, you know what I'm talking about.

Here we are, smack dab in the middle of the tennis sweet spot, at the epicenter of a maelstrom of tennis goodness so divine.

Let the games begin!

It can't happen soon enough for me, and yet, I'd like to take a moment here to slow things down, to sit and reflect on the wonderful possibilities awaiting us in the next eight days.

They are epic, and yes, the occasion merits the usage of that oft-overused word.

Yes, yes, yes... this week will be EPIC!

We are at that place in the tennis cosmos where two rapidly approaching meteors are about to collide. Nadal and his quest for the ultimate clay-court honor, speeding through space alongside Djokovic and his righteous attempt to undermine the King of Clay with a milestone of his own.

Two colossal statements, ready to be made.

With each passing Grand Slam, the narrative seems to gain steam. Remember last year, when Djokovic rode in like the white knight of the yellow ball, on the cusp of the longest winning streak in Open Era history? That was good, but this year is sure to be better.

And I haven't even mentioned Federer. Amidst all this talk about Djokovic and Nadal each being on the edge of tennis immortality, Federer has claimed the all-time lead in Grand Slam wins from Jimmy Connors and become the only player in the history of the game to win fifty matches at each of the four Grand Slams.

Nadal and Djokovic might be questing for immortality, but Federer, he's been there and done that. That's what makes him so special. He could hang it up and let these young'uns battle it out, but he's too stubborn to do that. Plus, he's too good. He's got too much left to give and he knows it.

Speaking of having a lot to give, how about Nadal? Does the guy ever cease to amaze you with his humility? Has there ever been a player as devoted to honoring his god-given abilities by giving every ounce of energy to the competition? He's truly a remarkable man, and tennis is blessed to have him.

This week I've been watching him move on the clay, sensing the symbiosis there, how he moves back to get into a defensive posture, then sprints up a few steps when he's poised to attack. I've been watching him take off on a dead sprint to the net and slide into a backhand volley, leaving a trail of clay in his wake as he delicately dumps the ball just over the net for a casual winner.

There are those rare moments when you get to witness somebody who has truly mastered his craft and when it comes to Nadal on clay I think we have reached the apex. I'm not sure that tennis can ever, or will ever, be played as good again, from here to eternity.

And the fact that Djokovic, miraculously, has taken his game to a level where he's right there with him on the surface--well, that just says all you kneed to know about the Djoker. The Serb, more than Nadal or Federer, is still a novel in it's first draft. We don't know how the story will end, we're only at the middle. Sort of like we were with Nadal before he won his first Wimbledon, or Federer before he won his fourteenth Slam and started reeling off all these milestones at an age when most great tennis players have started their slow fade to oblivion.

We don't know where Djokovic's journey will end, just like we didn't know that Nadal would be here, on the precipice of his seventh French Open, when he lost to Soderling in 2009 and skipped Wimbledon a few weeks later. Just like we didn't know if Federer was finished in 2008 when Nadal stole his thunder in that magical five-setter at Wimbledon.

With each passing Grand Slam, I find myself thinking, "it can't get any better than this," and with each passing Slam, somehow it does.

This week it surely will again. Get your popcorn ready.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Thoughts on Hindrances (actually a rant, as it turns out)


===
Let me just get to the point with this one: I think it's funny that the most annoying grunters on tour are not getting penalized while the innocent—namely Virginie Razzano—evidently are.

Okay, maybe funny is the wrong word, and maybe hindrance is the wrong word too. How about annoying? How about I can't hear myself think when your match is on the telly?

Can we just implement a new rule and stick it in the ITF/ WTA rulebook right along the hindrance rule that lends a little more clarity to the debate that never seems to die.

Wait...Is it even a debate? Is there anybody out there who thinks that Victoria Azarenka's (sorry for singling you out kid, but your name just seems to come to mind) tennis soundscape is even remotely okay? The fans hate it, the commentators hate it, her peers hate it—I mean what else do we need to know to realize that it's basically bad for the game and should be made to stop?

And yet, several years on—decades, really—the debate that shouldn't even be debated continues...

Why?

Well, because there is a lot of grey area in there. How do you penalize a player without a rule designed to penalize them? Can we just stop the match and have a vote? If you think Victoria Azarenka's yodeling is unsuitable for the modern game, vote to strip her of her ranking until she pipes down! And if she ever grunts again while knocking off a touch volley at net, she will be suspended for at least one year!

Ah, but it's not that simple, it really isn't. Truth is, as much as it is clearly in poor taste to grunt like many professional tennis players do, the inmates are clearly running the asylum here. You don't believe me? Look at the the WTA rankings. No. 1 and No. 2 could start a thrash-punk band with all the dissonant wailing they do while they play.

I could ramble on, but really what's the point? The wrong people are getting penalized for the wrong things, and the two most egregious grunters in the history of the world are ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively.

The only thing I can think of is this:

Let's let the fans decide. Give each fan a handful of tennis balls prior to each match that they attend. Tell them that if they find any players vocal stylings to be a "hindrance" that they are then free to toss said tennis balls at said player. Consider it justice prevailing in an otherwise unjust world.

In closing, I'd like to point out that tennis is a sport where decorum has always been a major part of its tradition. It's a sport where people say sorry for getting a point from a lucky let cord; it's a sport where fans are forced to be quiet during points; it's the safe haven of the sporting world, where bookworms, geeks, and those who appreciate how much a little silence can say congregate.

No flash cameras here; wait in the aisles until the changeover, please; Shhhhhh!!!! Quiet Please!!!!

All that is well and good, but how good is it when the players on the court are screaming such bloody murder that the paying customers can't even hear the strings pop?

I'll answer that for you: NOT VERY GOOD!

