Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The beauty conundrum

So the entire tennis world is up in arms over an allegation that the Wimbledon organizers place the pretty players on center court while the homely chicks are relegated to the courts located in the netherworld. I have honestly been shocked by the amount of press that this story has managed to attract, what with the universal fixation on the death of Michael Jackson and the astonishing number of related scandals now clogging up the news pages.

I was even more intrigued that a spokesperson for the All England Club apparently conceded that physical attractiveness is one of the factors that determine court assignment. This admission -- if indeed it was made -- was as dumb as the apparent statement by someone from US Air that pitchman Billy Mays should have been wearing his seat belt when something from the overhead compartment hit him on the head. There are some things that I would not expect a PR savvy individual to admit, even when they are true.

But I’ve written before about this whole beauty issue. I will not repeat myself. I will instead recount a recent personal experience that affected me and that puts into perspective how I came to understand (again) that even the women designated as “pretty” may not necessarily be thrilled by the attention associated with their beauty.

I’ve started learning to play golf. I loved it immediately, and, if I do say so myself, have discovered that I have quite a knack for it. I assume that there must be some transfer of skills from my tennis. No wonder so many tennis players also take up golf.

So, having learned the hard way (from tennis) that it is better to learn how to play a sport the right way from the start, I signed up for a series of group lessons. We were about fifteen, a group of men and women, randomly assigned to about five instructors. For several of the lessons, I happened to be in the cluster with the same instructor. In my cluster was a very attractive young women whom I easily befriended. It became quickly apparent that our instructor was attracted to her. For every 90-minute session, he spent about 60 minutes dedicated exclusively to her. I learned how to play by listening to what he was telling her to do and simply copying it as best as I could.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am no shy wall-flower. So of course from session one I would pipe up and practically demand this man’s attention. So did other members of our cluster. He ignored us all, and remained zoomed in on his target. By lesson three I was utterly frustrated, so I joined a different cluster and got some serious attention. Problem solved.

One day, I am walking into class and ran into the young woman. I started teasing her about her “boyfriend” and about how the only way I was learning anything was by eavesdropping on their private sessions. She then started complaining to me about how fed up she was of this man’s attention. She was actually quite disgusted by it. She was a married woman who loved her husband and had made a point of talking about him to us all so that the instructor would back off. He persisted, disrespectfully, all under the guise of teaching her how to play golf. I understood then why her game never improved. She was too discomfited by the experience to learn anything.

She no-showed for the last two lessons. I was not surprised. I regretted only that I had not exchanged telephone numbers with her so that we could stay in touch and go out and hit a few together. And the experience reminded me that it is not always a picnic for women who find themselves defined only by their beauty.

So to this outrage over the apparent admission by a Wimbledon representative that less attractive women are discriminated against, I want to point out that this is not a compliment for the attractive women either. Because the message to the beauties is that their tennis accomplishments matter little. Their only worth is for the occasional up-skirt and boob shot. That too is profoundly offensive and deeply disrespectful to all women, pretty or homely.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Wimbledon 2009, Week 1: The Men

I wish I could comment on all the excellent matches that went down during the first week of Wimbledon. There are so many to choose from. So many impressive moments when players just rose to the challenge of performing in this most special Slam. But before I get to the impressive ones, let’s get one loser out of the way, shall we?

What the hell happened to James Blake? How does someone go from making it to the finals of Queen’s to being thrown out of Wimbledon in the first round? In straight sets? It almost seems like there are two James Blake. One seems to be a famewhore with flashy shots designed to make the J-Block ooh and aah. The other is a complete loser who mopes around on the court and acts like he doesn’t give a damn. Unfortunately for fans who paid their hard-earned money, the second one seems to have showed up in Wimbledon.

Welcome back Lleyton Hewitt. You disappeared for far too long. It’s nice to see you back, apparently healthy and clearly in excellent form. Taking out Juan Martin Del Potro in straight sets was no easy task. You were mean, heartless, and vicious, just the way you need to be when you’re fighting your way back to the top. Now just be careful of the words you choose in the heat of the moment and I’m your fan forever.

I must say that I have so far been quite impressed with Andy Roddick. Normally by now he would have done something stupid that would have annoyed me to no end. So far he hasn’t. Instead he has been playing wonderful, intelligent tennis. If he makes it past Berdych, I can’t wait to see what he produces against the resurgent Hewitt.

How to describe Andy Murray’s performance thus far? Watching him in the match against Kendrick, I saw a player who seemed very beatable. But in the match against Gulbis (whom he dismissed in less that 1.5 hours, posting a 6-2, 7-5, 6-3 score line), I wondered how he could possibly not win Wimbledon. I expect him to dispatch Wawrinka quite easily. Wawrinka is a talented player, but despite his win over Rafa in a recent exhibition match, he is no where near to Murray when it comes to match fitness. My only negative about the excited coverage of Murray’s run is the constant cutaways to his girlfriend. Really, I could do without the close-ups of her smug-looking face.

Tommy Haas vs. Marin Cilic was an incredibly exciting match. It was age vs. youth, experience vs. greenness, patience vs. impulsivity. I loved every minute of it. And while I am thrilled for Tommy Haas that he came back the next day and won it, the truth is that both men struggled to close out this match. That Cilic has a lot of promise. But Haas held the day.

Speaking of Old Balls, are you as impressed as I have been with Juan Carlos Ferrero? Like Santoro and Safin, this is expected to be his last year on the tour. He seems to be giving it his all. And as a former #1 player, he knows what it takes to win. I felt badly for Fernando Gonzalez, especially as he crumpled up like a wet blanket. I hope he doesn’t lose heart.

