Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Tennis round up: it's been a while, non?

I must admit that I have been distracted by all of the drama surrounding the Presidential elections. For a moment there, I completely forgot that this is supposed to be a tennis blog. At least some of the time. So in this column, I catch up with all of the tennis developments I have not commented on over the past month or so. Apologies for these delayed reactions.

Tsonga wins first title
It’s unforgivable that I did not throw a party to celebrate this. When Jo-Wilfried Tsonga lost to Novak Djokovic in four tight sets at the finals of the Australian Open, tennis commentators hailed his performance as a breakthrough. Much was subsequently expected of him. Little was delivered. Unfortunately for the Frenchman, he soon found himself once again sidelined by injury. This went on for several months.

So when he again faced Djokovic in the finals of the Thailand Open, few felt he had any chance of winning. But win he did, using his massive forehand to save three break points in the final game before closing out the victory. The score was 7-6 (4), 6-4. Tsonga had won his first career title and was paid $94,000. But he denied that getting revenge for that Aussie Open loss was ever a motivating factor. I didn’t believe him for a second.

And still she rises
When Jelena Jankovic lost to Flavia Pennetta in the second round of the Zurich Open, it was hard not to wonder if she really cared. I’m not saying that she tanked – not at all. And I also don’t mean to minimize Pannetta’s performance. Flavia has had a rough time of it recently – between the break-up with the famous boyfriend (Carlos Moya), and a series of unfortunate injuries, it’s been great to see her back looking healthy and focused. And her making it all the way to the finals of the Zurich Open confirmed that her resurgence is no fluke.

However, Jankovic must have been bone-tired. Prior to this match, she had won three tournaments in three straight weeks – in Beijing, Stuttgart, and Moscow. Ironically, she beat a resurgent Vera Zvonareva in each of these tournaments, in the last one facing her in the finals. It’s nice to see Vera back again and seeming tougher. I remember the days when all she was known for was her pitiful crying during a match.

It’s been a helluva year in women’s tennis. Henin quit at the top of her game, leaving the field wide open for all takers. Davenport tried but she remains on the fringe and few really see her as a threat. Dinara Safina stepped up and out from under her brother’s shadow; these days it is she who seems to be inspiring him to give his all to tennis instead of to the Safinettes who have long lusted after him. Serena takes a time-out – but you know she will bring her A-game to Doha. Venus should qualify, and deservedly so. But Jankovic is indisputably the #1 player in the world.

While Serena plays with Common, Venus keeps focus on tennis
When last I saw photos of Serena, she was on the beach with Common, daring to wear a white bikini after Labor Day. But while Serena played at the beach – no doubt aware that Jankovic had usurped her #1 spot and Safina had supplanted her in # 2, but seemingly unbothered by both of these developments – Venus remained focused on her tennis. In a sense, Venus has no choice really. Serena has already qualified for the year-end Sony championship event in Doha. So have Jankovic and Safina. But Venus needs every win she can get her hands on in order to qualify.

Against Flavia Pennetta in Zurich, 28-year-old Venus brought her A-game. She knew better than to underestimate Pennetta, having lost to her the last three times they played. Pennetta was clearly aiming for a fourth win but Venus denied her. The first set tiebreak was nail-bitingly close. But when Venus broke Pennetta in the opening game of the second set, and then held serve with four straight aces, I knew that there was no looking back. And was there a more Hallmark ending than when she ran into the stands to kiss her father and her dog – and was serenaded by “Simply the best” upon her return.

¡Ay caramba!
Nadal's loss to the Frenchman, Gilles Simon, in front of the Hugo Boss supermodel ballgirls in Madrid, ended up being one of the best tennis matches I have ever seen. For everyone who disparaged Federer for losing to Simon in three tight sets of the opening round of the Rogers Open (Canada), it’s time to sit up and take notice. That was no fluke. Gilles Simon is a serious contender. He faced Nadal in front of the latter's home crowd and he did not flinch. Not after losing the first set, not after taking the third set to a tie-break, and not even after he found himself facing a 6-6 score in the tie-break. Simon calmly proceeded to win the next two points and the match. It was Nadal who seemed tense. More than anything else, Simon focused on breaking down Nadal’s lefty backhand. He pummeled it and pummeled it, and managed to make Nadal look defensive. Honestly, Nadal started hitting some of the kind of silly poking shots that you only see among club players of a certain (advanced) age. I feel badly that Nadal lost, but I can’t help but be thrilled for Simon. He deserved it.

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