And yet, the debate that shouldn't even be debated lingers on. This is one of those things, like death and taxes, that we'll be destined to complain about and never, ever solve.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Djokovic Nadal Rome 2012


===
Colossal day tomorrow with Nadal and Djokovic about to play their second clay-court final of the spring. Here's 5 quick and random thoughts about the upcoming clash:

1. Of all the surfaces that this match could be on, clay is probably the best.

Not that a Djokovic-Nadal match up wouldn't be must-see tennis on any surface, but clay works for me the best. Clay will limit aces and return winners, so each player will be forced to play tactically on the return, looking for a place to put the ball that will generate preferred patterns and keep the ball out of the wheelhouse of the other.

But the server will be looking to elicit a weak return, and of course, be hoping to make a lot of first serves. For Nadal, this should be no problem. The guy makes first serves almost as good as he pays his bills. For Djokovic it will be key: He'll need to make a fair amount of them.

So it will be a battle of who can get the most out their serve and return to gain the most advantages in the early phases of what are sure to be a lot of baseline rallies that exceed 8 strokes or so.

2. Expect Nole to be much better than he was in Monte-Carlo. 

Judging from Djokovic's play yesterday in his semifinal against Roger Federer, he's playing with as much passion as he had in Australia. We have been building to the next month of the season since early February. Here we are now at the jumping off point.

3. How important is this match? 

Look, this isn't Roland Garros. Let's get that straight right off the bat. That said, this might be the biggest possible non-Slam final that Djokovic and Nadal could play. Both clearly covet the Rome title. If you don't think so, check the facts. Either Nadal or Djokovic has won the last seven. Clearly each comes to play here.

Additionally, each has the next week off, so they'd like nothing more than to be pushed to the limits by the other in a three set battle for the upper hand. Barring injury, both are primed to go has hard as they possibly can for this title.

And when it comes to momentum, both know that a victory in Rome would be the ultimate impetus for a French Open push.

4. Who needs it more? 

I think Djokovic needs it more in a way. I don't think a hard-fought loss would be catastrophic but a blowout might really put some doubt in the Serb's head. To have the streak end was inevitable, but if Nadal takes a second straight convincing decision over Djokovic, won't he start to wonder if he's run out of his luck and won't he start to suffer from the defeatist attitude that comes with it if he does?

I think Nadal can afford to lose, because Nadal proved enough to himself in Monte-Carlo to have a good feeling heading into his chase for the all-time French Open title lead. But, if he's beaten soundly in the same fashion that Djokovic beat him soundly in Rome last year, Nadal might start to think his Monte-Carlo win over Nole was a blip. There's danger in that, too.

5. Who will win? 

I think Nadal in three. I said that only after I had decided that it would be Djokovic in three. It's really a tough call.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Federer's Backhand the Key to Victory Over Nadal


===
Lot's of lingering thoughts regarding Roger and Rafa's 28th tilt, so I figured I'd take to the blog to express some of them.

Federer's win—his first on an outdoor hardcourt vs. Nadal since 2005—was made possible for two reasons:

1. His backhand was amazing today.

and

2. Nadal refused to flip the script.

Let's start with the backhand. I've long felt that the key stroke in any Nadal-Federer match is Roger's backhand. It's no secret, pretty much everybody agrees with that, even Roger and Rafa. What's usually so fascinating about their matchups is the way that each works to either hide or expose Roger's backhand, and to what degree.

But yesterday, try as he did (especially with the serve), Nadal found nothing to expose when it came to Roger's backhand. Federer used the shot eloquently, whipping it cross-court, even on Nadal's nastiest of slice serves on the ad-side, all afternoon. I think Federer's day was actually made a lot easier by the fact that Nadal kept going there. Perhaps Nadal just assumed that he'd break it down eventually, but I think he really lost the match when he didn't adapt his game to what was really happening out there.

Nadal's reluctance to deviate from the script probably made it a lot easier for Federer than it might have been. Think about it: Somebody serves to your backhand 95 percent of the time, even though you are in the zone. What could be better than that?

Am I being naive here? To me it seemed like Rafa needed to try something different in this match, yet he never did.

He even alluded to his problem after the match, commenting that his topspin/kick serve was not getting up as high on Federer due to the conditions, wind, etc...

Was this just a poor match played in tough conditions, or was it further proof that Rafa is a better active player than a reactive one? Is Rafa a problem solver? We know he's a problem creator, but based on his work against Djokovic over their last seven matches, there's some pretty compelling evidence that he's not making the highest marks when it comes to solving.

(Who could blame him for being stubborn, really, or sticking with what has worked so often?)

Federer was able to do two things that he usually isn't able to do with his backhand against Nadal yesterday: First, he hit over the cross-court ball and stretched Rafa out by creating some sick angles. Second, he used the down-the-line consistently, which kept Nadal honest, and probably more importantly, kept him from unleashing his fearhand.

This was the perfect match for Federer in terms of the backhand, and it reminded me of his 2011 World Tour Finals victory over Nadal when he also did lots of damage from that side. Also, I can't help wondering if going three sets with Thomaz Bellucci in the fourth round helped Federer get the reps that he needed on one-hander.

If it did, would it be possible for Federer to pay Bellucci more than he earns on the ATP tour to be his practice partner?

Either way, yesterday's 28th Nadal-Federer match was, like all of them have been, a fascinating encounter that highlighted tennis in all its chess-like glory. All of the elements that fascinate were present: the quest for each player to find each other's backhand, the constant battle for court positioning, the never-ending search for short balls to pulverize, the finer points of shot selection, as in where to put the ball, with what spin, and how often? and of course, the ability of each player to deal with mother nature.

Everything was in play yesterday, but somehow Nadal seemed to miss the big thrust of the match. Federer's backhand was on fire, and Nadal should have left it alone for a while in the hopes that it would have cooled off by the time he resumed his exploitation of it.