Finally, is it my imagination or has the advertising world suddenly rediscovered Roger Federer? First up, I received an email from Nike inviting me to become a part of a new interactive site dedicated to Roger. I must admit that I was flattered to be included in the list of bloggers selected for this honor. But it’s more than this. It’s Roger’s appearance in a whole new set of print and TV ads, pushing products from NetJets to Rolex watches. Roger seems to be all over my TV. It’s like advertisers have discovered that he is marketable again. It’s incredible what winning a 14th/Career Slam will do for you. It’s going to be a mess if the Dandy in Gold (see image below) manages to win # 15.

The Championships - Wimbledon 2009 Day One

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Wimbledon 2009, Week 1: The Women

What a tournament! There are so many amazing moments to comment on. Honestly, I’m not sure where to begin. So I’m just going to ramble in this entry. Just random points as they occur to me. Today I will focus only on some of the women. I’ll talk about the men tomorrow.

Venus Williams has been complaining about the length of the tour, and how there are too many matches and they need a better season off in order to work on fitness. Here’s my argument against this. Most of the top players will spend the time off playing exhibition matches in places like Dubai for beaucoup money. Here’s my solution -- play smarter tennis. Venus needs to learn how to vary her game. Every shot doesn’t have to be a power shot. You can do a whole lot of damage with spin and slice. And in fact one of the sweetest parts of this Wimbledon is getting an opportunity to watch less powerful players teach some of the more powerful how to defuse power with effect.

That said, it was nice to see Venus get revenge against Master Slicer Suarez-Navarro. The difference this time is that Venus remained calm and confident. She still wasted too much of her energy playing the nothing-but-power game while screaming like a banshee. And yes the 6-0 first set was impressive. But the final two points of the match were smart, calm tennis shots played at half pace. That is the Venus who can win Wimbledon again.

I am pleased to see that Sabine Lisicki has made it to week 2. I wish it did not have to come at the expense of the clearly mentally exhausted Kuznetsova but hey, you can’t have everything. And I know that I seem to be contradicting myself because I’ve previously praised Lisicki’s BBT-style of play and here I am criticizing Venus. The difference lies between playing big gutsy tennis that combines finesse and power (e.g., big forehands followed by sweet touch volleys or drop shots), versus always pointlessly trying to kill the ball. But Lisicki has some things to work on. For a start, she needs to learn how to keep her nerve and close out matches. And second, she needs to cut down on those double faults.

Nice win by Melanie Oudin (photo left courtesy yahoo), the 17-year-old qualifier who kept her nerve against Jelena (Drama Queen) Jankovic at her most histrionic. First Drama Queen complained about her foot. Then she whined about feeling dizzy. Later she claimed to be having woman problems. She said that she expected them to have to call the ambulance to transport her straight from the tennis court to the hospital. Against all those histrionics, her plucky 17-year-old opponent just kept her nerve and continued playing consistently and intelligently. I was impressed.

Ana Ivanovic seems to be back. Finally. Fingers crossed. Dare we hope?

Has a # 1 player ever been as ignored as Dinara Safina? That’s what happens when you lose a Slam as painfully as she lost in Paris. It’s like she doesn’t exist anymore. Sad.

I don’t mean to discount Petrova but I can’t wait for Azarenka vs. Serena. That could be the biggest upset of this tournament. I hope Serena brings her A-game because she’s going to need it. Azarenka is doing a better job of pacing herself, which makes her more dangerous than when she goes for too much flame.

My final comment on the women. I’m getting sick of the screeching. I’ve tried really hard to be tolerant of the women who feel that they have to scream in order to hit the ball effectively. I get that it’s part of the power game. But I’m getting sick of it. Part of the reason I am glad she is gone is because Sharapova gives me a headache. I’m not exaggerating. Monica Seles used to have the same effect on me and I would watch her matches on mute. But back then it was only Monica I had to content with. Now it’s every other woman player and quite a few of the men. I’m all for rules regulating this aspect of the sport. As a player myself, I get that breathing out with a grunt when making contact with the ball makes for a more powerful shot. But there is a difference between grunting and screeching at the top of your lungs. This is just not necessary. Time for some no screeching rules.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Why it’s important that Dulko beat Sharapova today

I have a good friend who rags on the women’s tour every chance he gets. In fact, he used to call me at all hours just to give me his latest observation on why the women’s tour sucks.

There was a time when I would engage him point for point, and we would have these prolonged arguments about his inability to comprehend the distinction between equity and equality. And then I got tired and decided to hell with it. I concluded that he was entitled to his opinion and I to mine and that I just was not going to fight with him anymore. And I haven’t.

I’ve stopped arguing about why I think it’s perfectly reasonable for women and men to earn the same amount on the tour even though men play more sets on average than women do. I understand that some think it’s unfair that a player like Marion Bartoli was able to earn the same amount of money for her opening match as Karol Beck, even though she won with a score of 6-0 6-0 and he played a brutal five-setter. There was a time when I would point out that it was not Marion’s fault that she happened to be so much better than her opponent, nor was it Beck’s fault that his opponent happened to be named Feliciano Lopez. But I’ve stopped saying even that much. There’s no point. I’ve come to the acceptance that folks on opposing sides of this issue will probably never have a meeting of the minds.

So when Maria Sharapova returned from injury and shoulder surgery to make it to the quarterfinals in Paris, my friend could not stop gloating. “Do you concede now?”, he demanded to know. “The women’s tour sucks. Imagine Sharapova has been out for months. Months! She is currently ranked outside of the 100! And yet she comes back and makes it to the quarterfinals of Roland Garros! And she can’t even slide on clay!!”, he exclaimed, utterly scandalized.

I could have pointed out that Maria is a former # 1 player, not just any random player returning from injury and rehab. I could have reminded him that Agassi had done the same damn thing, and not because he was injured but because he fell in love with a limited TV star. I could have pointed out that Maria had actually struggled in every single one of her matches, and that none of her Roland Garros games featured a Bartoli-like score. But being a mature individual, I told him to piss off instead.