Moving forward, does it mean that Federer's backhand has turned a corner? Perhaps all these years of getting worked over by Nadal's buggy-whipped topspin drives is helping him improve?

Will he be able to use the shot in the future with more versatility, power and consistency like he did today?

Could this be yet another twist—another evolution so to speak—of the rivalry?

Hard to say, but easy to think and write about.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Ode to Vika


On the eve of a colossal WTA final between the two top players in the world, I'm going to take some time to praise Victoria Azarenka for her amazing run.

She's notched 22 consecutive wins in 2012—the longest such streak to start a WTA season since 1997—and it's clear that Azarenka is no longer the fragile, temperamental girl she was for the last few years on the tour.

Not anymore. Where there used to be a look of angst, frustration or fear in Vika's eyes, there is only a cold, steely determination now.

What happened, what flicked the switch?

Hard to say, but easy to recognize. Azarenka has played forceful tennis all year, with a rare combo of desire, flair and killer instinct that has been missing on the WTA tour for quite some time.

Remember when we all thought Petra Kvitova was going to take over the No. 1 spot in Australia? That seems like another century now that the era of Azarenka has begun. The Belarusian has swiftly begun to dominate the game, and tomorrow in the BNP Paribas final open she'll have the chance to make another strong statement against Maria Sharapova, a woman that she has defeated in three consecutive title matches.

"For me it's her mental approach now," said Mary Jo Fernandez in an ESPN conference call on Wednesday. "I mean, she plays within herself, she doesn't get down on herself, she manages her emotions so much better."

All true, and while it seems strange that she is being called the "Novak Djokovic of the WTA," the precision of her return game makes Vika seem like a Nole doppelganger if there ever was one. Case in point: she's won 29 of 49 return games in five matches at Indian Wells.

"She's the best player in the world right now, there's just no question about it," added Fernandez. "She's very solid, and she's got weapons and has done a remarkable job to start off the season."

Now the big question: Will she be the best player in the world three months from now? Is she a model of success on the tour for years to come or is she a tennis comet, destined to burn out and become yet another struggling player that we're left to wonder about?

It's hard to say. She's always struck me as a person who was a little too mental to ever become a model of consistency on tour. But now that she's finding out that her game is good enough to dominate anybody on tour—more importantly, on a regular basis—perhaps she'll never turn back. Perhaps the dominating force that we all thought the WTA would forever lack is here?

Is this the beginning of the age of Vika we're witnessing? Is she that good?

28


So here we go. Another edition of Federer-Nadal. No. 28, to be in fact.

They've played quite a bit of tennis, those two chaps. And I'm talking genius tennis. If you watched their 2008 Wimbledon final and 2009 Australian Open final you get my drift about the genius. I mean, I'm thinking, are these guys human?

I've always wondered if rivalry is a good term to describe what Federer-Nadal has going for it as an entity. It's obvious that they are the two top guys and they've played some great matches, some real high-drama stuff. But so have Djokovic-Nadal.

What makes Federer-Nadal stand out?

Is it purely total Grand Slams amassed? Is it just simple math like that? 26 total Slams is better than 15 Slams, therefore the Federer-Nadal rivalry is better than the Djokovic-Nadal rivalry?

We all know it doesn't work like that.

We are not creatures of numbers. We love Federer-Nadal because of artistry, because of drama. We love it because each player is unique, yet divine. We love it because it's hard to comprehend. We love it because we know it. It's like family.

We love it because Rafa and Roger play tennis as polar opposites. The contrast creates tension. It's like good vs. evil. Rock vs. jazz. Tall and lean vs. Muscular and thick. Lefty vs. righty. Gwen Stefani vs. Shakira.

Think about Wimbledon. The French. How Rafa learned the grass well enough to finally surpass even Federer on it. How Federer, in all his brilliance, was so reluctant to give that Wimbledon crown up. How rain came. How darkness began to fall.

It's almost like one could never fully exist without the other. The defiance of each in the face of the other.

Of course the "rivalry" has come down a bit in terms of intensity since 2009. Federer wins less and less now that he's older, and Rafa's still in his prime years. But never, ever, ever, ever, EVER when they meet are we not excited.

I guess it's different for everybody, but it's monumentally special for a lot of tennis fans.

It's always a great day for tennis when they play. You can embrace the nostalgia while simultaneously viewing a battle for Grand Slam supremacy that is very real.

They will not go on forever. Suns always set. Fires aren't forever.

Get them while you can.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Why Switzerland's Loss Might Actually be Federer's Gain

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After this weekend, it's clear that we should forget about Roger Federer adding a Davis Cup to his list of accomplishments. Crystal clear, in fact. And you know what? It's probably the best thing for Federer, given his age, lofty Grand Slam ambitions, and the youthful state of the competition that he'll have to overcome to achieve them.

While many were holding out hope that Switzerland might use a tidy little victory over the supposedly clay-phobic Americans this weekend as a springboard to a title run, the cold, hard truth is that the only thing a Davis Cup run would have done is distract Federer from his "real" goals this year.

And who can fault Federer if he's guilty of feeling and subsequently disguising his lack of interest in Davis Cup? Who can say if it's right or wrong? He showed up, he played hard, he lost -- let's move on now, to what really matters to Federer. The man has been keeping busy looking for ways to stem the tide of two of the most indomitable, physically daunting specimens to ever play the game. In short, Federer's got work to do, and Davis Cup would only hinder -- not help -- that process.

Put yourself in Roger's shoes. Would you really want four weekends full of five-set marathons tacked on to your already busy schedule, during an Olympic year, no less? Sure, if he was five years younger and Stan Wawrinka was a little more like David Ferrer and a little less like, well, Stan Wawrinka, maybe. But Roger is 30, he's got twins to watch over, and let's be frank: if he's obsessed with winning anything right now, it sure as heck isn't Davis Cup. Wimbledon, maybe. U.S. Open, sure. But not Davis Cup.