But I have to admit (and he will be ecstatic to read) that there is a part of me that is thrilled that Sharapova lost to Gisela Dulko today. Not because I prefer Dulko or dislike Maria. (I don’t, and I don’t). Not because I have not been impressed with Maria’s incredible work ethic and her tremendous mental fortitude. But because I want my friend to shut to hell up. And because there is a part of me that accepts that no player, no matter how good he (Rafa) or she (Maria) is, has any business coming back from serious injury and assuming a position of immediate dominance of the tour. There is much too much depth on both sides to allow that.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Oh Serena, not the food

Last night I caught most of the second set of Serena’s opening match against an unknown qualifier, a Portuguese woman named Neuza Silva (photo left courtesy yahoo). At least she was unknown to me. I have never heard of or seen this woman before in my life. This is probably because she is ranked # 154 in the world. Which is not a bad rank if you’re climbing your way upwards on the tour. But it’s a rank against which Serena had no business struggling.

Yet struggle she did. At least for portions of the second set. I missed the first set which Serena had clearly won easily. But in the second set, Serena seemed sometimes to have no clue what to do against a player whose style of play is probably more reminiscent of some of those aging hackers you see at country clubs everywhere. All slice and dice interspersed with downright hack shots.

And then there was the moment when Serena decided to respond to hack with hack. I laughed so hard it hurt. I could not believe my eyes when Serena reached forward and curved a forehand ball so viciously that I thought for sure it would explode. It was a hilarious moment. But Hack # 1 (Silva) eventually won the point.

So I’m sitting there watching these two hackers throw down some old style tennis that would have made my grandmother proud, when it occurred to me that Hack #1 was less than half the size of Hack #2. Honestly, Serena looked huge as she paced on the other side of the court waiting for Hack # 1 to throw down.

Now I have previously defended Serena’s girth by pointing out that people who criticize her body are confusing form with fitness. I stand by those observations. I think that Serena Williams is one of the strongest and fittest women on the tour. But I must admit that she seems to be getting larger by the minute. In fact, I found myself thinking that one of Serena’s legs could easily make two of Silva’s. Maybe three. And I know that the camera adds ten pounds. And that Serena has never exactly been petite, except of course in her own mind. But I have to admit that she seems to be becoming huger by the second.

My tennis coach thinks that the problem may be steroids. Not the illegal stuff that folks take to bulk up, but the legal stuff used to treat injuries and allergies. He believes that Serena’s excessive girth may be the result of prescribed medication she has been given to help her recover rapidly from a slew of past injuries.

I have no idea if he is right or not. But what I do know is that I found myself kind of cringing with embarrassment when I read an entry in her blog today in which Serena complained about her access to food at Wimbledon. Actually I started groaning painfully as I read her complaint. Serena does not make clear what "food" items she thinks she should be able to haul into the locker room, or in what quantities. But apparently fruit and health bars do not qualify. Girlfriend wants real food.

And I found myself thinking, of all the things Serena could pick to complain about, did she have to pick the availability of food? I know that she is a big girl who needs her nutrition. No doubt she can eat most women under the table. But did she have to make her appetite such a conspicuous topic of conversation? Honestly, I would have preferred not.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Was the Scud Muffin destroyed by Ebola?

There are times when I like to indulge in escapist reading. Perhaps because I spend my days focusing on serious issues of mental health, when I get home, I find that I either want to do something entirely physical -- playing tennis, golfing (my new obsession), or working out at the gym -- or doing something utterly escapist and non-challenging, such as reading celebrity gossip. The point of escapist reading is not to take anything seriously. No analysis or mental effort are required. Just silly observations about the side of human nature that is motivated by the lust for fame.

I sometimes surf a site run by a Canadian woman who has a number of clever nicknames for certain celebrities. Her nickname for Paris Hilton is the Ebola Virus. As in, it destroys everything it touches. Ouch. And one theory regarding the current demise of former top ten tennis player Mark Philippoussis is that his downfall may have been caused by nothing less than a previous bout of exposure to said Ebola.

Rumor has it that Philippoussis’ alleged hook-up with Paris Hilton led to the end of his relationship with popular Aussie singer, Delta Goodrem, which resulted in an ongoing negative relationship with his country of birth. And this was well before he appeared on the embarrassing “Age of Love”, an American reality show in which a bunch of young women (“Kittens”) competed against a group of Cougars (I hate that word) for his amorous attention. I didn’t think Philippoussis could sink any lower. I was wrong.

Philippoussis recently announced that he is flat broke and may end up losing his home. According to a writ recently filed in the Supreme Court, he took out a loan through his company, Mergis Pty Ltd, for which he is listed as sole director, secretary and shareholder. He served as personal guarantor on the loan, which defaulted a year later when the mortgage company foreclosed. The lender is seeking $1,313,351.96, with interest and costs plus possession of the Philippoussis home.

If all you know about Mark Philippoussis is what you’ve read in the scandal pages, then you may not know that he was once a top ten tennis player, famous for powerful serves that landed on the tennis court like scud missiles. This and his handsome looks earned him the nickname “Scud Muffin”. His game was always best suited to grass and he was, at one time, regarded as a dangerous opponent in the Wimbledon draw. He once served 46 aces in a 2003 match against Andre Agassi. He has scored wins against former top players like Pete Sampras, Juan Carlos Ferrero, and Cedric Pioline. And, with Jelena Dokic, he won the Hopman Cup for Australia in 1999.

But there were two issues that continually marred Philippoussis’ career. The first was his apparent inability to get along with key people. Coached by his father from age six, Mark seemed to experience tension early in his career between the loyalties to his father and the demands of the sport. In quick succession three coaches/trainers were fired or quit (Nick Bolletieri, Todd Viney, and Peter McNamara), all complaining about the meddling of the elder Philippoussis in the career of the younger. Bolletieri later recounted these difficulties in his book ‘My Aces, My Faults’. Throughout his career, Mark had acrimonious rifts with other coaches (Pat Cash, John Newcombe, and Tony Roche). Fellow Aussie, Patrick Rafter, has criticized him for burning too many bridges and making poor decisions in his career. And many believe that he did not always fulfill his professional obligations (such as to Davis Cup).