That's why I'm thinking that this weekend's loss was actually a blessing in disguise for Federer. For a while there it seemed like even he was getting caught up in taking one last shot at going the distance in Davis Cup. But now that Swiss hopes have sagged, Federer can get back to his bread and butter. Let's face it, the man, brilliant as he still remains, isn't so young anymore. Federer needs to divert every last ounce of energy in his tank toward his Grand Slam quest. He'll need to be as healthy as he possibly can be to weather the rough and tumble Roland Garros-Wimbledon-Olympic grind that is coming.

And even that likely won't be enough. He'll need some divine intervention too.

Playing Davis Cup in April and then again in July would have only clouded the picture for Federer. He's better off where he is right now.

Once he shakes off the disappointment of a deflating performance this weekend, Roger Federer too will realize that the last thing a 30-year-old who wants to win more Grand Slams and Olympic Gold medals needs to do is get caught chasing the wrong dream.

Davis Cup might have been our dream for Roger Federer. It might have been the story that we wanted to read, the pleasant surprise, the proof of his spirituality, love of country, unselfishness, etc... but I don't think it was ever his dream. If it was he would have played like it was. He wouldn't have fell asleep at the wheel during the second set on Friday against John Isner, something we'd never catch him doing at a Slam.

Either way, it's over now. We can blame anything we want to blame -- we can blame the clay, blame Stan Wawrinka's shoddy doubles game, blame the inevitable passage of time -- but it'll never change the real crux of this quandary. The fact remains: the last few chapters of Federer's legacy were never destined to be written at Davis Cup -- they are destined to be written at the Slams.

Now that Federer has less on his mind to worry about, he's got more to put into them.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Djokovic-Nadal: Was it Really That Good?


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"A new definition of suffering," was the way that ESPN's Chris Fowler summed up the 5-hour and fifty-three-minute 2012 Australian Open final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal that was part horror flick, part torture chamber, and part epic.

Some anointed the final as the "greatest ever" just minutes after Djokovic ripped his shirt off and flexed his sinewy muscles for all the world to see. Others, like me, demurred. Oh, yeah, the tennis was brilliant for spells, and the tension and drama was enough to make your skin crawl (we tennis fans love that, don't we?), but the match was also sloppy at times (according to stats 38% of points ended in unforced errors, compared to 24% and 21% in their previous two Grand Slam finals), and as much as the robotic level of fitness elevated the collective opinion of what had transpired between Djokovic and Nadal, the sheer physicality of their battle also functioned as an anchor, pulling the level of tennis down with each passing hour.

The question that kept popping into my head as I watched the fourth and fifth sets transpire was: do we really want tennis to be like this?

To elaborate: Do we really want six-hour finals? Do we really want fitness to be a larger and larger part of the eventual outcome of Grand Slam events? Are the longest matches really the best matches? Are slower surfaces, co-poly strings, heavier balls, and ridiculously fit athletes dumbing down the sport?

If I sound negative, I don't mean to. I'm as invested in the modern era of tennis as the next guy -- and I'm as impressed with the tennis that Djokovic and Nadal played in the Australian Open final as the next wide-eyed enthusiast. Was I blown away? Sure. Hell yeah. But I also found myself longing for more diversity, more improvisation, more brevity.

I'll admit: I'm old-school and I worry about things. I dread the disappearance of the one-handed backhand, but the way that the modern topspinners can expose such players, it seems like the shot will eventually be nothing but a memory. I also dread the thought of full tennis matches where neither player hits an approach shot and comes to the net to knock off a volley winner. Solid net play still happens today, but less than ever before. You can't blame the players. Guys are just too good at passing nowadays.

But I digress. I'll stick to the script here and tell you how I really feel: I don't want to see Grand Slam finals where the outcome is decided by which player can endure the most suffering and keep his game together just enough to get him through. I don't want to see tennis become more like a triathlon or a Tour de France, and less like the succinct, artistic endeavor that it is supposed to be.

When our greatest match is also the most torturous, there's something wrong in my opinion. When elegance and precision is replaced by brute force, repetition and 40-second rests between points, we are headed in the wrong direction.

I'll not deny that Djokovic and Nadal's work of stunning and brutal combustion in the 2012 Australian Open final was one of the most remarkable Grand Slam finals I've ever seen. And yes, it has to be placed up there among the best in history, based on its pugilistic element and the suspense.

But to call this battle of attrition the best Grand Slam final of all-time would be, in my humble opinion, myopic.

Longest, yes. But best? I'm not so sure.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Australian Open: The Angry Happy Slam

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Just wanted to throw a quick shout out to all readers. If you miss me, please come over to Tennis Now to read some of my Australian Open coverage. There's a lot to read, and there will be a lot more by the end of what promises to be a fantastic weekend!

-- The management a.k.a The Fan Child a.k.a Chris Oddo

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

5 Thoughts on the Andy Murray-Ryan Harrison Tilt

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One of the more highly anticipated first-rounders in Melbourne did not disappoint, as Andy Murray outclassed youngster Ryan Harrison on Hisense. Here are five quick thoughts on what the match might mean for both participants.

***Editor's Note: You can find my work at Tennisnow.com throughout the Australian Open. I'm posting 3-4 pieces a day there, so please feel free to stop by and check it out.

1. Harrison's going places

The 19-year-old Shreveport, La. native is now 0-10 against top ten opponents, but don't let the 0-for fool you -- Harrison can play. And we were made aware of that fact in the first set yesterday when the feisty Harrison not only took the set, but looked like a bonafide world-beater in the process. Harrison made 69% of his first serves, smacked 12 winners, and basically looked like the better player throughout the 51-minute first set. Granted, Murray has never been the fastest starter, but if Harrison can find a way to play whole matches against top players the way he played yesterday's first set, he'll be scoring wins against top foes sooner rather than later.

2. Murray's calmness -- it's almost eery

During ESPN's broadcast of the match Brad Gilbert lamented that he could never get a young Andy Murray to behave so well when he was in his box. Ah, but that was a long time ago, Brad, and probably more importantly, it was before "Mr. Lendl" stepped to the fore. Here's my question: Is Lendl really ushering in the halcyon days for Murray, and if so, what will it really have a dramatic effect on the Scot's results? Of all the great things that Andy Murray did yesterday against Ryan Harrison, the greatest was his newfound zen-like placidity. No punching racquets. No bratty epithets aimed at anyone who would listen. Just proper, constructive tennis.

3. Murray's backhand, a thing of beauty

Now that Murray has me focusing less on his outbursts I noticed last night that his backhand is sublime, with a capital S. Of all the two-handers on tour, I'd say that only Novak Djokovic is more effective with the shot. But nobody is as natural with it. Murray can spin it or drill it, he can hit it crosscourt or punch it down the line. He can lob it, punch it, rip it -- you name it. The guy is a virtuoso with the two-hander.

4. So then, can he win it?

We've seen how much of a difference Lendl can make on Andy Murray's comportment, but what can he do for his nerves? Furthermore, is there anything he can do for Murray tactically when it comes to facing a merciless, en fuego player like Novak Djokovic? Murray's three previous trips to Grand Slam finals ought to have numbed him to the nerve experience a bit, so shying to the occasion probably won't be as much of a factor as it once was. As far as cultivating an effective strategy to deal with Djokovic, you can bet that Lendl is racking his brain for ideas every waking hour. It may not make the difference, but even the hope that there is somebody in his box that can make a difference could function as a potent placebo for Murray.

5. Is Murray's serve good enough?

Those of you who are kind enough to read this blog know that I'm very skeptical about Andy Murray's ability to deliver world-class serving on a consistent basis. I've written about it often. And honestly, as high as I am on Murray at the moment, my skepticism about the serve remains. His 54% first serve percentage yesterday does not inspire much confidence, but I do like the fact that he won 60% of his second serve points. Those numbers are way above his average. If he can keep that up, it will make his low first serve percentage a lot easier to stomach. The simple question is: Can he keep it up?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Tomic Confidently Assumes Australia's Top Dog Status

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They say that confidence is half the battle on a tennis court, and if it's true then Australian 19-year-old Bernard Tomic is half way there.

Tomic, who played last year's Australian Open with a ranking of 199, enters this year's tournament firmly entrenched in the ATP's top 50, at No. 38. Furthermore, the Queensland native is fresh off an exciting week at Kooyong where he triumphed in all three exhibitions he played, over venerable foes Tomas Berdych, Gael Monfils and Mardy Fish.

After his first match with Berdych, Tomic was downright giddy about the prospects of continuing his march to the upper echelons of tennis. "You know, I've got a good shot at being seeded in the French and Wimbledon...I haven't got much points to defend and I think the next four or five months is going to be really, really, really fun."

For a young man who just recently, by his own admission, has stopped growing, he has no qualms acting or feeling like he belongs in the "who's climbing the tennis ladder rapidly?" conversation (he nonchalantly called Milos Raonic "a good kid" when asked by reporters if he'd ever practiced with him).

Even with No. 22 seed Fernando Verdasco waiting as his first round opponent today, Tomic seems undaunted. "If I'm confident, I can go a long way, I think."

"I have a good chance, the way I'm playing, to beat him."

With Tomic now supplanting 30-year-old former No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt as the top-ranked Aussie, you'd think the pressure would be a serious detriment -- especially on his home soil in a Grand Slam -- to Tomic's game, but nerves don't appear to a problem thus far. They weren't a problem last year, when Tomic upset two top 50 players (Jeremy Chardy and Feliciano Lopez) en route to a third round clash with Rafael Nadal, then held his own and actually flummoxed Nadal at various points during the match.

And they certainly weren't a problem last year at Wimbledon, when Tomic became the youngest player since Boris Becker to reach the quarterfinals and took a set off of world beater Novak Djokovic when he got there.

So, what will it take to slow this young phenom down? Will Fernando Verdasco's beastly groundstrokes have the power to quash the confidence of Tomic, or will Tomic use his nuance and ability to manipulate the pace of rallies to make another veteran look feckless across the net from him?

"He beat me once in Brisbane when I was 16 up there," said Tomic, of the 6-4, 6-2 thrashing he suffered at the hands of Verdasco in 2009 in their only previous encounter. "That was when he was on his run, playing well. I think you know, the last six months he hasn't really done much."

Not exactly the feeble utterances of a kid who is new on the block.

"I think it's a good time to play him," he added.

Well, okay then.

Now that we know Tomic can talk the talk, we won't have to wait very long to find out whether he can walk the walk.

Quotable Quips: This Week in Tennis Quotes

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Welcome to Quotable Quips, where we scour the internet, the pressers, the match recaps, and whatever else we can get our hands on to get a handle on who said what, why who said what, and what who might have meant when who said what.


“I am always surprised to see professional players searching for former professional players in order to solve issues that are linked to coaching. When Lendl was facing up to his four failures in Grand Slam finals, he called Tony Roche and their collaboration changed his career. Therefore learning from the Lendl situation does not mean Murray should call Lendl - but rather someone like Roche himself. The man is the most successful coach in the world, with 14 Grand Slams achieved with three different players.” --

Patrick Moratoglou, in this Yahoo piece.


Bonus: Rafa Three-pack:

“For a few balls, for the higher balls, you can hit the ball, you know, with a little bit more flat because the racquet goes faster into the ball. The racquet goes quicker.” --

Rafael Nadal on his racquet, which is three grams heavier, with the weight added to the head.