The second issue that marred Philippoussis’ career was his physical frailty. He has had several surgical procedures on his knees. I remember a match at Wimbledon when he seemed well on his way to crushing Pete Sampras, only to become hobbled by his bad knees. Even Pete acknowledged later that he had dodged a bullet.

And while some gossip columnists would say that Philippoussis’ current financial demise is probably the result of hanging around wealthy socialite viruses like Paris Hilton, I have always believed that his larger problem was one of mental frailty. One always got the sense that there was something not quite wired right with this man. There was a childlike immaturity to his presence that never went away. You saw it most clearly during his painful conversations with the women in his reality show. His eyes always seemed so empty, so bizarrely lost. About him there was always a sense that the lights were not only dim but that there was also no one, absolutely no one, at home.

UPDATE: Ebola strikes again?

Friday, June 19, 2009

The remaining six prepare to inhale

My headline should have read “the remaining five”. And of course the inhaling is a bad pun on the grass surface. (It’s Friday evening, cut me some slack). But with Rafa’s announcement that he will not be defending his trophy, all of a sudden there’s a new scent in the air. Can you smell it? It’s the scent of opportunity. And hunger.

6. Andy Roddick
There is really no reason why Andy Roddick cannot win Wimbledon. His serves are still fierce. His forehands can be a bit slappy but they get the job done. His backhands are consistent and reliable. He can now even drop shot. Why hasn’t he won? There are a number of answers to that question, but primary among them (in my opinion) is that Andy has lost the intimidation factor. It disappeared a couple of years ago, along with his Mojo. Andy just doesn’t scare anyone anymore. He can keep raining down those booming serves and guys are still confident that they can beat him. And he knows this. So when things start going wrong, he starts throwing a tantrum, attacking the Chair sarcastically over some minor point that he should have moved past half-hour ago. He ends up looking like a big baby. You just want to hand him his pacifier.

7. Gilles Simon
In a word -- overrated. I know that he has had some good wins. But he has also had some pitiful losses. The great ones know how to break through and keep going. Gilles seems to get so thrilled about having weaseled his way to a win that he forgets he has to wake up the next day and play another match. He needs to learn not to celebrate too much too soon. Or not to celebrate as if the current victory is the only one that matters. It doesn’t. Tomorrow is another day, and another match. Et celui qui oublie va perdre.

8. Fernando Verdasco
His semi-final breakthrough in Australia was no fluke. He is being taught by the best. The minute he decided to commit himself to Gil Reyes’ brand of Zen conditioning, Verdasco had signaled that he was serious about getting to the top. His loss in Halle last week didn’t bother me -- it takes some time for these claymates to adjust to the grass. And along with Nadal, Ferrer, and other key members of the Spanish Armada, Verdasco has shown that there is more than one way to both play and win on grass. For years we all were convinced that if you couldn’t serve and volley like Sampras, you had no chance in heck of winning Wimbledon. Nadal’s win last year confirmed this to be untrue. This year, Verdasco has a shot at making closing arguments for the defense.

9. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
I was curious to see how Tsonga would perform in Halle against the currently hot Tommy Haas, the principal king of comebacks. Haas was named ATP Comeback Player of the Year in 2004 after clawing his way back from injury to position # 17 in the rankings. Then he sort of disappeared again. Once again, he seems to be on his way back. Is it possible to give the same player the same title twice in his career? Why not? Playing against Haas -- a most dangerous floater -- was a good test for Tsonga. His performance was alright, but I am still not convinced that he is ready for the breakthrough that he promised in Australia last year. That said, with the size of Tsonga’s game, it must gall him to be ranked below Simon.

10. Fernando Gonzalez
How do I love him? Let me count the ways. I love how hungry he is for a Slam. I love how motivated he has been to put in the hard work. I loved how pissed off he was that he didn’t beat Federer in Paris. But I didn’t love his tendency to fall back on old bad habits when pressured. Like hitting every shot as if it has to be a monster shot. I know that that is not what Stefanki has told him to do. It’s a big waste of energy, hence his inability to close out a five-setter when it matters. Despite what Maria has been paid to tell us, you simply cannot make every shot a power shot. Can Gonzo win Wimbledon? Most definitely. But he needs to learn how to play more within himself. And how to use spin to run his opponents ragged before moving in for the well-timed kill.

The also-rans: Look who’s hanging out at # 12? None other than king-beater, Robin Soderling. Can he do it again? I hope so. That would make for a riveting story.

I’m getting tired of waiting for Ernests Gulbis to deliver on the promise. He needs to know that I can only wait for so long.
(Part 2 of 2)

Courtesy Joshua Fiedler:
Wimbledon Champs Past and Present
Vote for the Greatest Wimbleson Champ

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Top Ten go into Wimbledon

I focused on the women’s draw going into Roland Garros. Now it’s only fair to pick apart the men and give my two cents worth. I am encouraged by the observation of a friend that as much as I claim to dislike prognostication, I really didn’t do such a bad job of it. She’s probably giving me a six for a nine but what the heck -- here we go.

1. Rafael Nadal
He just got the top seed. This either means that the folks at Wimbledon know something that we don’t about his knee, or that they are trying to entice him to play. Or both. Of course to be fair -- he has earned the top seed by being the defending champ. But Wimbledon has been known in the past to re-arrange the draw to suit the Queen or whomever. I hope Rafa’s knee is up to the challenge. I think that it is important for him to defend this title. But I can’t help but worry that his brutal style of play may finally be catching up with him.