“I give information for you to write newspapers. But at the end of the day I look like I am the one who always talk about things that must change, and I don’t win nothing on that. I just lose time, energy, and the people can think that he’s always the one who says the bad things, the negative things."

-- on his leadership role among players and with the press.

“I didn't say that I lost motivation to play tennis. I say that I played a few matches at the end of last year with less passion than usual - not saying that I am not any more motivated to play tennis.” -- on his perceived lack of passion for the game.

“I try not to bore people with silly things like match results. Because, really — who cares about them?”

-- Laura Robson, as quoted in a New York Times Straight Sets piece.

"Isn't that the Petko dance?" -- Corina Morariu, responding to close-up camera footage of a prehistoric-looking bug that was on the court in Sydney between points of the Na Li Victoria Azarenka final.

“I think Ivan can help him understand how important body language is. That’s one of the four reasons why Andy hasn’t won yet. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic being the other three.” -- Mats Wilander, in an email to New York Time’s correspondent Chris Clarey.

“Who knows if this will last six months or six years, but I’m confident that at the end of this that Andy is going to come out a better player for the experience.” -- Darren Cahill, quoted in the same piece by Christopher Clarey.


"Yeah, I know I can beat anybody. I've beaten the best before." -- Aussie fan favorite Marcos Baghdatis, after defeating Juan Martin Del Potro in Sydney.


''I laugh a lot, so I think that has a lot to do with developing those muscles. I don't really do sit-ups too much.'' -- Serena Williams, on her oft-photographed six-pack.


''Margaret has said her feelings and it's public and it has leverage so I think this is the only way the people feel that they can be heard - through a sign of solidarity. As long as it is done tastefully, that's the most important thing for me.'' -- Rennae Stubbs, on the prospect of protestors turning out to rally against Margaret Court’s anti-gay marriage statements.

My Lebanese food from my grandma makes me feel good.'' -- Marcos Baghdatis, on why he feels Australia is so good to him.

“After that I went home, procrastinated on the packing for the earlier than expected trip to Melbourne, and got some rest. I awoke to all the media coverage of the loss and I can assure you it looked more dramatic than it was.”

-- Samantha Stosur, in her own words, as published in this piece.

Nadal's Inflammatory Comments: Self-Interest or Selfless?

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You knew it would have to happen sometime. The always congenial and typically amicable rivals are finally experiencing a modicum of tension. Or, at least, it's what you will read and hear.

Now, before we try to make a mountain out of molehill of Rafael Nadal's thoughts on Roger Federer's lack of support for the player's movement with regard to the ATP schedule, let's state with equanimity that Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have always held each other in high regard. In fact, I'm quite sure they still do, and the fact that Rafa is willing to set off on a different course than Federer with regard to the great big elephant in the room known as the ATP schedule, does not in any way, shape or form renounce the mutual respect that the pair share for one another.

That said, Rafa's comments do make for a good read, and maybe -- should the longtime rivals meet in the Australian semifinals -- good fightin' words too.

"For him it's good to say nothing," Nadal told reporters in Spanish, in response to hints that Federer disliked hearing players complain about problems on the tour because it tarnished the image of the sport. "Everything positive. 'It's all well and good for me' and the rest can burn themselves."

"He likes the circuit. I like the circuit," added Nadal. "He finishes his career fresh as a daisy because he is physically privileged, but neither Murray nor Novak Djokovic and I are fresh as a daisy."

Strong words from the world's No. 2, quite obviously, and courageous too. Considerable credit has to go to Nadal here for stating his mind and for not being afraid to send a message to Federer.

Nadal's stated concerns about the rigor of the ATP's schedule are certainly not only his own. But the toll that his commitment to supporting Spain's Davis Cup aspirations -- a commitment that Federer regularly eschews when it comes to playing for Switzerland -- is somewhat unique. Perhaps, Nadal, ever loyal patriot that he is, does harbor some underlying bitterness for Federer's perceived lack of "love of country."

But, as with Nadal's current beef, there is always more than one side to the story. Doesn't Switzerland value Federer's Grand Slams more than it would value a Davis Cup title, and isn't Federer's reluctance to attempt an all-out pursuit of the latter at the expense of the former really the most patriotic endgame in reality?

The issues are complex, to say the least. And while Nadal's willingness to come out in support of the poor, the tired, the huddled masses of tennis players who do not benefit from being physically privileged like Federer, wouldn't he be wise, at this point in his career to take a page from the Federer playbook and stop hanging himself out to dry when doing so isn't required by the tour?

His well-documented frustration with the rigors of the tour is warranted -- no doubt -- and his desire to have Federer show more support for the grinders on tour is understandable, but is it realistic?

Tennis, individual sport that it is, is driven by self-interest, and Federer is interested in cementing his legacy, not helping other, younger and more physically robust players, end it. Can you blame him?

Nadal, also is driven by self-interest. He wants an easier road to hoe, and he doesn't quite know how to get it without offending his own innate sense of honor. He'd like the tour to make it easy for him to stay healthy and be able to perform at his highest level for the most important events. He can state that he's out to see all the players benefit, but are his intentions really so selfless?

At the essence of the argument is this: Tour solidarity is in the interest of Nadal, but it is not in the interest of Federer. So it's only natural that the narrative has turned.

It is an interesting time for tennis, and there is a lot to play for -- both on the court and off. Nadal's fiery comments prove so much.

A little off-court fire to the rivalry might be just the thing to make it more compelling on the court. Not that it needed it, but it probably won't hurt.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Deuce Court: 8 Women's Must-See First-Rounders


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Yesterday on The Deuce Court, we looked at some of the most mouth watering men's first round matchups. Today, we'll flip the dial and look at what's happening on the women's side in the first round.