2. Roger Federer
He’s won the French. All the pressure is off. He can relax and simply enjoy his tennis. If he wins, he wins. If he loses, who gives a crap. He made history and his wife is expecting his baby -- what else is there to achieve? Well actually, a lot. For a start, equating Sampras is not enough -- he needs to pass him. And he needs to reclaim his Wimbledon crown from Rafa. So there is more pressure going into this tournament than he may expect to feel. But not so much that it will cripple him. Because there is always the US Open.

3. Andy Murray
My favorite Murray shot is his angled rolling forehand. It is a sweet shot that pulls his opponent off the court and gives Murray the opening to put away the ball into the add court. I like that shot so much that I even practiced it today. I was inspired by how effective it was against James Blake in the finals of the Aegon Championships. That said, I was stunned when one of the commentators -- I think it was Leif Shiras -- announced boldly that he thought that Murray was the best mover in the world. Well unless Murray works for U-Haul in his spare time, Shiras must have lost his mind. Which is not to say that Murray doesn’t move well, or that this strength will not assist him at this tournament. But the best in the world? If I was Rafa I would sue the Tennis Channel for hiring such nincompoops. That said, there are a number of reasons why I don’t think Andy Murray is ready to win Wimbledon. For a start, his record in five-setters is just not as impressive as the top two. And there is his tendency to play too many short balls that his opponents can crush. His serve has improved but it is still not a reliable weapon. And then there’s the pressure to be the first Brit to win the damn tournament in like ages. Even if he tries not to, it’s going to be very hard not to succumb to the pressure of expectation. Remember poor Henman? Ay, how he suffered the poor lad.

4. Novak Djokovic
My problem with Djokovic at this point is that he has added nothing new to his arsenal. He has a good general all-round decent game. But he has had the same good general all-round decent game since his initial breakthrough. He’s added nothing. He’s improved nothing. Which is not to say that his game is bad -- you don’t make it to the top four by sucking. But being a good general all-round decent tennis player will only take you so far. That said, he’s won a Slam before and he’s hungry for another. I’m not entirely counting him out. I’d just be shocked as hell if he wins.

5. Juan Martin Del Potro
This is one ambitious dude with a superb opinion of himself. In the world of top tennis, that is an important quality. Humility gets you nowhere in my (non-humble) opinion. It’s important to be an arrogant, self-opinionated, ambitious achiever. I truly mean that. I can’t think of any player that made it to the top by being humble. OK maybe Arthur Ashe, by all reports. But I won’t at all be surprised if he was also quietly arrogant. You have to be to rise to the top. And Juan Martin Del Potro seems to be one arrogant dude. I love it. It may be the Argentine culture in which he was raised -- have you met any group of people that loved themselves more? Well, maybe Trinis but that’s a whole other blog entry. For now, I am impressed with this kid. He is tall and big and strong. He has a mean game and a focused desire to win. He is new to grass but he is a quick study. But he needs to be careful. Being overly competitive can become a hindrance when you don’t know how to control your emotions. But he’s young -- he can still learn.

(Part 1 of 2)

The Championships - Wimbledon 2009 Day One

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The DampAsses face a crisis

You-told-me-YOU-were-the-Great-est-ever!!!!”

She accentuated each word with a poke in his gut. DampAss remained silent. He could think of nothing to say. He found her poking to be strangely arousing but knew that this was not the right time to bring up the topic of nookie. Although if she kept poking him like that he wasn’t sure he could maintain control over Little DampAss.

The crisis had actually started two years prior in 2007 when The Maestro had won three Slam finals to bring his total to 12. “Do you think he can make it to 13?”, Mrs. DampAss had asked over breakfast the morning after The Maestro had beaten Djokovic at the 2007 US Open to win his 12th Slam.

“I’m not sure. I mean, he hasn’t been able to beat Nadal on clay so it doesn’t look as if he will ever win that tournament. And Nadal keeps getting better and bett--”

“This is not about Nadal,” she snarled. “I want to know if I am married or not to the man who is the Greatest Tennis Player Ever. That’s what I signed on for. That is what was supposed to help MY career. You're not the only one in this house whose career is over you know. Mine disappeared the day after I got knocked up with YOUR child. So tell me now so that I am clear -- am I or am I not married to the Greatest Tennis Player Ever??”

DampAss was grateful that the help were in the other wing of their mansion. He couldn't bear it when she humiliated him in front of them. “You are sweetie. You know you are,” he replied soothingly.

“Well then, prove it”.

The outcome of which was that DampAss found himself forced to take his creaky joints out of retirement in order to face The Maestro in a series of exhibition matches. It was all Mrs. DampAss’ idea. She thought that if the Greatest Ever could beat this Swiss upstart in a well-publicized series of exhibition matches, then it didn’t matter what else he may or may not go on to achieve.

After The Maestro crushed him in the first two exhibition matches, DampAss decided to reach out for his opponent’s sympathy. He explained the situation about his wife and about how she was worried about his legacy. The Maestro sympathized and allowed him to win the last exhibition match.

That night his wife loved him like she hadn’t in years. Oh the things that woman could do when she put her mind to it. “You’re the Greatest,” she whispered seductively, as he found himself transported with ecstasy. “Yes I am,” he mumbled in reply, not wanting to release the body part he held tenderly in his mouth.

The honeymoon lasted a week. Soon she was plotting another face down. She felt that the audience in Asia hadn’t been big enough. He assured her that the Asian audience had been plenty big as the stadium was twice the size of Madison Square Garden.

“That’s it! Brilliant! We’ll stage another match in Madison Square Garden! You will beat him one more time, but this time in front of Americans! Yes that’s it!", she cooed excitedly, and started pirouetting around the room. Normally he loved it when she pirouetted. It got him very excited. But today he felt a cold heaviness in the pit of his stomach. Could he convince The Maestro to let him win another time? He didn’t think so.

The Maestro refused, naturally. The most he was willing to allow was for the match to go to a three-setter. “DampAss, I promise not to humiliate you in front of your people. But in the third set, let the best man win.”

After that loss, things once again became hellish in the DampAss household. His wife threatened to cut him completely off the nookie. But after The Maestro lost the 2008 Wimbledon to Nadal, her spirits lifted. She started smiling again. He enjoyed the nookie-filled respite until the US Open when The Maestro won his 13th Slam. The months after that were brutal. He tried his best to re-assure her. He pointed out that Nadal clearly had The Maestro’s number so what was the worry? And sure enough, there was The Maestro crying pitifully after he lost the 2009 Australian Open. They celebrated that defeat spectacularly. She dressed as a Grecian Goddess and allowed him to peel away the layers with his teeth. He was her humble slave and he served her masterfully.

For a few months, peace reigned in the DampAss household. The help started once again moving freely among them. There was no need to banish them to the East Wing because any reports to the paparazzi would be glowing ones. At night they would watch one or another of her comedies for entertainment. His favorite was the episode of Frasier when she played a popular lawyer. Oh she was funny, and beautiful, and so talented. He knew how lucky he was. And this peace between them would last if only The Maestro knew his place and allowed the DampAss legacy to stand.

But then came 2009 Roland Garros. Who could have predicted Soderling? DampAss remembered him vaguely as an autistic-looking young man who never looked up or spoke to anyone. Who knew that he would grow up to be the one who faced down Nadal and allowed The Maestro to equalize his legacy? Ever since, the DampAss household had been in crisis. Mrs. DampAss’ rage knew no limit. The help had moved permanently to the East Wing. DampAss wondered if he would ever get nookie again...

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Roger Federer: A Unique Outlier?

Of course it was bound to get re-stimulated -- the prolonged debate over whether or not Roger Federer is the G(TP)OAT, the Greatest (Tennis Player) Of All Time. No doubt tennis message boards are going to start crashing soon as supporters and opponents gear off in their respective corners, entrenched in their positions regarding who is the GOTA -- Greatest Of Them All. (Mohammed Ali, of course).

Already some short-visioned Nadal supporters have started insisting that Federer cannot be the GOAT as only Nadal’s presence across the net at a finals can determine Federer’s true status. I am confident that Nadal himself would have preferred not to have lost to Soderling and would have opted instead to make history by winning his fifth straight Roland Garros title. But he didn’t. Federer won. Case closed. Steups.

The argument regarding who is the GE -- Greatest Ever -- is rather pointless and silly in my opinion. Can we truly compare performances across different eras, with different regulations governing the sport, and different technologies determining available equipment? What statistical model can we come up with that could adequately weight all of these factors in order to standardize and thereby define greatness?

And how do we understand the construct of “time” in order to satisfactorily answer this question? How far back into the past do we go? How much can we really project into the future? Is “time” to be defined by endurance? Will the name Federer resonate 20 years from now? So many questions. So little blogging space.

Perhaps it’s time to generate some alternative questions, to adopt an entirely different perspective on analyzing the greatness that is Federer. I want to participate not in the kind of pointless back-and-forth screaming that characterizes most tennis forums, but in a meaningful engagement on the topic of greatness that looks at this issue from an entirely different point of view.

One such perspective has recently been put forth by the writer, Malcolm Gladwell. In his latest book, “Outliers”, Gladwell argues that when we attempt to understand someone’s greatness, we often make the mistake of interpreting their lives as ones of individual achievement, recasting their story until it takes on mythic proportions. Most autobiographies tend to follow this standard formula: An individual is born to modest or frankly impoverished circumstances, and through their own individual grit and talent, fights their way to greatness. Think of any of our current models of success -- from Oprah to Bill Gates -- and this is the stock formula that is used to understand their achievement.

But Gladwell argues that personal explanations of success are usually inaccurate or at best, woefully incomplete. To quote him: “People don’t rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage”. In order words, success is a group project, nurtured in most cases by significant others who assist the talented individual in seizing hold of the right opportunities. Outliers are those talented individuals who gain access to singular opportunities for success. And they are usually the product of the contributions of a network of people and circumstances.

And so there would be no Federer if not for his disciplined German father and his sensitive South African mother. The influence of his sport-loving (hockey) older sister also cannot be denied. That the entire family enjoyed playing tennis is also significant. So too was the presence of an Australian coach named Peter Carter who happened to be married to a Swiss woman and who became one of Federer’s early mentors. But Federer is also the product of the national training center in Ecublens and his sadness and isolation among its French-speaking coaches and students. And his success is also the result of his courage to let go of Peter Carter when the time was right and seize hold of the opportunity to work with Peter Lundgren who was far more experienced in the world of the ATP and who was then working at the center in Biel. The list of opportunities and influences is endless. I cannot in the space of this column list them all.

And so I think that the debate over whether or not Federer is the GTPE -- Greatest Tennis Player Ever -- is evidence of our clinging to old ideas about success that views achievement as a simple function of individual merit, and which regards Federer's success as the result of his singular drive for greatness. The truth is that Federer is very much a product of the world in which grew up and the rules of society that allowed him the privilege of succeeding. There are many tennis players who are as gifted as Federer, some perhaps even more so. What differentiates him from them is his talent, yes, but also his access to opportunities to develop and live out his dream.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

No tournament for young men

Of the eight men who made it to the quarterfinals of 2009 Roland Garros, half were over age 25. Of these, Nicolay Davydenko and Fernando Gonzalez are both 28. Tommy Robredo and Roger Federer are only a year younger at 27. And Robin Soderling, the tournament’s memorable darling, will himself turn 25 later this year.

The remaining three quarterfinalists were all 22 or under. Gael Monfils and Andy Murray are both 22. And Juan Martin Del Potro, at 20, was the baby of the lot.