Click here for the day 1 Australian Open Order of Play

1. Lucie Safarova vs. Christina McHale: American tennis fans might be surprised to know that the 19-year-old New Jersey-ite is ranked 2nd to only Serena Williams when it comes to American Women. McHale scored many convincing wins last year, Caroline Wozniacki, Marion Bartoli and Svetlana Kuznetsova among them) and while she may be 18 spots behind Safarova in the rankings, she is not a heavy underdog in this match by any means.

2. Victoria Azarenka vs. Heather Watson: Watson, one of two young Brits that experts are high on (Laura Robson being the other) faces a heavy challenge in Victoria Azarenka in the first round. Azarenka, seeded No. 3 and fresh of the Sydney title, is a clear contender for the title, and many feel that this could be the year she finally takes the final step in her maturation. Watson, meanwhile, proved that she enjoys the spotlight when she nearly upset Maria Sharapova in the first round of the US Open last year. She is now doubt relishing the opportunity to take a shot at another well-established player.

3. Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Bethanie Mattek-Sands: This should be an interesting study in contrast, with the crafty, agile and wonderfully cerebral Radwanska pitted against the brash go-for-brokeness that is Bethanie Mattek-Sands.

4. Serena Williams vs. Tamira Paszek: They each reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals last year before falling out, but beyond that, the comparisons between the 13-time Grand Slam singles winner Williams and Paszek, who is currently ranked No. 45 in the world, end. Most will be watching this match to see how much Serena Williams is hindered or not hindered by her recently-injured ankle, and if it ends up being competitive, that will be gravy for the paying customers.

5. Madison Keys vs. Zheng Jie: A resurgent Jie, a year removed from wrist surgery, appears to have regained her singles mojo. The diminutive Chinese took her first title in five years in Brisbane, and she promises to be a big challenge in a small package for the very young, very raw, yet very promising 16-year-old American.

6. Samantha Stosur vs. Sorana Cirstea: Stosur has fallen into a bit of a post-glory slumber, winning only one of her first three matches of 2012. She will play her first Grand Slam tennis since defeating Serena Williams in last year's US Open final, and her opponent, long-noted for her promise, will no doubt feel inspired to keep Stosur on the snooze. Cirstea, a former French Open quarterfinalist and a former No. 23 in the world, comes to Melbourne in good form, having nearly made the semis in Hobart.

7. Maria Sharapova vs. Gisela Dulko: Maria has not been in action since she gruesomely sprained her ankle at the WTA Championships in Turkey. It was yet another injury-related setback for the valiant Russian, who has never lost her belief, or her incredible will to win, during her well-documented return to the top of the sport. But Dulko will present a daunting challenge for Sharapova, especially since Sharapova is likely to be shaking off rust in the early going, and may or not be experiencing some mobility issues.

8. Kimiko Date-Krumm vs. Eleni Daniilidou: Hey, anytime you get to watch a 41-year-old woman compete for the second round of a Grand Slam, that's must-see tennis. End of story.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Deuce Court: 8 Men's Must-See First-Rounders

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Make no mistake, watching Roger Federer in an empty Rod Laver Arena is exciting, but when Monday rolls around, Melbourne Park will be packed with throngs of the tennis-mad and an air of electricity will be pumping through the venue.

Here are eight matches that are sure to keep the energy of the crowd high throughout round 1:

1. Radek Stepanek vs. Nicolas Mahut: If you're a serve-and-volley aficionado, this matchup is sure to delight you. Two eclectic, captivating scissor-handed veterans in a serve-and-volley duel to the death. Mahut beat Stepanek in the pair's only meeting in 2006.

2. Andy Murray vs. Ryan Harrison: The buzz surrounding Murray, even if he played a qualifier in round 1, was going to be huge. He's got Ivan Lendl in his box, and that alone is cause for packing an arena to the rafters. Now that he's drawn upstart American Ryan Harrison for his first match, this is perhaps the match to see of the whole first round.

3. Ernests Gulbis vs. Michael Llodra: You never know what you're going to get when the mercurial Gulbis is on the ticket. But you can pretty much bet that it will be entertaining. Throw left-handed serve-and-volley tactician Michael Llodra into the mix, and you've got another must-see match. Gulbis is 2-0 vs. Llodra.

4. Janko Tipsarevic vs. Dmitry Tursunov: Tursunov hasn't quite managed to get himself into top 20 form, but he is a dangerous foe for Tipsarevic. At No. 41, the kooky Russian has proven that he can still play. The fact that he split two matches last autumn with Tipsarevic is proof of that.

5. Bernard Tomic vs. Fernando Verdasco: It's a tough draw for the 19-year-old Aussie. But you know what? It's an even tougher draw for Verdasco. Tomic has come so far, so fast in the last 12 months, that I don't see him losing this match. Not here in Australia, where he's proven he can handle the expectations of a star-hungry nation.

6. Philipp Kohlschreiber vs. Juan Monaco: Tough draw for both guys here too. Both are cagey veterans with beautiful flowing games. This one has the potential of going the distance.

7. Jurgen Melzer vs. Ivo Karlovic: Karlovic, even as with his skills diminished due to injuries and lack of match play, will always be the guy that nobody wants to draw. Melzer, though, is 4-0 vs. Dr. Ivo lifetime.

8. Andy Roddick vs. Robin Haase: Roddick went headhunting in their hotly contested third round affair last year in Melbourne (literally). The strategy worked, as it seemed to provide the impetus for another Haase disappearing act. Haase has beautiful game, but he has yet to reach his potential, and many fear he never will. Roddick, meanwhile, is sporting a mohawk. Forgive me, I just had to mention it.

Others: Sela vs. Bellucci (what are the odds that these guys meet in the first round two years in a row?); Chardy-Dimitrov (tres chic); Fish-Muller (Muller is a tough out, even for a player of Fish's caliber); Troicki-Ferrero (have never met); Del Potro-Mannarino (Mannarino leads h2h 1-0)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Li to Press: "Yeah, I'm Back"

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There are much bigger matches to come in the next few weeks, but after tonight's semifinal victory Li Na is officially ready for them. Now, that doesn't necessarily that she's guaranteed to make the Australian Open semifinals for a third straight time, or make the finals like she did last year, or win her second Grand Slam, but what it does mean is that Li's confidence is at it's "sweet spot" after her come from behind 1-6, 7-5, 6-2 win over red hot Petra Kvitova in the Apia International Sydney semifinal.

Kvitova has long been a consensus pick to make noise at the Australian Open, which begins Sunday, but Li, with her spirited effort today, is making a lot of experts take note of her form.

"Yeah, I'm back," said a typically glib Li in her post-match press conference today, and few will argue with her now, as she's won her first seven matches of the year (three of which were Hopman Cup exhibitions), and will clash with Victoria Azarenka in the final.

"I was feeling stronger -- not only for the body but also in the mind," said Li. "I believe in myself (that) I can do better," she added with a satisfied nod, and the signature smile that the tennis world came to know and love last spring.

It will be hard for a woman of Li's ability to not do better, given that she had basically fallen off the map after her monumental French Open title run last year.

But that's all in the past now. Fresh year, fresh player, as they say.

Kvitova, on the other hand, will have to reconcile the fact that she failed to convert an opportunity to claim the No. 1 ranking in addition to failing to win a match that she dominated early on. Most believe that Kvitova is destined to become the WTA's No. 1 player sooner rather than later, but the burning question is: will the loss to Li impact her confidence heading into Melbourne?

It wasn't simply that she lost, it was the way that Li outdueled her in the crucial moments of the match. Once Kvitova failed to convert on a double break point at 2-3 in the third set, Li reeled off 11 consecutive points that landed her at match point.

Counting her recent appearance in Hopman Cup, Kvitova had won 17 consecutive matches coming into this semifinal. Now that she'll head into the Australian on a losing streak, her first few matches will be crucial in terms of gaining much-needed confidence for the later rounds.

For Li, confidence is overflowing.

But that's what crazy about tennis. One minute you can be on top of the world, and the next you can be cannon fodder for young upstarts. Li knows this, because she's been there and done that, as recently as last year.

Now that she's back in form, both physically and mentally, her annual Australian run looks to be shaping up quite nicely.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Good Morning, Sabine!

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She's not only a world-class server, she's a world-class scene-stealer as well. Check out the new Wilson adds featuring Sabine Lisicki. There's more footage where that came from on this facebook page.

The Deuce Court: Aussie Aspirations, What do lead-up results really mean and more...

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The Deuce Court is about to go crazy. Australian Open qualifying is underway. Petra Kvitova is playing Li Na today. Ivan Lendl photos are more popular than Scarlett Johansson photos on the Internet right now. And everything I see is fuzzy, yellow, and pops off the strings. In other words, life is good.

Deuce #1: Baghdatis?

Check the highlights at the top of the page and realize two things: 1. Marcos Baghdatis is, was and always will be a must-see player down under, and 2. Matthew Ebden can play (props to @bgtennisnation for pointing that out on Twitter yesterday while the match was going on). No. 97 in the world gave the Bag Man a run for his money yesterday, and the highlight reel shows that the kid has chops. Ebden, too, will be a player to watch next week in Melbourne.

Deuce #2: Madison Keys, totally low key.

This is not Madison Keys Twitter page. This is Madison Keys' homepage. Neither says anything about her Australian Open preparations. This young woman put up a very strong US Open performance last summer, losing a closely contested three setter to Lucie Safarova in round 2. I'm anxious to see what she can do a million miles from home, and so are a lot of other American tennis fans. She wont turn seventeen until February, and I like that a lot of what she's doing is being kept under wraps. That said, I'm dying to hear some news, see some practice photos, read a canned Q and A -- ANYTHING!

Deuce #3: Match of 2012? Kvitova-Li

Na Li and Petra Kvitova are both running the table in 2012. That will end today, and it promises to be quite a show, as the pair of sluggers are both emerging as Australian Open favorites as we speak. In addition to emerging as favorites, both appear to have completely distanced themselves from their post-Slam-winning slumbers that caused many to question their long-term viability at the top of the game. Kvitova has won 14 straight (not including the three at Hopman Cup). Li has been decidedly demonstrative of late too, winning all three Hopman cup matches and her first three at Sydney. Both women are for real -- we'll find out who is realer tonight.

Previously the pair have split two matches on clay, with Li winning the bigger match, a French Open 4th-rounder last year.

Ad In: Aussie Kim in her last Aussie Open?

Say it ain't so, but it very much looks that way. So get her while you can, and read this must-read piece in the Guardian, written by Donald McRae.

Deuce #4: What the hell is up with John Isner?

My guess (and I'm going out on a limb here) is that he played a bad match against American qualifier Bobby Reynolds and it won't happen again soon. Yes, Isner could have used a few more matches, but let's not forget that his last two Australian Open appearances have been pretty solid (4th and 3rd rounds). I think he'll still be a factor in Melbourne.

Ad Out: Who's in top form, and does it matter?

The most difficult thing for me this time of year is to try and decide which results will actually correlate with Australian Open results. For example, Fish destroyed Milos Raonic at the Kooyong Classic yesterday, and Bernard Tomic beat Tomas Berdych. Those are some pretty eye-opening results, but it's an exhibition. Who knows what it all means. What if Na Li crushes Petra Kvitova in Sydney today? Naturally, we'll all be penciling Li in as the Aussie Open favorite, but is that what it really means? Sometimes the best thing for a player is to suffer a nice thrashing just prior to a big event. It tells the player: get your ass in gear because you have to be better. Then the player proceeds to work like a maniac, focus like a guru and train like a mensch. The message? Results in the lead-ups matter, but not as much as we armchair prognosticators would like to think.