But judging from the outcome of this Slam -- which I have been so busy celebrating that I am only now getting around to writing about it -- one could reasonably conclude that this was no tournament for young men. In the end, an Old Ball won.

I am invoking of course the “New Balls Please” campaign initiated several years ago by the ATP, possibly in recognition that the older players (namely Agassi and Sampras) were about to retire, and that something had to be done to encourage the “New Balls”, then trousered by the likes of Andy Roddick, Mardy Fish, and James Blake.

I never kept track of this campaign so I can’t comment on whether or not it was a success. What I remember thinking at the time was that it seemed somewhat ageist and that the WTA would not dare to emulate it with a “No Grandmas Please” campaign. I was honestly surprised that outspoken commentators like John McEnroe did not speak out against the “New Balls“ campaign. Or perhaps he did and I missed it. [And, in defense of the ATP, I much prefer their current and non-ageist "Feel It" campaign].

Trust me, I understood then (and understand now) the need to encourage new players so that a sport keeps growing. But the campaign at the time impressed me as kind of tasteless, with its meta-message of ‘out with the old, in with the new’. I found it not only disrespectful to the Old Balls but I felt that it promoted a message of youthful arrogance that players like Roddick for instance did not at all need.

It has also always bothered me when fans start calling for a player’s retirement after said player goes through a dark period of losses. I mean the person is already suffering enough from the awareness that he is not doing well, do you have to rub it in by asking him to retire? This will always be one of my problems with the Internet and with the way folks use it to be simply mean, spiteful, and cruel. But I digress.

And why exactly should a player retire at say 30? Where is it written that a professional tennis player cannot choose to continue to make a decent living by playing his sport even if he (or she) ends up ranked outside the top 100’s? Surely players on their way up can benefit from the experience and knowledge of older players still hanging around the sport? Can you imagine if other professions adopted a similar attitude? You would never have any kind of apprenticeship, no passing on of knowledge, no modeling of professional behavior, and no respect for the elders of the profession.

But 25 is considered by many to be old in the world of men’s tennis. By age 25 Bjorn Borg had already retired, an old man ready to embrace a lifestyle not defined by the pressures of professional tennis. Indeed, some say that if you haven’t won a Slam by age 25, there’s every chance that you probably never will. In the Open Era, Pete Sampras had already won the US Open at age 19. Michael Chang brought home the trophy for Roland Garros at age 17. And Boris Becker won Wimbledon also at 17.

If this holds true statistically, then time may be running out for Davydenko, Gonzalez, and Robredo. On the other hand, Roger Federer just won his first French at the ripe old age of 27. That he dominated a number of younger men along the way to his historic achievement of a Career Grand Slam probably makes this victory encouraging for Old Balls everywhere.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

A question of mental fitness

I’m not a good prognosticator -- my heart gets too much into it and I can’t think straight. At those times I see what I want to see and wish what I want to be. I can’t stay objective for crap.

So for the most part I’ve stayed away from the predicting business and leave it up to folks far more courageous than me. Like Bud Collins. He thinks that Kuznetsova will win today in three sets. And then of course there is that other expert, Nick Bollettieri, who predicts that Safina will win instead, in three sets. See?

What most experts seem to agree on is that the match will go to three. But clearly they too are having difficulty picking one woman over the other. I myself am doubly confused because my heart loves both women and my head refuses to pick one over the other. So what I will give instead is an attempt at a balanced assessment and let the chips fall where they may. The bottom line for me is that either outcome will please me immensely.

Dinara Safina and Svetlana Kuznetsova have made it to the finals of Roland Garros. They are not strangers to each other’s games, having faced each other on thirteen previous occasions. There is very little that the one can do to surprise the other. Of their thirteen encounters, Safina has come out on top eight times, but their wins are equally divided on clay.

Of the two, Sveta is the far more experienced. But Dinara is not exactly lacking in this quality. She got to the # 1 spot by playing tough matches against tough opponents. And Sveta is as tough as they come.

Of the two, Sveta seems to be the more banged up. She has spent more time out on the court and in the sun. She rolled her right ankle. She has complained of blisters. She survived an attempted beat-down by Serena Williams which is as brutal as matches get. Dinara has not been as tested by any of her opponents -- even though her body language often suggests that she feels just as tested.

On the one hand one could argue that Sveta is more match-ready, match-hardened as it were, and therefore has an advantage. And in a sense I think she does. She has the more complete game. She is as I have acknowledged before, an excellent strategist. Even when pushed on the defensive, she often comes up with the right shot, not just the defensive shot.

But there are times when Sveta can become too cautious. She seems at times to suffer from an over awareness of the moment. For an example, if she misses a few shots on the forehand, she has a tendency to start guiding the shot instead of continuing to play it. Her over awareness that she is lacking in the moment tends to lead to more lack. Analysis can result in paralysis. Her problem can be mental.

But the same can also be said about Safina. It was surprising to watch the way she lambasted herself during the match against Cibulkova. You’d swear she was losing. And her coach sits there with his negative body language practically screaming at her non-verbally for messing up. I know that this negative coaching method has brought her a long way. But I am much too American to believe that the same and more cannot be accomplished with positive methods of self-esteem building.

Navratilova commented during the Cibulkova match that one of Dinara’s strengths is her ability to curse at herself and then let it go so that her negativity doesn’t bleed into the next shot. And while I concede this, I have seen no evidence that Dinara’s negative style of motivation has been advantageous for her. On the contrary I will argue that it may be a part of her tendency towards mental fragility.

Adding to this is Dinara’s apparent over awareness of the pressure to win her first Slam. She seems to talk about it all the time. The truth is that she is constantly being asked about it by the media and often ends up coming across as defensive instead of confident. Roger Federer is facing the same kind of pressure to win his first French. For him, as well as both of these women, the outcome of the finals may come down to a question of mental fitness.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The overlooked contenders

In every major tournament, there is always that handful of contestants who seem to somehow remain entirely overlooked. Robin Soderling would be one of them had he not beaten Rafael Nadal. Entirely ignored until that match, Soderling could easily have exited Roland Garros as just another entrant, just another of the pawns that Nadal stomped over on his way to making history.

Instead, because of his historic win, Soderling has become noticed, his big game appreciated, the topic of international conversation. No matter what else he does in this tournament, he will forever be the Swede who denied Rafa his fifth.

It is no different on the women’s side. You’d swear that only Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams, and Dinara Safina had entered this tournament. This is the trio who have been constantly talked about.

With each of her amazing three-set comebacks, Sharapova has guaranteed that the media would sit up and take notice of her. With every issue of her self-admitted drama, Serena Williams has assured that she does not need to put on a catsuit to get noticed. And of course the story of Dinara remains that of the # 1 player in pursuit of her first Slam. Everyone else in the women’s draw also ran.

Ignored on the men’s side -- at least until now -- is the sweet accomplishment of Fernando Gonzalez, the big-hitting Chilean who worked for a while with star-maker Larry Stepanki and reformulated his game into a winning formula. Admittedly, Gonzo did not have the most difficult draw at Roland Garros. But waiting for him in the quarterfinals was Andy Murray, the # 3 player in the world, the one who Brad Gilbert keeps insisting is destined to be # 1. Or at least he used to. It’s been a while since I bothered listening to anything that Brad Gilbert had to say. When Gonzo silenced Murray today in 4 sets, making him swallow a bagel in the third, he stopped being overlooked. All of a sudden he has become a serious contender for the trophy.

On the women’s side of the draw, Kutnetzova continues her unnoticed run. This is not new territory for Sveta. I’ve commented before on her knack for going under the radar. Sometimes the best fruit lies hidden in the branches, I say. Sveta is no flashy Azarenka, submitting to a fluff-piece as she poses awkwardly against a tree. She’s no Sharapova, wearing the very latest in tennis fashion even if it does not suit her body. Sveta is certainly no drama queen. She is a quiet and quietly excellent tennis player. The type who gets overlooked as the paparazzi go instead for the Ivanovic crotch shot.

And then there is Samantha Stosur [photo left]. Samantha who? Right. She’s Aussie. She was the # 1 doubles player in the world in 2006, along with Lisa Raymond. And she is in the quarterfinals of Roland Garros. She beat Elena Dementieva and Virginie Razzano along the way. I don’t know how because I have not seen a single one of her matches. She is one of the overlooked contenders. Tomorrow she faces Cirstea, another also-ran who took out Jankovic. One overlooked player facing another for the pleasure of possibly making it to the finals. What a story that would be if either one succeeds.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Why the Roland Garros emblem reminds me of Starbucks...

What a time I picked to travel! I was so out of sorts that I missed seeing most of my friends and ended up playing tennis only twice. To make matters worse, I lost to a man who hasn’t played since I last saw him in December. And then I forgot that my return flight was on Saturday and had to buy a whole new ticket to get back home on Sunday. Yes, I have been entirely out of sorts, and it’s all because I missed the first week of Roland Garros.

If you are a serious tennis fan, then you can appreciate that I anchor much of my life around four Grand Slams and multiple other tournaments. I have not dated a man who did not have to accept that he couldn’t speak to me while any of these events was on. Not if he expected me to answer him anyway.

Tennis is a part of the glue that gives my life meaning, that keeps me sane. Granted, it drives the non-tennis folks around me bat-crazy but I accepted long ago that that is their problem, not mine, and I am even willing to pitch in for the therapy.

This is all by way of saying that the last week of my life just was not in sync. I felt entirely off-kilter. Yes the Tennis Channel helped in that featured matches were archived on the internet. But there is no substitute for Tivo, or for being glued to one’s own TV while the rest of the world carries on with their inane non-tennis activities.

Like many tennis fans I can be utterly narcissistic and come to believe that the fate of my faves depends on my single-minded devotion. Would Rafa have lost had I been at home when he faced Soderling? I think not. I blame myself that he seemed so out of sorts, that his performance so completely reflected my own internal lack of consonance.

And would the Williams sisters have lost to the likes of Mattek-Sands and Petrova in doubles had I not traveled? I think not. And really, could Venus have looked any worse on a doubles court? It’s like she forgot that she had a partner with whom she was supposed to be coordinating. I accepted a long time ago that the Williams sisters don’t have a clue about how to play doubles and win through sheer physicality and pounding aggression. But no amount of the latter could make up for Venus looking like a lost idiot out there. It was my fault. I should have been home.

I take responsibility too for Venus’ individual loss to Szavay. Did you see the kind of patty-cake tennis that Szavay was playing? Really Venus, what the heck were you thinking? Oh, I forget, it’s all because of me. I picked the wrong time to travel and threw the tennis planets out of alignment. I am so sorry.

Thank goodness I came back in time to help Federer recover from his two set deficit against Tommy Haas and roar back to victory. And for Serena to utterly thump her latest opponent and redeem herself from all of those close calls she suffered in my absence. I have been a negligent fan. My faves have been challenged while I was busy drinking Stella Artois. At least I chose a beer that supports tennis. Cut me some slack OK?

But of all of the weird observations I made while I was off cavorting and not minding my tennis business, the silliest was how similar the Roland Garros logo is to Starbucks. When you’re desperate for tennis, it’s amazing the kind of mental connections you will start making just like that, out of the blue, while standing in line for another venti espresso light frappuccino. I drank one every single day last week. Now I know why. Back to the tennis courts so that I can burn off the calories.

But most of all I am glad that I made it back in time. It’s anybody’s French Open. Azarenka is hungry for it and she’s willing to take down Safina if she has to. (She'll have to get past me). And all of the remaining men know that Rafa’s departure (thanks to me) means that any of them has the chance to win their first French. Thank goodness I made it back in time to help out Roger.